Theatre West Virginia redux
By Jeri S. Knowlton
for the register-herald
Earlier this week, Theatre West Virginia announced its 2023 season lineup, including the longtime favorite "Hatfields & McCoys" and, new this year, "Rocket Boys," the original Homer Hickman musical from 2008.
The cast and crew of nearly 50 people met for the first time last Monday amid a flurry of activity ranging from vocal auditions to costume and set checks to needed maintenance and repairs.
Theatre West Virginia's General Manager Gayle Oaks’ energy and enthusiasm were evident as she bounced from one side of the amphitheater to the other. She is committed to bringing back the glory days of the famed local troupe.
"That's my whole theme for the year, is getting the theater back to where people used to rush to get tickets," she said, beaming. "Full houses at night … like times with this theater where the day [the tickets] went on sale we sold out the same day. I want to get back to that point where people get excited about the theater."
To do that, Oaks noted the repair and maintenance needed to make it look new again and the need for new Broadway productions that haven't played in southern West Virginia and that people haven't seen.
"We need to work on that and get the stage fixed where the stage burns. And like, oh, go back to the days when people got excited, and these lights worked," Oaks said. "And then end the season with a wonderful family production. Something that literally from a baby up can come in and enjoy, a girl or boy, you know, something that is a good family production to end the season."
And more concerts next year, she says.
With a lot going on and a lot to do, this transition year will be the foundation for more to come. Oaks wants a revamped version of "Honey in the Rock," including scenes that had been removed because of political correctness, she says, and, by working with consultants, telling the story authentically, and a rescore of the music by local musician Dan Bailey. This story, Oaks says, will be brought back to the outdoor amphitheater again.
For now, the stage has been resurfaced, the back "cyc" has been redone, the top towers refinished along with additional work to the "Hatfields & McCoys" houses.
Working collaboratively with the superintendent of the National Park Service is a top priority for Oaks as well.
"The Park Service updated our bathrooms, and they are amazing," she added.
The Academy of Careers and Technology pipe fitting and welding class came out and installed all new piping.
"So, there is no worry about anything else catching on fire, other than what we want it to do and things like that."
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Meaghan Macey, stage manager, says a surprising amount of work goes on to the back end of productions.
"The goal is that you never find out about it if I’m doing my job right."
Macey is returning to TWV after a Covid pause.
"I was going to be part of the ‘t-dub’ family yearlong, and then Covid," Macey said. "So, I’m just happy to be back. I love this area. I love this company more than anything and I’m just, I’m so stoked to see all these old faces back and get back to doing what we love."
Also returning is Chris Bellinger, of Staunton, Va., as director of "Hatfields & McCoys." It has been 10 years for him.
"I just always look forward to seeing it grow. It's so much fun to watch it from day one to opening night. We just had a read-through, but it’ll be completely different obviously from the way they read everything today," Bellinger said. "And once we get it up on its feet, that's really what I look forward to – watching it change and grow even after it opens."
Sharon Chadwick returns to the area as artistic director and director of "Rocket Boys." She said one of her goals is to get the company excited about coming back and working.
"We have a lot of new faces this year and I’m so excited about that because we have a mix of people that have done this before but maybe haven't been here in the last couple years.
"I started here in the 1980s and I came back in 2014 and I’ve been coming back ever since," Chadwick said. "It's just such a wonderful place to work and it's such an obviously magical environment to be in. And so, I think one of the main goals is just to unite as a company and to bring some magic to the stage for people who have seen the show before."
The Las Vegas native and full-time high school theater teacher says what keeps her coming back is the chance to be a true artist.
"I get to do things in a beautiful place with a group of people that want to be here 100 percent and give it everything they’ve got," Chadwick said. "And that is so magical in it, and that's what keeps me coming back."
Chadwick's husband designed the set for "Rocket Boys," too.
"He designed it from afar," Chadwick said. "We took pictures and dimensions. He does it all computerized." New board member Jonathan Grose believes that one of the great assets of the area and at Grandview is the outdoor Amphitheatre.
"We really need our local community, you know," he said. "It's time for us to make sure that the next generation sits through ‘Honey in the Rock’ and ‘Hatfields & McCoys’ and ‘The Wizard of Oz.’
"Let's go out with our children, spend the night out at Grandview and enjoy the theater, and just support the community. It's a one-of-a-kind experience." Board treasurer Doug Palmer says the more than 60-year-old theater relies on community support.
Additionally, Palmer noted, "We rely on different grants from the government, different grants from the state of West Virginia. and we like to get the local support from our community as well, as we couldn't have it without it." Raleigh County commissioners approved a grant for $8,000 this week to this notable county asset.
The designation of the park at Grandview as a part of the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve has had a tremendous impact on tourism, Palmer said. "Obviously, tourism and the amount of people that are coming to this area has increased a lot with that designation," he said. "And, you know, we just try to provide an opportunity for them to have an evening where they can come out, learn a little bit of our West Virginia history with both ‘Hatfields & McCoys’ and ‘Rocket Boys’ and enjoy themselves and enjoy this beautiful outdoor park."
The area, according to Leslie Baker, board member for TWV and Beckley Parks and Recreation director, offers the perfect trifecta with Tamarack, Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine and Theatre West Virginia.
"If we get them to come to Theatre West Virginia, they’re going to spend the night and chances are they’re going to eat more than one meal, they’re going to buy gas and it just really helps the economy," Baker said.
TWV has been around since 1962 and is one of the oldest outdoor dramas in the country and still going strong, Baker said.
When she talks about interacting with travelers, Baker said, "Hey, do you got any plans? Then, we tell them about the theater and they’re just so thrilled that there's yet another activity. And now with the national park, we’ve had some of the biggest days that we’ve ever had.
"So, I’m sure the theater is going to feel the new influence of the park as well. And, you know, it's all about being an economic driver, as well as a cultural institution. And so, I am proud of them and proud to be part of it."
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