The Young People’s Theatre’s recent performance of “The Fairy Tale Network” was the last show Shelly Walker will direct for the Richmond Community Theatre.
The kids, who had spent the previous two weeks locked in a fierce battle against time and their own memories to put on the play with Walker leading them, gave her a proper send-off — complete with a bouquet of roses and a group hug before a packed theater.
Walker directed 21 stage plays and seven YPT performances in her seven years as director. As the only full-time employee for the theater, she wore many hats and said it sometimes felt as if she was doing the work of five people.
“I had done each of those jobs but I had never been in charge of all of them at once,” she said following her last show. Walker described the experience as “character building.”
Her full-time position is being cut to part-time following the recent budget negotiations for the new fiscal year which ultimately determined that the attendance for the theater’s four yearly shows did not justify the director’s $63,000 salary. Going forward, there will be three shows — a holiday show, a “big name” play the likes of “Beauty and the Beast” and the YPT — according to City Manager Monty Crump. These performances will all be managed by a part-time director and local volunteers, though Crump said more part-time positions could be added in the future.
Originally from Michigan, Walker was living in Greensboro when she saw an ad for the job opening at the theater and initially thought the job was in nearby Rockingham County. She was among the finalists for the position — the only woman — and because she was the only finalist currently living in North Carolina, she got to interview for the job first, according to Merrie Dawkins, who was president of the theater’s governing board at the time.
Dawkins, currently the board’s vice president who’s been involved with the theater in nearly every capacity for 41 years, said Walker had a varied background in theater that made her the best fit for the role, which required one to have an understanding of the production side and the business side, be able to work with children and teach people of different skill levels, and understand the technical side.
“She can do all those things and do them well,” Dawkins said.
Dawkins said Walker had extensive directing experience, was well-traveled, had taught in Japan, had been a mime, a clown, and had been a part of the theater scene in Chicago. Dawkins recalled the details of their first meeting: giving Walker the grand tour, then sharing a pot of coffee while hiding out in Hudson Brothers Deli during a thunderstorm.
They connected right away.
“I felt selfish because I was getting a good friend out of it,” Dawkins said.
Once in the job, Walker said she noted the connection the Richmond County community had to its local sports teams. She said that while the theater and being involved in sports aren’t mutually exclusive, she viewed the theater as an outlet for kids who weren’t athletically inclined.
“They find this a very open and accepting place,” she said. “They get up there on stage and it’s scary but they find a place where they belong.”
For the YPT, Walker said she worked with the kids to make sure each one had a role that fit their abilities, but often there are those who are disappointed with a small role. She reminds them of one of the core tenants of the theater: there are no small parts.
“If we didn’t have every part playing their roles, we wouldn’t have a play.”
Live theater, for Walker, differs from sports because the nature of storytelling creates a more personal experience that can lead to new understandings of oneself. She said it’s unique among other forms of entertainment because when you go to see a movie and there’s no one else in the theater you get excited because you can put your feet up and be as loud or focused as you want, but when you come to a community theater and there’s no one else in the audience, you are disappointed.
“You come here for the community, to listen to them laugh and to experience it together,” Walker said. “That doesn’t happen in other places often.”
She said her proudest achievements as director were taking on the daunting task of performing “Beauty and the Beast” — challenging because of the scale and expectations — as well as plays that had more challenging subject matter.
“(Beauty and the Beast) scares you,” she said, because it required a departure from what the theater typically did in terms of set design and other risks, such as taking out the first row of seats to make room for an orchestra. The actors were asked to raise money to purchase the elaborate costumes, which could barely fit through the theater’s doors when they came in.
“The audience comes in with a certain suspension of disbelief (with regard to costumes) but when you see someone in a really beautiful teapot costume you say, ‘Yes! That’s a teapot!’”
All six performances of “Beaty and the Beast” in February 2017 sold out.
“Raisin in the Sun” and “Fences,” both stories about the African-American experience in the mid-20th century, gave black actors a play that, as Dawkins put it, they could call their own in a theater that used to have a segregated audience. The theater performed “Second Samuel” this year, which deals with transgender issues, a play Walker said she isn’t sure could’ve been performed here in previous years.
“Second Samuel” also deals with heart disease, which the theater’s board saw as an opportunity to donate some of the proceeds to Reid Heart Center in Moore County (Reid serves Richmond County residents). Dawkins said the donation wouldn’t have happened without Walker.
For the theater’s performance of “The Lady with All the Answers,” about Ann Landers, the pen name of long-time advice columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, Walker took a risk. She was approached by Kimberly Harrington, former news editor of the Daily Journal, to play the part because Landers had greatly influenced her as a writer. Harrington is black, Landers was white, which forced Walker to ask herself how that would be received by the audience. The play is essentially a one-woman show for an hour-and-a-half, and Walker said it would be wrong to exclude someone who could do a good job because of race.
The play was double cast just in case the star got sick, and the other actor was a white woman, which Walker said created an interesting dynamic.
“It was amazing to see the nuances they each brought out of the page,” she said.
Walker’s departure gave many fears that the theater could be coming to an end, though Crump and the city council members who supported the recent budget have been adamant that they don’t want to see that happen. Council member Denise Sullivan was the lone dissenting vote on the budget, the first time she’s ever stood out alone on an issue, due to the threat to the theater. Sullivan, a longtime supporter of the theater, said after the vote that the theater “adds to the quality of life” in Rockingham and said she worries that it could become “another empty building downtown.”
“I’ve seen the theater go through ups and downs,” Sullivan said, recalling days when it was the “big thing” for people to do. “We talk about not having things to do (in Rockingham) and I just think that’s a part of life that makes Rockingham a better place.”
Sullivan was in attendance for Walker’s last show and said it was “wonderful,” adding that it allows the children to develop their imaginations and learn empathy for others. A teacher, Sullivan said one of her fondest memories is seeing some of her colleagues — who were from other parts of the country — learn to love Richmond County by being a part of “The Beauty and the Beast” performance.
“The excitement they had meeting the people, that added to their experience living in Rockingham,” she said. “It’s a time they’ll never forget.”
Funding for the theater, Sullivan said, has been something that has been “penciled in” each year, but when time came to make cuts it was vulnerable. Dawkins said there’s been an outpouring of support following the drama over the budget from people who have never volunteered as well as from volunteers who have looked at other ways they can contribute.
“I feel good — it’s a little scary because I’ve never been in this position before where we’re having to almost rebuild but I think it can be done,” Dawkins said. “The future will tell.”
Walker couldn’t say what would change with a part-time director, other than that the person who eventually takes the job will need even more support from volunteers, calling it a “big transition.”
After the final performance and the surprise tribute from the actors, Walker struggled to find words to describe her time in the county. She said she’s thankful to all the people who have given their time over the years, and that it was “good to feel appreciated” by the crowd who gave her and the actors a standing ovation. Noting her own stage fright, she said she was glad the house lights were out so she couldn’t see the audience’s faces all looking at her.
As for her future, Walker doesn’t yet know what she will do next.
“It’s an opportunity.”
Reach Gavin Stone at 910-817-2674 or [email protected]