Blowing Rock Stage Co. Likes Biting Off More Than They Can Chew

Blowing Rock Stage Co. Likes Biting Off More Than They Can Chew Snuggled in the magnificent and serene North Carolina high country of the Blue Ridge Mountains in tiny Blowing Rock, NC (off season population: 2,000), there's quite a bit of last-minute running about at the Blowing Rock Stage Company prepares to open its 12th summer season with the world premieres of two musicals and a comedy and the regional premiere of a 1995 Off-Broadway musical spoof.

Snuggled in the magnificent and serene North Carolina high country of the Blue Ridge Mountains in tiny Blowing Rock, NC (off season population: 2,000), there's quite a bit of last-minute running about at the Blowing Rock Stage Company prepares to open its 12th summer season with the world premieres of two musicals and a comedy and the regional premiere of a 1995 Off-Broadway musical spoof.

With the noise from a buzz saw prominent in the background at the company's scenic shop, producing director Mark Wilson said, "We may have bitten off more than we can chew, but we always do. That's what we thrive on. We're a mighty magical house of cards. But, for a little theatrical group like us, there's nothing in it unless we do things that haven't been done a thousand times."

Wilson and Michelle McCubbins, BRSC's managing director since 1994, are the year-round, full-time staff for the not-for-profit organization, formed in 1986, until the company begins gearing up for summer.

BRSC has administration offices on one side of the resort community (which grows to 12,000 during high season) and a scenic shop on the other. It's not at all unusual to find Wilson hiring and supervising carpenters one minute; then hopping aboard the company's recently purchased used riding mower to cut the grass; and putting finishing touches on the annual transformation of the local elementary school's newly-renovated auditorium, which seats 240, on Sunset Drive into a charming Off Broadway "atmosphere."

The week of June 8 found McCubbins attempting to conduct office business (in addition to her duties on the board of the Blowing Rock Chamber of Commerce) as she fielded phone calls and edited the program, which was overdue at the printer, for the June 19 premiere of The IT Girl, a silent movie musical by New Yorkers Michael Small, BT McNicholl, and Paul McKibbins (all extremely well-connected to several areas of Broadway). According to Wilson, BRSC's 1997 budget is $350,000. "The major expense is in human resources," said Wilson. "We've found that if you put together a cracker jack creative team and a professional cast, you can do anything." Auditions for the season are held in New York and the company is all Equity.

BRSC's budget comes from supportive patrons in the community of well-heeled seasonal residents (mainly) from Florida and around the world who maintain second homes in the region. Since inception, BRSC has received an annual grant from the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources's Arts Council of $15,000. In addition, the company gets an annual grant of $15,000 from the state. However, this year in a vote of largesse (that proved controversial among taxpayers in other parts of the state), the North Carolina legislature appropriated $25,000.

In face of 90s competition from TV, the VCR, and such, Wilson said BRSC, like many other regional theatres, saw a 15-20% drop in attendance. "I can't say it was our fault," he noted. "We weren't weak. We were doing great work. We did some research and saw how the demographics had changed. Our 60-year-old and plus patrons' youth was in the 1940s and '50s. They enjoyed our revivals of chestnuts. But our potential customer base was now 40- and 50-year-olds who might be more prone to stay with their home theatre systems than come out to our shows. To combat that, we had to come up with some radical new ideas. Around 1988 we decided world premieres might be the answer. I'm happy to report that from 1988 to 1993, we've sold every available seat for every offering."

Wilson also reported that the quality of the new works is such that "they don't necessarily have to begin and end here. They can have an extended life elsewhere."

He noted they did the second production of Radio Gals by Mike Craver and Mark Hardwick, which later had a brief Off-Broadway run. Also Karin Baker, who's bringing BRSC the premiere of The Melody Lingers On, a revue with the music and lyrics of Irving Berlin which not only is sanctioned by his estate, but also includes a running narrative taken from Irving Berlin - A Daughter's Memoir by Mary Ellin Barrett, brought the company one of their most successful shows, 1994's Last of the Red Hot Mammas (co-written with Tony Parise).

Baker, who was choreographer assistant with Randy Skinner to Gower Champion on 42nd Street (and with Skinner staged the subsequent Merrick tours) and assistant to Tony-nominated Gillian Gregory on 1987's Me And My Girl, said BRSC's production of her Sophie Tucker revue was "incredible." "As a result, we're in negotiations to do future stagings," she said.

In BRSC's adventurous 12th season, Wilson is predicting great success, especially for the comedy Pilgrimage by Raleigh Marcell, which the company has been comparing to Steel Magnolias and Driving Miss Daisy.

"This play has everything," said Wilson, "including an authentic ring. I predict it'll have a long regional life. It's our 'miracle play' of the season. It looked as if we'd be doing an all-musical summer. We always have one play, and, as a rule, one with something about local culture. Raleigh sent the script in late, but I got so excited I called immediately and made a deal the night before the deadline for setting our audition announcement in New York."

Blowing Rock, NC, off the Blue Ridge Parkway and near the actual blowing rock of Indian legend (the state's oldest tourist attraction), is eight miles south of Boone (home of Appalachian State University) on State Road 321. BRSC can be reached at P.O. Box 2170, Blowing Rock, NC 28605 (704 - 295 - 9168; tickets and information, 704 - 295 - 9627).

-- By Ellis Nassour