Play It Again and Again

The Blue Ridge Dinner Theatre at Ferrum Endures, Providing Entertainment for SML Residents and a Showcase for Local Talent.

By Laurie Edwards

This article appeared in Smith Mountain, on June 25, 2010. It is reprinted in AppLit with the author's permission. Laurie Borslien Edwards graduated from Frerum College in 2003.

In the past few years, professional theater groups and performance halls across the country have gone dark, apparent victims of the down economy. In Roanoke, a portion of Mill Mountain Theatre closed in 2009 after 25 years in business.

Community theater groups don't appear to be suffering as much as groups with paid actors. At the lake, the Smith Mountain Arts Council's Lake Players performs a few times each year. The next performance, "Musical Tribute to Broadway," will be Aug. 13 at Bernard's Landing.

But one local theater group with paid actors chugs along, epitomizing "The Little Engine That Could" with sold-out shows, now in its 31st season.

The Blue Ridge Dinner Theatre, based at Ferrum College, draws audience members from more than 60 cities and towns, including every town that borders the lake. It has endured since 1978, minus one year when the lights went out.

"It was some time in the '80s," said Jody Brown, executive director and Moneta resident. "There were administrative problems."

She declined to elaborate, saying it was in the past. But the theater was up and running again the following year.

"Some people didn't realize how many people liked us until we were gone," said R. Rex Stephenson, artistic director.

He credits the theater's resilience to a number of factors, including the way the BRDT perceives the audience.

"The theater has a vested interest in you," said Stephenson. "At [one local theater that closed], they said, 'It's your privilege to come.' That's not the way we look at it."

The 18 members of the BRDT see it as a privilege to perform for the audience, he said.

Another factor of success is how the actors integrate themselves with the audience during the three-course pre-show meal and after the show, said Chandra Diesel, an eight-year BRDT veteran from Stuart.

"They get greeted by actors in the cafeteria and served by actors," she said. "They share personal stories with us. We get to spend 40 minutes with them and interact with them."

Returning visitors often remember the names of previous actors and get upset when their favorites leave the BRDT to pursue other interests, said Stephenson.

"There's a whole lot of hugging the first week [of a season]," said Brown. "There's a whole lot of people who can't get from the door to their seat without hugging people."

Regular faces include people who live at Smith Mountain Lake such as Brown's Moneta neighbors. Occasionally, a barbershop quartet from the SML Harmeneers will take to the stage for a song or two. Brown said they're very popular with theater-goers.

Blue Suede Shoes performance

Keys to Success

Photo courtesy of the Blue Ridge Dinner Theatre
The BRDT debuted "Blue Suede Shoes: A Musical Revue of the '50s" in 2009.

To keep people coming back year after year, the BRDT directors select a varied line-up of plays, said Stephenson. This year's season includes three musicals and four comedies.

Two of the musicals, "Blue Suede Shoes: A Musical Revue of the '50s" and "Blue Suede Shoes: Part Two," were co-written by Stephenson and Emily Rose Tucker, BRDT's music director. Stephenson, who graduated from high school in 1961, said he wanted to write a play that celebrated the songs of his youth.

Last year's debut of "Blue Suede Shoes," set in 1959, was so successful, it was brought back for a second year, and they wrote a sequel, said Stephenson.

The crowd last year "was probably the biggest we've ever had," he said. "Some people came back three times. I never got two standing ovations in one show before."

Audience members came in period costume, sang along and danced in the aisles, said Tucker.

The sequel is set in 1961, but Stephenson said you don't need to have seen the first play to understand the second.

When Stephenson decided to add musical revues such as "Blue Suede Shoes" to the BRDT's repertoire, he wasn't sure they'd take off the way they have, he said.

"It was originally a big gamble," he said. "I'd never written one; Emily had never written one. We just crossed our fingers and hoped that this thing would work out."

It worked out so well, they recently added another evening showing of "Blue Suede Shoes: Part Two" on July 3 to meet demand.

For plays not written in-house, Stephenson said he keeps a close eye on other area theater groups to see what's popular. For example, this year's schedule includes "First Baptist of Ivy Gap," which garnered good turnouts at the Barter Theatre in Abingdon.

Later this season, they'll perform "The Wizard of Oz," which will include casting for area children to play Munchkins.

"We'll do all the songs from the movie, and the 'Jitterbug' song, which was cut from the movie," said Stephenson.

