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Kudzu players to build theater

By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer

On a conference table covered with blueprints perches a small paper model of a building. The paper model represents the future for the Kudzu Players, Jackson County’s community theater group.

It is a facility that — if constructed as planned — would finally give the theater group a permanent home after decades of moving around from one temporary performance space to another.

The Kudzu Theater, as the paper model’s marquee reads, features a stage with a fly-space for curtains and props, storage, a greenroom for actors and actresses to warm up for the show and relax, rehearsal space, a lobby for ticket sales and local art display, as well as a clock tower and public restrooms. The restrooms will be accessible to visitors at productions in the outdoor amphitheater as well.

The facility will be a drastic improvement over any of the Kudzu Player’s previous homes — the old Sylva-Webster School and old Jackson County Courthouse included — in terms of quality and capability.

“I think we can do some real theater,” said Kudzu director Cliff Faull.

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The theater will be part of a 14-acre development project on a tract known as the Monteith property, located just along the Sylva/Dillsboro town limits behind Harold’s Supermarket. The town bought the property with plans to expand town parking, create a recreation park, and restore the Monteith farmstead.

The Kudzu Players have contracted with the town to raise funds and oversee the theater facility’s construction, Faull said.

“The Kudzu Players will raise funds to outfit the interior,” he said.

So far the Players’ grant writer has authored $300,000 in applications, all of which are pending. Total project cost is estimated at about $3 million, Faull said.

In 2004, county commissioners opted not to grant the Kudzu Players an extension on its lease on the old county courthouse where the group currently stages its productions. The old county courthouse is slated for renovation, with plans to turn it into a museum as part of the county’s heritage development plan produced in conjunction with the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area.

The BRNHA is a 25-county area spanning Western North Carolina from Cherokee to Surry counties and recognized by U.S. Congress as a place where “natural, cultural, historic and recreational resources combine to form a cohesive, nationally distinctive landscape arising from patterns of human activity shaped by geography.”

The distinction is one of about 30 of its kind across the nation. With the federal designation — which Rep. Charles Taylor, R-Brevard, helped secure in June 2002 — came a promise of money, up to $1 million per year for 10 years, to put toward conserving our natural and cultural landscape.

Work on the old courthouse is under way. An elevator is being put in so that the building is accessible to those with disabilities and the old jail immediately behind the courthouse recently was torn down. Total project cost is estimated at $350,000, according to the county’s BRNHA plan.

As it is, the Kudzu Players’ lease is set to expire next month. An extension perhaps would have allowed for time to construct the new theater, although exactly how long it will take to build the new theater is unknown.

“We’d like to have enough to start the foundation, the shell about a year from now and have it completed in three years,” Faull said.

The group will be without a home until the completion of the new theater, which could complicate the fundraising process.

In 2004, the Players entered into a statement of agreement with Dillsboro to apply for grants to design and construct the new theater. Although the Players will pay for and build the theater, the town will own it and lease it back to the group. The Kudzu Players will control the theater and decide who else in the community will be allowed to use the facility, such as local dance troupes or children’s theater groups.

The arrangement is similar to one between the Highlands Playhouse and the Town of Highlands. The Highlands Playhouse leases its theater, located just behind town hall, from the town for $1.

The Highlands’ lease became a subject of controversy within the town’s theater community in 2003 when Playhouse board members approached the aldermen in search of a 10-year lease renewal. The group had leased the playhouse under five-year agreements since 1978.

When it came time to re-up the lease, theater board director Dwight Bryant asked that the town grant the group a bit more security with a 10-year lease, due to the money the group had invested in the building and planned improvements. However, town board member Amy Patterson took issue with the Playhouse board’s administration of the theater, saying that more effort should be made to allow for community access to the building.

The comment tipped off a flurry of allegations that the Playhouse board had denied fellow Highlands group the Instant Theater Company — then under the direction of former Highland’s Playhouse director Adam Heffernan — use of the building. However, the ITC said that it wasn’t so much a matter of being denied, as it was being ignored.

In the end the town largely left the theater groups to work things out amongst themselves. Town board members approved a motion for a five-year renewal for the Playhouse with the stipulation that the company would continue to open the facility’s doors to outside groups and any “reasonable” request for use be honored.

So far the town and the Kudzu Players have not gotten so far in the planning process as to determine how the new theater will be managed.

“The actual lease has not yet been written,” Faull said.

Tentative plans are to make the facility available for visiting music or theater productions, though whether the Kudzu Players would book such acts or if the facility simply would be available for a temporary lease is undecided.

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