Sometimes, you just know that the gods of comedy are with you. It was The Last Meeting of the Knights of the White Magnolia, playwright Preston Jones' edgy look at group of seedy, aging racists in Texas. At one point Lonnie, the lodge's first new member in years, slams the door as he runs from the meeting hall--only this night, the moment goes a little differently. When Lonnie slams the door, a moose head on the wall comes off and hits the floor.
It wasn't in the script, or the tech cues. No matter: The audience howled anyway.
Call it a bellwether, for a show that became one itself for both contemporary drama and independent theater in this region. Knights sold out houses and extended its run--in the summer, in a theater without air conditioning. "We knew the audiences really wanted to be there," recalls actor Rowell Gormon, "because it wasn't the most comfortable place in the world."
That response convinced director/producer Tom Dawson that Raleigh Ensemble Players was more than a one-shot deal. Based on that first run, Dawson recouped his initial investment (according to legend, his income tax refund from the previous year) and reprised Knights in the winter of 1983.
Plus his fledgling company added The Oldest Living Graduate (which Dawson also directed), and Lou Ann Hampton Laverty Oberlander (with present-day theater critic Roy Dicks at the helm). In so doing, they staged Jones' famous "Texas Trilogy," in toto, in repertory, in REP's first season.
Now, that's an entrance.
Those first shows proved several crucial things, perhaps more to the regional theater community than its audiences.
"Tom set the example. Anybody could go for it," Benrud remembers. "You didn't have to have a company, or a theater, or a degree. You just had to have the vision."
Gormon concurs. "[Knights] showed that it was actually possible to do it. And a lot more modern-type groups seemed to spring up following that. They saw it was possible, and there was an audience for it."
REP's work was "riskier than what the established theaters were doing," Benrud recalls. "It took somebody who didn't mind operating on a shoestring or taking chances. That's when newer plays started getting done."
Current artistic director C. Glen Mathews observes, "One of the reasons they were so passionate about the company to begin with was there was an absence of contemporary theater in the area. They gave their lifeblood to give audiences something they weren't seeing elsewhere."
"We still work really hard to embrace that charge they set out back there," Mathews notes.
The exception then is now the norm. Most of the area's companies are independent, and they stage their work in conventional and unconventional spaces. Just as obviously, the cutting edge of 20 years ago is constantly being sharpened and redefined.
Still, someone had to go first. Someone had to prove contemporary drama could be done, repeatedly, to an audience that would support it.
That's what REP accomplished in its 1983 season. The region's theater is still growing because they did.
Byron Woods is The Independent's theater and dance writer.