One of the Outer Banks’ signature attractions is on firm footing with a promising future.
“The Lost Colony,” the longest running outdoor symphonic drama in American theater, opens its 81st season Friday, May 25, at the Waterside Theatre on Roanoke Island. The play, first performed in 1937, is a dramatic representation of the first English settlement in America and its disappearance, which remains a mystery.
“It’s nice to see how important you are to the community as a whole, instead of just what you do on stage,” says actor Grant Vandervoort, who plays the role of Native-American chief Wanchese. “It’s more than just a show. For a lot of the natives here, it’s a part of their lives. To be a part of that and to influence and touch the hearts of so many different people throughout the summer, it’s inspiring.”
Vandervoort is one of more than 100 actors, technicians, choreographers and advisors who condensed months of work into 19 days in preparation for the play, which is held six evenings per week, Mondays through Saturdays, until Aug. 22.
“I’m so pleased with them,” director Ira David Wood says. “It’s a wonderful company. There’s a good number of new people this year, so they don’t know how impossible it is to put together.”
Wood, 70, returns for his sixth year as director and is a devoted caretaker of the franchise. A native of Rocky Mount, North Carolina — and the father of actress Evan Rachel Wood — has spent his life in theater and the performing arts. He is the founder and executive director of Raleigh’s Theatre in the Park and an accomplished director, actor and playwright. Last year, he received the North Carolina Award in the Fine Arts, the highest civilian award bestowed by the governor and state. He was part of the Lost Colony theater company in summers from 1968-71, playing Sir Walter Raleigh and Old Tom. He became friendly with “Lost Colony” playwright Paul Green, telling him years ago that he thought he would return one day as director, and he worked under longtime director Joe Layton.
Wood has seen the play evolve, tweaking it himself from year to year, but always careful to remain faithful to Green’s vision and words. Running time is now a crisp two hours, with a 15-minute intermission, down from its original 3½-hour tour. He is quick to credit “Lost Colony” CEO Bill Coleman, who he calls “brilliant,” and who has implemented features such as VIP treatment and backstage tours. He praised the current Board of Directors’ foresight and its willingness to embrace and spend money on advances in sound and lighting and other audience enhancements.
Wood has a top-shelf production team that includes Tony Award-winning costume designer and Theatre Hall of Fame inductee William Ivey Long, who has been associated with “The Lost Colony” for 45 years, lighting designer Josh Allen, choreographer Pam Atha, sound designer and composer Michael Rasbury, music director McCrae Hardy and fight coordinator Robert Midgette.
The play’s evolution occurs yearly, with new cast members, and sometimes nightly, as performers adjust to changing weather conditions, a sizable cast and one of theater’s largest stages. One significant change came last year, when the show opened with a park ranger welcoming the audience and providing a bit of backdrop about the story to come, a folksier approach than the more solemn opening Green penned with ghosts and a hymn. This year’s changes are mostly subtle — actors’ stage placement, sound and lighting, a few lines here and there.
“I think the message of the show is really cool,” says Madison Vice, a 20-year-old newcomer to the production who portrays Eleanor Dare, the mother of Virginia Dare, the first recorded English-born child in the New World. “We all come from different places, yet we’re all unified toward one common goal in America. I think that’s a really important thing to convey, especially in this day and age.”
Vice is a native of San Diego, California, and is studying musical theater at the Hartt School in Connecticut. She had no knowledge of the “Lost Colony” production until a roommate suggested she research it. She became intrigued by the story and characters — she enjoys period pieces and her father is a history major — and got a call-back about playing Dare after sending an audition video. She welcomes the opportunity to play such a strong, layered female character.
“It’s a treat to be able to play her,” she says.
Vandervoort was an actor-technician during last year’s 80th anniversary celebration season and jumped at the chance to return for a second season and an expanded role. A 21-year-old from Charlotte, he’s working toward a Bachelor of Fine Arts at East Carolina, with a concentration in professional acting. He’s certified in several theater battle disciplines, on which he can draw nightly. Being a part of last year’s 80th anniversary production and meeting alumni of all ages and stripes cemented his affection for the show.
“It’s remarkable, not only the lives you change here and what you’re a part of,” Vandervoort says, “but the people you meet and mingle with. Because at the end of the day, we’re all just one family trying to do this show justice.”