Curtain up: Plays converge on warehouse district

CorrespondentSeptember 17, 2013 

If you’ve got friends coming into town, don’t forget to recommend Durham’s brand-new downtown theater district.

For the next few weeks, at least.

From now through Oct. 19, three local theater companies will stage productions running more or less concurrently in a two-block radius in downtown Durham. The neighborhood – known as the warehouse district or NoCo – is home to nightlife anchors such as Motorco Music Hall and Fullsteam Brewery, and has seen a resurgence in recent years.

It’s the first time that three different, full-scale productions will be presented in such a concentrated area in the city – although the new theater district is a somewhat temporary phenomenon. Two of the three productions are taking place in repurposed or non-traditional theater spaces, designed to be temporary homes for individual productions.

Little Green Pig

This weekend is the final run of Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer-winning “Our Town,” staged by Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern. The play features an all African-American cast and is set in a place that recalls Hayti, the black community that flourished in Durham in the early 20thcentury.

Director Jay O’Berski said the new production underlines the essential narrative sturdiness of the classic story. ‘”It’s a place where birth, weddings and death are unencumbered by the sensationalistic elements that normally accompany black stories in modern media,” he said. “It’s a look at what was and what is, through the lens of America’s most produced, iconic play.”

“Our Town” is being presented in the Trotter Building at 410 W. Geer St., a former auto showroom now used as a multipurpose venue that can be booked for anything from dance recitals to wedding receptions. The show runs tonight through Saturday at 8 p.m. Tickets and information at littlegreenpig.com.

Archipelago Theatre

Starting Sept. 26, theatergoers can walk around the corner and down Foster Street to see Archipelago Theatre’s original and ambitious film/theater hybrid production, “The Narrowing.” Director Ellen Hemphill, also Archipelago’s artistic director, said the show is the result of a two-year collaboration among a collective of artists.

“The story line is set from the Middle Ages, to the London Blitz, to a future setting and the collapse of the glaciers,” Hemphill said. “It’s about two people in each era who basically are living in times of disaster.”

The Archipelago production is being mounted in an old printing company space at 539 Foster St. For the duration of the show, the venue has been rechristened “539 Muze.” Hemphill said it’s been an uphill battle to convert the space, which unlike the Trotter Building, isn’t set up for public events of any kind. “We must bring in seats, lights – everything that makes a theater what it is,” Hemphill said.

“The Narrowing” will run through Oct. 13, with 8 p.m. shows Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. matinees on Sundays. More information at archipelagotheatre.org.

Manbites Dog Theater

Meanwhile, back up the street at 703 Foster St., neighborhood stalwart Manbites Dog Theater will present its latest production, “The Cockfight Play,” from Oct. 3-19. Director Jeff Storer said the play is a comical farce about a man who must choose between an old boyfriend and a new girlfriend at a particularly awkward dinner party.

Manbites has called the Warehouse District home since establishing a permanent theater space there in 1998. Manbites was one of the very first cultural venues to plant a flag in the neighborhood, and the company has since staged hundreds of productions over the years.

In the very tight-knit Durham theater community, Manbites has been an important locus for local artists, with various groups staging events in the Manbites permanent space and otherwise collaborating with owner/directors Storer and Edward Hunt. Manbites’ promotional materials for the current season reflect the theater’s appreciation for the resurgent downtown scene. Among a patchwork of abstract logos representing nearby venues, the new brochure reads: “Love Thy Neighborhood.”

The three plays currently in production represent a pretty diverse line-up, even considering the usual eclecticism of Durham’s progressive theater scene. Could the confluence of productions be the first sprouts of a permanent downtown theater district in Durham?

Manbites’ Storer doesn’t see why not.

“The spirit is certainly there,” said Storer. “I’ve traveled to a lot of other places in my work and Durham has an exceptionally strong and cohesive theater community. We all know each other and help each other.”

It’s worth noting, Storer adds, that the directors of all three shows are on faculty of Duke University’s Theater Studies program, and that productions have all received material and logistical help from the university.

As for a new theater district, O’Berski said that Little Green Pig isn’t interested in a permanent venue right now – “we’re happily itinerant” – but that it’s possible to create a genuine theater district without dedicated spaces.

“What we’re trying to do is what they do in Pittsburgh, which is a cultural trust,” O’Berski said. “They try to fill empty spaces with art. We would like to encourage that in Durham, and we have the ear of some city planners, currently.”

“The idea is you take an old shoe store and the theater company – or the dance company or the art installation – they put the piece of art in there for a time, then they remove it and move on. It becomes a showcase for the building, so the city can try to get people interested.”

McDonald: glennmcdonald1@gmail.com

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