Any actor or director at Haywood Arts Regional Theater will tell you there’s nothing wrong with “The Sound of Music.” Or “Oklahoma” for that matter.
But that doesn’t mean they want to spend all season shuffling through seasoned classics, singing songs everyone already knows by heart.
Each year, HART gets a whole winter season to experiment and explore, bringing plays that have long intrigued actors and directors to its more intimate, 75-seat Feichter Studio Stage.
Feichter plays in recent years have included “Equus,” a story of a young man who is sexually fascinated by horses; “Wit,” in which an English university professor grapples with a terminal case of ovarian cancer; “The Full Monty,” involving six unemployed men who resort to becoming strippers; and “Coyote on the Fence,” which tells the tale of a racist skinhead on death row.
HART’s latest play, Pulitzer-winning “Doubt: A Parable,” is about a priest suspected of sexually abusing a boy in the ‘60s.
Despite an ending that leaves audiences with more questions than answers, “Doubt” sold out its first weekend and was held over for a second weekend of showings.
A sizeable segment of HART’s audience is clearly enthused by the community theater’s daring spirit. It’s not unusual for the theater to turn away people at the door during its winter season, which has raised the bar for theater-lovers in the area.
“Our audience has come to expect us to not do the same thing,” said Steve Lloyd, HART’s executive director. “Lots of theaters underestimate their audiences and want to play it safe by doing ‘The Sound of Music’ again.”
Audiences aren’t the only pleased party. Community actors and directors are delighted to have the opportunity to tackle more serious projects.
“It’s a great theater for letting actors experiment,” said Suzanne Tinsley, one of the founding members of HART and director of the recent “Doubt.”
Art O’Neil, who has acted with HART for a decade, said he’s had his share of traditional plays.
“I’m beyond it,” said O’Neil. “If I’m going to put the energy into it, pick something that’s going to challenge me.”
O’Neil said he has witnessed a shift in HART’s standing over the years, one that he applauds.
“I think there’s a fairly long line now of plays that are not the traditional small-town community theater plays,” said O’Neil. “Ten years ago, we probably could not have done a play that had a curse word in it.”
Since then, the theater has tackled topics like homosexuality and racism and even the raciness of “Cabaret,” where scantily clad thespians greeted theater-goers right at the door.
But HART isn’t choosing these plays just to stir up controversy. A sincere desire to challenge itself and audiences is at the root of HART’s motives. Plays worthy of city stages are the result.
“I don’t have to go to New York, I don’t have to go to Atlanta to see it,” said O’Neil. “It’s not professional theater, but it comes darn close at times.”
While HART isn’t afraid to go on the cutting edge, it’s not going to force the entire community into joining the journey. Whenever the theater publicizes potentially controversial plays, it affixes a warning about adult content.
And it’s not like HART totally ignores it settings, a few modifications here and there are made.
For example, at the culmination of “The Full Monty,” HART actors actually went through with the striptease, ending up completely naked on stage — but a blinding bright light behind them completely concealed them from the audience.
The play was a huge hit.
In preparing for the stunt, Lloyd and others actually moved through the auditorium, ensuring that the view would only entail a bright light and nothing else, no matter where one was seated.
“It ended up being funny,” said Lloyd. “The audience laughed .... They realized we weren’t going to take people off the deep end.”
For upcoming plays at HART, look no farther than what’s already on Broadway. Lloyd frequently picks up plays that have just become available, like “Chicago,” which was just released to community theaters six months ago.
“I want us to be leading the bandwagon, not following it,” said Lloyd.
For that hard work, HART has won numerous awards, all of which have been handed to plays originating from its smaller stage.
Although its Feichter stage has been successful, there will continue to be a diverse mix of plays at HART with, hopefully, something for everyone.
Lloyd says he compares the theater’s offerings to a dinner menu, making sure to include both hearty and delightful offerings.
“There’s going to be puff pastry, but I’m not going to serve you seven courses of that,” said Lloyd.
Upcoming plays at HART
• “Beyond Therapy” – March 5-7
• “Seussical” – April 23-May 9, weekends
• “Falling in Like” – June 4-13, weekends
• “Chicago” – July 9-Aug. 1, weekends
• “Catfish Moon” – Aug. 27-Sept. 7, weekends
• “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story”– Sept. 24-Oct. 17, weekends.
• “The Little Foxes” – Nov. 5-14, weekends.