One fall when I was 9 years old, just about the time WWII ended, the Jackson County Elementary School was visited by a truck loaded with magic and magicians — at least, it seemed that way to me. When we peeped through the window on the second floor, we saw a truck with an elaborate sign: THE CAROLINA PLAYMAKERS! That sign meant absolutely nothing to us, but the people who climbed out of it left us stunned. There were lots of bright colors, parasols, soldiers, women with wigs, some folks that appeared to be Oriental and a guy wearing an aviator’s helmet. Maybe it was a circus!
Within a short time, we were herded into our creaky old auditorium and our teachers began to check the attendance book calling our names out so that they echoed. Nobody had escaped; in fact, all of us were filled with curiosity. When Mr. Cope, our principal, announced that a troupe of actors and traveled from Chapel Hill to perform a play for us, we were even more perplexed since we knew nothing of a place called Chapel Hill, much less what a “troupe of actors” might be.
There was a lot of coming and going, and I sat with my best friend, Charlie Kay, listening to the thump and rumble behind the curtain. Ah, but then the music began; the curtain opened and we were astonished into silence for the next hour.
I’m sure that the majority of us had never seen a play and perhaps that is the primary reason for its effect on us. It was a dramatization of James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, and we were transported from Sylva to some mystical village in the Himalayas (Shangri-La) where people wore huge coats and monks went about chanting. Gradually, we understood that the pilot was in love with this girl in a magnificent dress, and when the two walked together in the moonlight (yes, suddenly it was night on the stage!) and we learned that these people never died ... if they never left the village.
But, the pilot did leave, and in the final scene, he flew away. The beautiful girl stood on the stage and waved as her boyfriend flew away, the sound of his plane going from a great roar to a faint hum.
When the play was over, the Carolina Playmakers invited us on stage, where we were amazed to see that the set was painted cardboard. When I asked to see the plane, a stagehand laughed and pushed a piece of cardboard into an electric fan. “ERRRRROOOOOMMMM!” it said. That was the day I began to dream of magic and the art of making fantasies and dreams which could get up and walk around.
When I went to college, I learned how to build stage sets, hang lights and construct my own Shangri-La. When I began teaching high school English, I took one-act plays to regional and state festivals where I saw my students not only win awards, but become young people who had learned to speak with confidence. Invariably, their experience with drama had a positive effect on their character.
Now, I come to the “real” purpose of describing the night a 9-year-old kid visited a cardboard Shangri-La. For some 40 years, drama and theater enjoyed a privileged position in North Carolina arts. North Carolina was praised for the quality of its theater and playwrights like Paul Green crafted plays that were admired by the rest of the country. Educators readily acknowledged that drama played a vital part in developing confidence. But now, something has changed.
We still have extravagant musicals and thriving summer stocks that “entertain” thousands of audiences. The majority of our small towns have active community theaters. However, for several years now, something has been quietly draining away. Perhaps this is only happening in my region. Is my experience unique? Is it not true that one-act drama festivals have disappeared?
Since I am a playwright, I am especially sensitive to the fact that grassroots theater seems to be endangered. More than a decade ago, I could go to any literary festival and find a covey of playwrights. Back then, I might even be asked to teach a workshop. When it comes time to hand out the accolades, there are glowing awards for novelists, poets, even essayists, but I haven’t seen the work of a dramatist acknowledged in a very long time.
A decade ago, although resources for playwrights were limited, I could still find a handful of organizations that promoted North Carolina playwrights and drama. They are gone now, although Google can still find a few of their abandoned websites floating somewhere in space.
What happened? Did the state of the economy eliminate theater as an art form? Certainly, North Carolina is still vitally alive in terms of the “other literary arts.” Novelists and poets are thriving. Universities and arts organizations continue to sponsor celebrations and book signings, but drama workshops and awards are missing. Why?
Maybe they are still out there and I am just “out of touch.” Or maybe a one-act play competition for high school students has been rendered an anachronism. It could be that today’s young people are content to watch from the audience. Perhaps they are all watching “Dancing With the Stars.”
Frankly, I had rather restore the magic that the Carolina Playmakers brought to my school some 60 years ago. I would like to see that dilapidated truck pull into a parking lot in Graham or Clay counties where a group of elementary kids watched, transfixed as the moon and stars over Shangri-La are carried inside. Would that old magic work now? Would the kids cut off their cell phones long enough to watch “Lost Horizon”?
Yeah, I think maybe they would. I would like to think that if we restored the event, they would come. Am I wrong?