Entertaining and Changing Lives through Community Theatre

04 Aug 2021

From professional, semi-professional to school-based performances, Sandhills theatre is alive

By Ray Owen

There is a special love for theatre in the Sandhills, an art that can transport us to new places, revealing different perspectives, reminding us that we’re not alone. Being in a room full of people, sharing something meaningful – this is the power of theatre – immediate, evolving, always different.

“The Sandhills region has all forms of theatre,” says Judy Osborne, a Moore County arts educator and board member of the NC Theatre Conference. “We’re the only school system where all the high schools have won the state play festival. There’s also professional, semi-professional and a community theatre getting started, the Encore Center.”

Encore, located in Southern Pines, offers artistic instruction for all ages, and stages high quality productions featuring community members. “Encore is great because we’ve been missing this in our area,” says Osborne.

Local performance groups include Sandhills Repertory Theatre, bringing Broadway talent to the area to entertain, teach and inspire. The Uprising Theatre Company is another professional group, offering high-quality productions by Shakespeare and other classic American plays and musicals.

“There’s really nothing like live theatre,” explains Osborne. “Magic is the right word for the communication going on between audience and cast – the whole company of actors, lighting designers, sound operators, and director. It’s one of my favorite things in the world.”

“Theatre is essentially storytelling, one of our oldest forms of creative expression. You can practice theatre but you can’t actually create it without an audience. There has to be that reception of the work. It communicates who we are, who we want to be, and what we wish we were. It’s a basic part of our humanity.”

Acting requires an agility of mind, the ability to listen and respond on the turn of a dime as things happen onstage. It calls for a performer to be well read, to understand text and deeply interpret language. An actor must also be ready to share who they are with a lot of people they don’t know.

“The common misconception is that actors are pretending,” says Osborne. “When an actor is working at a high level, what they’re doing seems to be real. Whatever the story, they’re actually living those circumstances in that moment – feeling happy, sad, scared, whatever it is – the trick is to make it feel truthful.”

An impressive number of young actors got their start in local schools and in Arts Council of Moore County programs. “There’s so many, it’s kind of exciting,” acknowledges Osborne, under whose direction students from Union Pines High School consistently earned honors at NC Theater Conference play festivals.

“Lucas Meachem came through our program and performed in plays. He’s now a Grammy-winning opera singer who works all over the world. Then there’s Bradley Gibson who graduated from Pinecrest High School and has gone on to several Broadway shows, playing Simba in The Lion King. They were all good students and great performers when we had them.”

“Tyler Lee graduated Union Pines,” Osborne continues, “he spent a year playing the lead in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time on Broadway and as had good rolls since then. One of my proudest moments was sitting in a New York theater, watching him perform. He was about to go into To Kill a Mockingbird when Broadway shut down a year ago.”

According to Tyler Lee, the Arts Council of Moore County introduced him to acting in the 5th grade at the Sunrise Theater, and he performed in their youth plays through middle school. “This showed me the possibility of a life in the arts,” says Lee. “I may not have found that otherwise. One thing I believe in more than anything is the power of theatre to educate and change everyone.”

Morgan Sills is another alumni of local school and Arts Council theatre programs. As executive producer Judson Theatre Company, he brings stars from film, television and Broadway to appear in classic shows at Owens Auditorium at Sandhills Community College. “High school is when I realized that I was a theater kid and began to take it very seriously,” says Sills.

“One of the best things about theatre is that it makes people who seem to be very different on the surface reflect on their lives, on their place in the community, what they’ll be going forward. Two people can watch the same play and bond through that experience. In the room, it feels electric and alive. It’s so satisfying and cathartic, even with a comedy.”

As a young actor, Sills had parents who believed in the arts. They were always taking him to professional shows where he was exposed to a level of artistry above where he was working as a child. From this experience, he learned that good theatre was a highly-skilled craft demanding accurate and effortless performance.

“There’s a quicksilver quality of theater,” says Sills. “As it’s being created it’s simultaneously disappearing. It lives on in the minds of the audience that saw that particular performance. It’s a shared memory, and from the actor’s point of view, the race has to be run every single night tonight. Tonight’s audience doesn’t care how great you were before, and every night is slightly different.”

“Theatre connects people, especially as technology makes us increasingly isolated,” says Sills. “There is a collective positive energy that creates empathy between people. That sounds a bit metaphysical but it’s true – and we need that now more than ever.”

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