Adark year in the Triangle started on a deceptively light note when Chatham County got mixed up with an Oscar-gobbling movie. In JANUARY, we profiled Pittsboro tool shop owner Ed Lebetkin, whose antique tool collection was sought out by The Revenant's producers to add authenticity to the 1823 setting. Has Ed gotten more movie work since? Well, no. "There haven't been many movies featuring antique woodworking tools lately," he says good-humoredly. But he's enjoyed his local celebrity. Meanwhile, Unexposed Microcinema moved into Durham's Golden Belt district, giving experimental film a social hub. Vivienne Benesch staged Three Sisters, her first production as director of PlayMakers, and elicited a rave review from INDY theater critic Byron Woods. Carolina Theatre CEO Bob Nocek resigned after the discovery that the historic theater was running a huge deficit, going on to form a new concert and comedy company, Bob Nocek Presents.
FEBRUARY and MARCH were transitional months, too. Beloved Quail Ridge Books founder Nancy Olson passed away while the store was moving from its longtime home in Ridgewood Shopping Center to new digs in North Hills. Ward Theatre Company debuted in its Durham space with Jacuzzi, which we dubbed the hottest show in town. In a year when so many theaters foundered, will this one stick around? "We're building two new original productions slated for 2017 that will take audiences from deep-woods Appalachia to nineteenth-century Ireland," says director Wendy Ward.
In APRIL, some things were business as usual—Full Frame came and went—but most things were not, after the late-March passage of House Bill 2 sparked a maelstrom of cancellations, boycotts, and benefits. Still, there was a little good news: Durham fashion line Runaway Clothing opened its first brick-and-mortar store. And GeekCraft Expo, a new national series of expos for handmade geek-chic wares, debuted at the Durham Armory. "We had almost three thousand attendees and our exhibitors reported record sales—several of them were making things at the show to keep up with the demand," says cofounder Daniel Way. As the expo expands nationally, plans for a second round on May 14 at the Durham Armory are underway; you have until January 23 to apply for a booth to hawk your Westworld macramé coasters.
April showers bring MAY Moogfests, which fled Asheville for Durham, but the month also saw a sad exit. Esteemed used book and record shop Nice Price folded, replaced in its Broad Street spot by—single tear—a Papa John's. As if in defiance, local authors made national noise. Journalist Bronwen Dickey released her controversial Pit Bull: The Battle over an American Icon, while a unique talk that Monica Byrne gave at the 2016 TED conference in Vancouver in February hit the Internet.
The American Dance Festival returned like clockwork in JUNE and JULY, but otherwise it was musical chairs. Near Golden Belt, SPECTRE Arts owner Alicia Lange opened her new Torus Building and the Carrack Modern Art moved in, expanding the downtown Durham scene. The radically intersectional Durham Artists Movement took over the end of the Carrack's lease on Parrish Street and won an Indies Arts Award for creating a safe space for marginalized artists. Now they're leaving the loft with more members, clearer goals, and a commitment to finding a sustainable home in 2017. And Chapel Hill's Deep Dish Theater Company, long based at University Mall, quietly closed. We asked founder Paul Frellick, who is moving to Los Angeles with his wife, what he's been up to since our exit interview. "The last couple of months were filled with opportunities to reminisce with colleagues and audiences about our fifteen-year run, along with a little writing, a little parenting, and a whole lot of packing," he says. "I'm excited about opportunities in LA, but the Deep Dish experience will always occupy a preeminent spot in my career."
Funding was a major concern in the performing arts this month, as Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern switched to a patronage model and Saxapahaw's Culture Mill received the first of two grants that nudged it from shoestring to sustainable. We starkly witnessed local theater's venue challenges, but some found ways to make that an asset. Raleigh's Bare Theatre staged free Shakespeare at unusual public sites, crowd-funding the production with considerable success.
"We had backers contribute more than two thousand dollars to production costs and to help travel the show around the Triangle," says Bare Theatre director G. Todd Buker. "Lots of audience members tipped the actors as well. The show ran for seventeen performances over six weeks and saw more than seven hundred in attendance, which is larger than some of our black-box productions."
The big news in AUGUST was the debut of the Women's Theatre Festival, which took over Triangle venues to produce shows largely staffed by women and won an Indies Arts Award for its efforts to correct local theater's abysmal gender balance. The upshot for women, says founder Ashley Popio, is having "a giant theatrical network of people they know now"—no small prize in a field that, like most, thrives on nepotism. Meanwhile, Raleigh gallery Adam Cave Fine Art escaped downtown development for the edge of Five Points. The versatile, accessible space (dedicated parking!) has served the gallery well. "We have seen more visitors, more new faces," Cave says. "With the opening of Lee Hansley Gallery and Glas on the same block, I think we are in the beginning stages of a real arts district here." Hansley, a Raleigh gallery pioneer, would leave his genteel Victorian space in Glenwood for a modern warehouse in Dock 1053 in October.
In addition to the usual Hopscotch fests in Raleigh and the debut of Varipop in Durham, SEPTEMBER and OCTOBER found national acclaim flowing into the Triangle—a nice change of pace from the censure precipitated by HB 2. Belle Boggs developed her breakout 2012 essay about infertility, "The Art of Waiting," into a full-length collection that earned plaudits from The New York Times and Oprah. The Times also took note—with a bit of condescension (did you know we were "the hinterlands?")—of the Nasher exhibit Southern Accent: Seeking the American South in Contemporary Art, which INDY art critic Chris Vitiello called "life-changing." And Durham's Stacey L. Kirby won $200,000 at the international ArtPrize festival in Michigan for The Bureau of Personal Belonging.
"This offers opportunities for expansion beyond North Carolina, especially in light of the presidential election and recent local legislation," Kirby says. She's planning to issue "restroom facility permits" in Trump Tower and is working on a "swing state tour" of Bureau, which challenges viewers to reconsider how they classify others and themselves.
In NOVEMBER, the North Carolina Museum of Art opened its new park with a celebration that drew ten thousand people. New sculptures have continued to appear there since; one by Mark di Suvero just went up alongside the Blue Ridge Road corridor. In thornier news, a group of local independent theaters joined an initiative to hire female directors before a discrimination complaint to the City of Raleigh (some of the signees receive public funds) halted it. But don't think this setback undoes the work of the Women's Theatre Festival—it's one step back, one giant leap forward.
Speaking of giant leaps, director Joseph Megel took a work by Elisabeth Lewis Corley, based on interviews by students in UNC's Southern Oral History Program, across the pond. After The Black Pioneers Project, about the first generation of black students at UNC, had its first staged reading in UNC's Process Series, Megel was invited to take it to King's College London right after the U.S. election.
"The discussion about this oral history and its legacy, in relationship to our current political situation and theirs, was engaging and provocative," Megel says. "After doing the project in Chapel Hill with many of the pioneers present, a truly emotional experience, it was equally moving to see how issues of color can be global, and issues of justice international."
Which brings us to cruel DECEMBER, when theater suffered more blows: the closing of Durham's venerable Common Ground and the endangerment of Raleigh's Sonorous Road.The Raleigh art scene lost Flanders Gallery, but it gained the continued existence of Lump, as Flanders's Kelly McChesney stepped in for outgoing Lump director Bill Thelen and earned an Indies Arts Award for her trouble.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Where We're At."