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Loss of North Carolina's Film Industry Affects the Local Theatre Community in More Ways Than One

Billy Hathorn

The decline of North Carolina’s film industry has affected the local theater community in more ways than one. Two artistic directors—Justin Smith of Cape Fear Theatre Arts and Steve Vernon of Big Dawg Productions—and John Staton, Arts & Entertainment editor for Star News, sat down with CoastLine host Rachel Lewis Hilburn. 

Rachel Lewis Hilburn: Besides the talent pool, is there any other way that the loss of the lion’s share of the film industry here has contributed to this? Steve Vernon.

Steve Vernon: I will not disagree that it has removed a lot of actors that have left town to go to areas where the film industry is a little healthier. And I can’t speak for other companies, but in my position with Big Dawg, we are a community theatre. I think part of the problem that nobody addresses is that there seems to be a mindset within the community that you have to be the actor class, you know, you have to be that type of profession or whatever to do theatre. A lot of people think, “I’ve never done a play, or I haven’t done once since high school or college,” that somehow our doors are closed to them coming in and auditioning. One thing that I know we need to strengthen, at least on Big Dawg’s end, is reaching out to the community and letting them know that community theatre is not a label that denotes or connotes a certain level of talent or experience. It means we’re part of the community, and you guys are the community, and we’re here to serve you. Not just as audience members, but as people who want to come in and be creative.

Rachel Lewis Hilburn: Justin Smith.

Justin Smith: Yes, I think one of the other ways the film industry has affected us with it being gone is the fact that it was young people with good paying jobs, people who could afford the price of tickets, who wanted to reach out and go and see theatre. They were all very supportive of our theatre troupes. It’s one of the problems, as we see inflation, everything raising, the rents to all these facilities, as ticket prices have needed to go up to accommodate the facilities’ rentals, we need to find that other group of audience that is willing to come see theatre on a regular basis who can afford it.

Rachel Lewis Hilburn: I did hear a comment from someone when she heard that we were going to have this discussion today, and she said, “Well, for some of us who are on a budget, once you start talking about a $30, even a $25 ticket price, and you look at what you’re paying for a couple of tickets and the quality, and then you look at what you could see at the Wilson Center, a Broadway-touring show for just a little bit more. You know? That presents a--

Steve Vernon: What is a little bit more though? $70 for two tickets to see a show that Justin’s doing at [Thalian] Hall, versus $200 for two tickets to see the Wilson Center. I mean, that’s a pretty wide breadth to—

Rachel Lewis Hilburn: Is that what the ticket price is? I think, when we went to see Paula Poundstone, it was $45 a pop.

Justin Smith: I think $45 to $100.

John Staton: It varies. I think they have a pretty wide range—

Steve Vernon: Sure.

Rachel Lewis Hilburn: Yeah.

John Staton: But yeah, even Shane Fernando who runs the [Wilson] Center has said, “These are not prices people have seen here.” And that’s absolutely true.

Rachel Lewis Hilburn: Right.

Justin Smith: In the long run, it could end up helping us. And if I could, I’d also like to just say, there is a little bit of a difference between what Steve and I are talking about, but it is all community theatre, and as we look to the supporters, I believe they have to realize they’re supporting a lifestyle. They’re supporting a safe place for so many people. I mean, Steve and I and even John to some extent—I mean, I grew up at the community arts center. That was my home. I grew up at the studio theatre. It was my home with these people. It made me feel comfortable here. So every time you’re going, you’re not necessarily just supporting that particular performance. You’re also supporting a huge group of people who may not feel comfortable otherwise or in other places.

That was Rachel Lewis Hilburn speaking with Justin Smith of Cape Fear Theatre Arts, Steve Vernon of Big Dawg Productions, and John Staton of the Star News. For the full CoastLine episode, click here.