Year in review: An evolving chronicle of best (and worst) practices on local stages | Theater | Indy Week

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Year in review: An evolving chronicle of best (and worst) practices on local stages

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Each year, regional theater writes a new book of changes—an evolving chronicle of best (and, occasionally, worst) practices.

In our informal census, four companies joined us in 2014: Leviathan Theatre Company debuted a notable Amadeus in March. She's-A-Nelson staged the edgy British drama Closer at Burning Coal Theatre in May. If Tiny Engine Theatre's engine sputtered during its inaugural August run of Hearts Like Fists, we still saw reason for optimism for its upcoming 2015 season. And November brought us Skydive Productions' sharp regional premiere of Catherine Trieschmann's Crooked, co-produced with Ladies of Triangle Theatre and Common Ground Theatre.

The region had another notable addition when Patrick Torres moved here to helm Raleigh Little Theatre after the death of Haskell Fitz-Simons. His first mainstage production will be Much Ado About Nothing in February.

Triangle theater companies began to seek organizing principles this year in meetings sponsored by Triangle ArtWorks. As they planned and considered, the dance community sprang into action, organizing significant programs to aid communication, production and development. Durham Independent Dance Artists, Culture Mill and Triangle Dance Project all launched major initiatives; Tobacco Road Dance Productions' first series of choreographer mentorships concludes with a January showcase at Common Ground Theatre.

As new organizations and faces arrived, we also said goodbye to puppet designer and Indies Arts Awards-winner Torry Bend, who left Duke, dissatisfied with support for recent projects, for a job at the University of Minnesota. Urban Garden Performing Arts also bid farewell, as founders P.J. Maske and Bruce Benedict moved out of state. And after three months of contract delays and non-renewals, William Peace University replaced three-fourths of its beleaguered musical theater program's personnel.

Similarly alarming were the venues that closed or became unavailable to stage artists. Though Durham's Shadowbox went dark after hosting Little Green Pig's groundbreaking production of Celebration (Festen) in February, we've heard that a different incarnation is in the works at a new location.

But what can be said for Chatham Mills, which hosted a series of readings by Joseph Megel, only to abruptly pull out of a planned Piedmont Performance Factory project within days of a crucial fall fundraiser? Or Cordoba Center for the Arts, where noise issues forced Little Green Pig to literally take its intrepid September production of hmlt to the streets?

One welcome ray of light: We've been told that a downtown performance/gallery space in the old Durham Fruit Company building, which has been in beta over the fall months, will open officially sometime in 2015.

New works are one way to gauge a community's artistic growth, and there was no shortage of them on area stages this year.

Noteworthy world premieres included Terry Milner's cautionary tale of corporate Christianity, The Jesus Fund, at Burning Coal in February, and Trey Morehouse's adaptation of four women's adolescent journals in The Diary Play. Bend presented Love's Infrastructure with the band Bombadil, and toured her new work If My Feet Have Lost the Ground in her last, most productive year in the area.

That brings us to another indicator of development: what happens when works created here go out into the world. After productions last year in New York and Berkeley, Dramatists Play Service published Monica Byrne's drama on the history of birth control, What Every Girl Should Know. (That fate isn't yet in store for Tarantino's Yellow Speedo, whose audacious May premiere seemed a work still very much in progress.)

And it was good to get outside validation of the quality of regional theater when some of the toughest customers on Earth, the theater critics of London, praised Burning Coal's Iron Curtain Trilogy when the company took it overseas in November. The London production's four-star reviews—and its mention in critic Michael Coveney's Best of 2014 column for British theater website What's On Stage—made me wonder how Burning Coal would have been received had London seen the stronger, earlier iterations of works such as The Prisoner's Dilemma.

Designers unfolded new worlds on local stages. Mimi Lien and Yi Zhao gave us a chilly gray chamber in which to contemplate Hoi Polloi's The Republic at Manbites Dog Theater, and Wil Deedler and Chelsea Kurtzman provided food for nightmares in the costumes and masks they devised for Amadeus. Marion Williams' magical library charmed audiences for PlayMakers Rep's Into the Woods, and Lex Van Blommestein and Jenni Mann Becker's mountain sanctum was the most enchanting part of Deep Dish's Life is a Dream.

PlayMakers and Manbites Dog both took chances—successfully—on scripts that were at or near the beginnings of their public lives. After commissioning Mike Daisey's monologue The Story of the Gun, PlayMakers premiered the work in January, and gave the medical drama Love Alone its third production in March. In April, the psychological wartime solo Grounded played Durham three months after its New York debut and seven months after its world premiere at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Other significant regional premieres included Other Desert Cities at Theatre Raleigh and ArtsCenter's version of August Wilson's Gem of the Ocean.

Byron Woods is the INDY's theater and dance columnist. Find him on Twitter @ByronWoods.

Byron Woods' best shows of 2014

In chronological order:

Celebration (Festen) (Little Green Pig)

Love Alone (PlayMakers)

Let Them Be Heard (Bare Theatre)

Hold These Truths (PlayMakers/PRC2)

Parade (Theatre Raleigh)

A Kid Like Jake (Deep Dish)

The Best of Enemies (Manbites Dog)

hmlt (Little Green Pig)

Coriolanus (Bare Theatre)

If My Feet Have Lost the Ground (Torry Bend/StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance)

This article appeared in print with the headline "Book of changes"

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