Imagine you're producing a play and, not long before opening night, you learn the performance space is unavailable. What if, instead of finding a surrogate venue, you decided to create a permanent arts center and theater? That's how Pittsboro's new Center for the Arts and its Sweet Bee Theater came to be.
In 2012, Pittsboro couple Craig Witter and Tammy Matthews launched Pittsboro Youth Theater, an organization without a brick-and-mortar space that offers dramatic training for children's productions in Chatham County. Witter pairs more than twenty years of video-production experience with Matthews's theater background (she attended the Goodman School of Drama in Chicago). They rotated productions around various venues, including schools, the Pittsboro Roadhouse, the Pittsboro Kiwanis Club, and the Pittsboro Community House.
When a miscommunication set a production of The Glass Menagerie adrift last year, Witter and Matthews found a quick replacement in a Chatham Park conference room, but that was only a temporary fix. They faced logistical stress with each production. But the personal pride they took in their work made the musical-chairs routine bearable.
Witter and Matthews have watched many of their young actors grow up on stage. "Last year we held our first high school production, and many of these kids we've worked with since they started junior high," Matthews says. She adds that growing with the kids and witnessing how the instruction refines their skills is its own reward. "It's like being an uncle," Witter agrees.
They run Pittsboro Youth Theater outside of their work hours. Witter owns and operates Craig's Gravel Driveway Repair, and Matthews is an elementary school teacher in Cary. Because of their day-job demands and the theater's lack of nonprofit status, they decided to ask the community if a need existed for a permanent arts-theater complex in Pittsboro before moving forward.
"I sent an email blast to our theater group and my gravel customers, anyone we know locally," says Witter. Within a day of the survey's release, locals had pledged more than 185 hours of service and nearly ten thousand dollars to the endeavor.
"That blew us away. I cried," Witter says. He and Matthews began work on a concept and business plan, including efforts to eventually acquire a fiscal sponsor and nonprofit status. As the plans developed, Witter continued to share details about the center and solicit donations from people who had pledged. The result was a kind of informal crowdfunding, based not on the power of the Internet but on trust in a local community.
Between fulfilled pledges, traditional fundraising efforts, and Pittsboro Youth Theater's reserves, Witter and Matthews were able to move forward. They found a space that fit the dramatic and creative disciplines they sought to foster and leased it under the Pittsboro Youth Theater umbrella. By then the concept had grown into the Center for the Arts, a nearly three-thousand-square-foot space at 18 East Salisbury Street with a sixty-five-seat theater and an overall capacity of about one hundred thirty. Meeting rooms, a gallery, concessions, and a sound booth complement the theater.
While Pittsboro Youth Theater focuses on children's productions, the Center for the Arts is for all ages. The space will host plays as well as weekly movies, concerts, classes, community events, and private affairs. An isolated four-person sound booth will support productions and be rented out for voice-overs, podcasts, music, and more. Demand for the sound booth prior to the center's opening has prompted Witter and Matthews to consider adding a second one.
Classes by local artists will be held in a dedicated classroom and meeting space, and a gallery and retail section will have an inventory of art supplies both for students and the public. Witter and Matthews's permit application for serving alcoholic beverages is in process, a big draw for private parties. They also plan to have weekday matinee children's movies for stay-at-home families, daytime dress rehearsal productions and classes for seniors, and night and weekend classes for all ages.
The center's location in downtown Pittsboro is a boon for a small town on the verge of tremendous growth. Chatham Park, one of the largest planned developments in the state's history, is predicted to raise Pittsboro's population more than tenfold in the next few decades. The center fits snugly between a cozy coffee shop and a bank just off Hillsboro Street, the main drag through downtown, which is lined with restaurants, art galleries, music shops, a dance studio, a bookstore, and shops selling locally made wares. From the center's doors, you can see the storefronts of the famed Woodwright's School and bluegrass legend Tommy Edwards's art, music, and antique shop.
Witter and Matthews attribute Pittsboro Youth Theater's sustenance over the past five years to "overwhelming community support" and "gung-ho volunteers." They already see the goodwill crossing over into the Center for the Arts. "Everyone wanted this as much as or more than us," Matthews says.
The soft opening is scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 4, from ten a.m. to ten p.m., with free popcorn and soft drinks, art and teacher demos, and two ticketed performances at one and four p.m. of children's production JungalBook. The night ends with Moo Fair Lady (a take on My Fair Lady), a ticketed "moosical" for adults.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Room to Grow."