COVID-19 has had the power to do what previously was only possible by a world war – shut down “The Lost Colony.”
This legendary outdoor symphonic drama commemorates the arrival, and consequent disappearance, of America’s first English colony on Roanoke Island in 1587. It was created in 1937 by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paul Green, and with few exceptions, it has been running annually ever since.
“It has already left a hole in many people’s summers,” said Lance Culpepper, associate producer. “I’ve heard many comments such as, ‘I can’t imagine summer without it.’”
In April, the board of directors of the Roanoke Island Historical Association made the difficult decision to forego the 2020 season. While it is a devastating blow, Culpepper chooses to embrace the interruption as “a moment to breathe.”
“We have to consider what is most important for the organization in the long run,” said Culpepper, now in his 13th season with the production. So, the showrunners have decided to use this time to focus on how best to present the play when it returns in 2021.
The cancellation of the 75-performance season has left cast, crew, and the community with a void. Financially, the nonprofit historical association projects a $1.3 million budget shortfall from loss of ticket sales, sponsorships, ad sales, and youth education programs. The organization could lose another $75,000 to $100,000 if it is forced to also cancel the fall fundraising event.
Lee Nettles, executive director of the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau, acknowledges the impact on Dare County’s $1.1 billion tourism economy.
“Clearly the performance has a significant economic impact, but even more so is the cultural impact,” Nettles said. “There is no denying the importance of the performance in helping tell the story of the Outer Banks.”
The average annual attendance for “The Lost Colony” production is 37,000, with more than 3.5 million having seen the production since it opened in 1937.
On the artistic side, closing the season affects a significant number of people. It boasts a cast of about 80, with a technical crew of 30. They round out the cast with local children as extras. There is a staff of two year-round, boosted to eight as the production nears.
The amount of planning and hard work to pull off this production night after night is staggering. Look at costuming, for example. Each cast member has at least two costume “looks.” That adds up to more than a thousand separate pieces making their way on and off stage. And these are not simple items of clothing. Under the supervision of William Ivey Long, a Tony Award-winning costume designer, the costumes are “meticulous, amazing, as if they walked out of Renaissance paintings,” according to Culpepper.
All this activity takes place at historic Waterside Theatre, on a 70-foot wide main stage with two side stages, which Culpepper said is much larger than any traditional house theater. There is no “fly system,” (a typical theater’s way of raising and lowering backgrounds, curtains, lighting, scenery, and stage effects) so that is handled by cast members doubling as crew.
“It is amazing even watching rehearsals,” Culpepper said. “The scene changes need to be choreographed as much as the dancing and stage combat.”
The production lighting comprises 250 separate elements, including four “intelligent” lights that can be programmed for multiple scenes, colors, positions, and motions. A dedicated crew of five is responsible for hanging the light plot and maintaining it over the summer.
Aside from the logistics of rehearsing and staging such an ambitious production, there is the emotional impact. For generations, “The Lost Colony” has served as a launching pad for fledgling careers in theater as well as a touchstone for veteran performers. The bittersweet reactions from cast and crew cover the gamut of emotions (see sidebar).
Even amidst this unsettling development, Culpepper and crew prefer to focus on using the hiatus to make the show better, bigger, and bolder, without changing the story.
“One of the values we have is being true to Paul Green’s script,” Culpepper said. “The changes we make to the show are therefore often technical. We have told this story since 1937, and will continue to do so connecting with new audiences. At the heart of any theater production is the story. Paul gave us a wonderful story, so it stays the keystone to anything we do.”
The main message the board and staff want to send is that “the show will go on.”
“Through all the struggles this production has faced,” Culpepper said, “being closed during World War II, losing the theater to fire in 1947, being destroyed by Hurricane Donna in 1960, and losing the Costume Shop to fire in 2007, each time the organization faced challenges the production always came back stronger, with more support and heart and fervor than before. So, I think this organization has a track record of being like the phoenix rising from the ashes. Everyone involved – the board, the staff, the artists and technicians, alumni, and volunteers – is very passionate about telling this story.”
History is special to this part of the world, which still celebrates its role in the legend of Blackbeard, the launch of powered flight, and designation as home to the Mother Vine – America’s oldest cultivated grapevine.
“You have to understand, we are surrounded by this story,” Culpepper said. “It comes with a sense of responsibility to tell that story in a respectful way that engages the imagination of audiences. This production has touched each of us in many ways. We want to see the story continue to touch lives and to be told the next 25 years and beyond.”