We almost didn't get to spend the last two decades with Manbites Dog Theater, a provocative, entertaining mainstay of the Triangle's independent theater community. According to artistic director Jeff Storer and managing director Ed Hunt, an ungainly stack of wooden platforms made all the difference.
They built the platforms thinking they'd be portable enough to use as itinerant stages and seating. They learned otherwise after leaving their relatively short-lived venue on Club Boulevard, when lugging the heavy pieces to temporary venues proved more than they bargained for. Nomadic dreams die hard: Hunt says a realtor had to drag the two, kicking and screaming, to buy the now-famous building on Foster Street in 1997.
"It gave us the last twenty years," Storer says. "We would have had to close down long ago if we hadn't done it."
But the future the purchase forestalled is here: Storer and Hunt shocked the regional arts scene two weeks ago by announcing that Manbites Dog would cease operations as a theater company and venue in June 2018, at the end of its upcoming season. After producing more than two hundred shows, Hunt and Storer have decided to retire from that side of things. This and their plan for the company to transition into a new role as an artist-support organization has far-reaching implications for local performing artists and audiences.
"Giving ourselves permission to change has been the one guiding light that has helped us through this last thirty-one years," Storer says. "Early in our relationship, we literally stated that we would trust our intuition when the time came. This is the time, and the board agrees with us."
It's hard to imagine the Triangle theater scene over the last two decades without Manbites Dog. Long before Motorco and Fullsteam, it anchored what would become Durham's DIY district, as the first in a series of vibrant nightlife, entertainment, and arts businesses to spring up in a neighborhood that had been neglected after the collapse of the city's tobacco industry.
Since its beginnings in 1987, Manbites has built a reputation for fearlessly addressing the thorniest issues of race, gender, and class head-on. In the company's third year, it took on Senator Jesse Helms, one of the architects of the eighties culture wars, in high-profile productions staged in Durham and New York. In The Best of Enemies, a play about desegregation in Durham in the sixties, Lakeisha Coffey stood onstage several feet away from Ann Atwater, the black activist she portrayed, who was sitting in the audience. It was a telling moment, for Manbites established itself as a reflection of its surrounding community and a consistent advocate for social justice.
"Communities could see themselves and their concerns reflected on stage," says arts administrator and historian Devra Thomas, who ran Common Ground Theatre, another former Durham theater mainstay, which closed last year.
"On the stage and in the audience, it looks like Durham," says playwright Howard L. Craft.
Even with its deep roots in the community, Manbites transcended the usual limitations of community theater. The company racked up almost twice as many five-star INDY reviews as its nearest competitor. The theater's alumni, including J. Alphonse Nicholson, Heidi Blickenstaff, and Michele Vazquez, have gone on to careers in film, stage, and television.
Now, the neighborhood surrounding the venue, the region's theater circles, and the communities championed by the company are all being forced to picture the future without it.
The shock has been mitigated by the plan to sell the building and funnel the proceeds into the company's next incarnation as a funding and support organization for regional theater. Both cofounders are intimately familiar with the realities facing an artistic community accustomed to shoestring support. Manbites never completed original plans to take out the first-floor ceiling of its auditorium, and funding its activities season by season—sometimes, show by show—has always been a grassroots effort.
- Photo by Alex Boerner
- Manbites Dog Theater
Playwright Tamara Kissane calls the change in mission "a beautiful sign of confidence ... that local theater artists are worth supporting." Triangle Art Works founder Beth Yerxa says it "tells the community as a whole that we all need to be supporting one another," while Joseph Megel, artistic director of StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance, hopes the move will stimulate local corporations and businesses—large donors that traditionally have not provided support at levels comparable to those found in communities of similar size across the country.
Still, local stage artists remain apprehensive about the closure of Durham's last independent theater venue, which regularly hosted many of the region's top itinerant companies and artists, including Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern, the Delta Boys, and Mike Wiley.
"Without Manbites, we don't have a theater home in Durham," says JaMeeka Holloway-Burrell, founder of Black Ops Theatre Company.
Though the city owns theater venues at the Durham Arts Council and the Carolina Theatre, the independent companies that form the majority of local practice often find them unaffordable or unsuitable for their needs. The more affordable Living Arts Collective has a sprung floor for dance that limits its theatrical possibilities. And the development boom makes it virtually impossible for an upstart group to find a building in downtown Durham for a price comparable to what Manbites paid in 1987.
The likely outcome is that an art form that helped make one of the most vibrant communities in Durham will be forced out next year, if artists can't find comparable space near the audiences who've been receptive to their work. Of course, theater artists continually innovate, and groups like Little Green Pig have been adapting stagings for unusual venues.
"Underrepresented communities are incredibly resilient. I just wish they didn't always have to be," says director and arts activist Monet Marshall, who fears that Durham is approaching a time when its theater will no longer reflect its cultural identity. "If the only people able to present work are those with the means to rent more expensive places ... the work won't speak to and from the wider community."
- Photo by Alex Boerner
- Get ready to say goodbye to Manbites, a room you've visited for twenty years.
Marshall sees the theater's closing—and the unlikelihood that it will be replaced—as interconnected with Batalá Durham's struggle to rehearse on public land in Central Park. The inaccessibility of downtown real estate is evidence of a city "really wrestling with who it's going to be in the next five to seven years," Marshall says.
Citing the neighborhood impact of venues like Triad Stage in Greensboro, Megel says Durham deserves one or more venues where audiences can experience a range of mainstream, off-Broadway, and alternative productions. But making that a reality will require community and municipal support beyond current levels.
"The city needs to work with the community to create smaller, affordable, accessible spaces for emerging artists," says Yerxa. "The public doesn't always want to go to DPAC. They need a broader range of options, too."
Storer and Hunt are confident that Durham theater artists will adapt and overcome; new neighborhoods will be found when old ones become unavailable, new modes of performance will be conceived when circumstances demand it.
"Time, space, and money are the three challenges always facing theater artists," Storer says, "and you never have all of them solved at the same time. But theater artists are the best problem solvers in the world."