Of course, Waynesville isn’t like most rural small-town communities. And Haywood Arts Regional Theater isn’t like most rural small town theater groups.
For the next three weekends, HART will stage the movie turned Broadway musical, “The Full Monty.” The show, known for what its title promises, has been the subject of much eyebrow-raised speculation as community members have wondered aloud — “Will they really? Will they really go The Full Monty?”
In a word, yes.
But what may be more interesting than six men sporting red spandex thongs is what led HART to this place. Staging a strip show not only takes tenacity but a certain amount of trust from the community — trust that whatever will be done will be done well and trust that the craft will be treated with respect.
“We’ve always done things that pushed the envelope a little, but this community has changed over the past 20 years since I first came here,” said Steven Lloyd, HART director and assistant/technical director of “The Full Monty.” “Twenty years ago we wouldn’t have been able to do this show.”
Like the saying goes, HART didn’t get there overnight. Founded in 1985, HART temporarily occupied the old Main Street movie theater The Strand. Strand owner Mary Massie allowed the theater troupe to use the facility for a nominal fee until the group stabilized. Shows included well-known standards such as “Guys and Dolls” and “Oliver.”
“We did things primarily because we knew them,” said Libba Feichter, one of HART’s founding members, and today a volunteer, theater board member and Waynesville town alderman.
The shows often were what could be considered safe, things that HART members knew the community would accept.
“The thing that really took us to the next level was when Steve came in,” Feichter said. “He knew theater so much better than we did.”
As rent at The Strand gradually increased, HART paired up with the Haywood County Arts Council in an attempt to purchase the building. The Strand was badly in need of repair due to a fire just prior to HART’s occupation, and the theater troupe could not commit money for repairs to a building they were only renting.
Finally in 1993, facing major electrical upgrades, HART decided to relocate and embarked on the campaign to build what is now the Performing Arts Center at the Shelton House on Pigeon Street.
The Performing Arts Center, constructed in the style of the traditional Summer Stock playhouses of the 1920s, opened in 1997. The Center includes the 255-seat James Auditorium and 75-seat Feichter Studio Theatre.
HART always had produced three to six major plays a year, but with the move into the Center the playbill increased to six, seven or even eight Main Stage production each year. Material included classics such as “The Sound of Music” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” but also delved darker with “Of Mice and Men,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
But it was 2002’s “Parade” that Feichter pegged for being the first play to really stretch the community’s boundaries. The play was based on a true story set in Atlanta in which a Jewish man was accused of murdering a young girl. In the end, the murderer was black.
“It just involved all these layers of controversy,” Feichter said. “I will admit I was really nervous about the show.”
Murder, anti-Semitism, and a lynching turned out to be good theater though, and the audience loved “Parade.” The success further enabled HART to take on more challenging material. There was the “Grapes of Wrath” and “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” After “The Full Monty,” HART will stage Tennessee Williams’ “Orpheus Descending,” and next season includes “Cabaret.”
“If you don’t push it at some point, you never will,” Lloyd said.
Playing it safe in choosing material could essentially paint a director into the corner by building an audience that demands risks never get taken.
Lloyd carefully plans each season — everyone may not see every show, but there’s a little something for everyone.
“He balances the season with those good old nuggets that you need with those ‘Orpheus Descendings’ and ‘Parades’ and those things that push us a bit,” Feichter said.
Lloyd presents each season to the nearly 20-member theater board for approval, and the board either accepts it, or — “he pulls the whole season,” Feichter said. Just taking out one show disrupts the flow.
That’s why prior to “Cabaret” HART will stage “Show Stoppers,” a reunion of all the leads from the past 10 years of HART musicals to mark the 10th anniversary of the opening of the Performing Arts Center.
But no amount of planning can make up for an audience’s gut reaction. During HART’s last show, “Sly Fox,” three audience members got up and walked out during a scene that implied a young wife was tricked into sexually manipulating an old man. The scene was in the middle of an otherwise campy play, and as Lloyd says, sort of snuck up on viewers who perhaps weren’t looking for that kind of entertainment. The irony? Both the play’s director and the character in question were retired ministers.