The season will close with two showings of "Mark Twain's Last Lecture," adapted by Stephenson, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Twain's death. A portion of the proceeds will be donated to St. James Food Bank in Ferrum.

Brown said selecting the right balance of plays has been a learning experience. For about five years, the BRDT performed murder-mystery plays.

"We weren't serving the people we wanted to serve," said Brown. "We haven't had one on the season for a long time."

The plays selected year after year appear to be on the mark, said Kenneth Barron, a rising junior at Ferrum College and a three-year BRDT veteran.

"I think I've heard, 'This is the best play I've ever seen' about 2,000 times," he said.

The BRDT's first shows in 1978 were made possible by a grant. They researched and performed three plays that looked at race relations in Franklin County before, during and after the Civil War, said Stephenson.

In "Too Free For Me," Willette Thompson played a black slave who sued her master for her and her children's freedom in 1850. Jubal Early was her attorney. They won the case. Thompson said it was her favorite role of her off-and-on 10-year career with the BRDT.

"Every time the verdict was read, you could hear a sigh of relief from the audience," she said. "It happened every time."

Perhaps a signal of the success the theater would have over the next three decades, the first show, held July 4, 1978, was a sold-out performance, said Stephenson.

But it's not just the plays that draw the audience, said Stephenson. The actors are another important factor.

Every year, BRDT directors attend acting conventions across the country in search of new talent. Stephenson said they'll meet with up to 700 actors over the course of three days at each convention.

"You've got a minute and a half to figure out if they can sing and act," said Brown.

If they like what they see and hear, they'll call the actors for a second audition, said Stephenson. Then they can find out what other talents the actors can bring to the table.

"We look for people who have multiple talents," said Tucker. "It makes us more versatile with a small company."

For example, one year Stephenson decided Tucker should tap-dance on roller skates like Gene Kelly did in the 1955 movie "It's Always Fair Weather."

"Emily for months used roller skates all through the house," said Stephenson. "She used to do her dishes in roller skates."

Through practice, Tucker was able to do the dance for a show. Now it's ingrained in her. Like riding a bike, Tucker said she still can tap-dance in roller skates.

But it's not just talent they're looking for in auditioning actors, said Stephenson. They're also looking for people who will fit into the group, can quickly transition from one play to the next and juggle everything from acting to serving guests. As Diesel says, "There's no time for divas."

Jack Tale Players at Dudley Elementary 2010

Diversification is Key

Photo at right by Laurie Edwards: Members of the BRDT sing as part of a Jack Tales performance at Dudley Elementary School in Wirtz on June 4.

In addition to each season's plays, the BRDT troupe performs Jack Tales at elementary schools and retirement homes and for special events. This year, it will perform for the 75th anniversary of the Blue Ridge Parkway on Sept. 12.

Jack Tales are historic folk tales originating from the Blue Ridge Mountains area and passed through generations using word-of-mouth. Many feature a simple hero named Jack, the most popular being "Jack and the Bean Stalk" or "Jack and the Bean Tree."

Unlike the main BRDT shows, which feature elaborate costumes and set design, the theater troupe dons blue jeans, plaid shirts and suspenders for Jack Tales shows. They use props and play a variety of traditional Blue Ridge Mountains instruments such as spoons, autoharp, washtub bass and fiddle.

Brown said one of the special things about Jack Tales is that the plays, songs and line-ups can change at any moment.

"Rex is so good at reading an audience," said Brown. "He gets the company well prepared so they can do a variety of things. As he decides, sometimes mid-show, that it would be better to do something else at this point, he announces it and we do it."

One year, the Jack Tales group was performing at Martinsville High School for about 1,200 students. Stephenson said the students weren't paying attention and were hollering things like "hee haw" and "country hicks."

Stephenson said he decided they should switch gears and perform a tale about Jack defeating a giant. Thompson was supposed to play the queen and Stephenson was to play the page. He decided they should switch roles.

"All of a sudden, the kids stopped and they listened," said Stephenson. "We had no more trouble the rest of the show."

At a June 4 performance at Dudley Elementary School, Stephenson used a kazoo to repeatedly interrupt Diesel as she was making a speech. After she took away his kazoo, Stephenson snuck through the audience, produced two more kazoos and blew both until his face was red, making the children erupt with laughter.

Such hijinks make the performances memorable for the children. And like the frequent visitors to the BRDT's regular shows, the children who see Jack Tales remember the actors.

"Even though the work is hard, the work is good and the environment is invigorating," said Stephenson. "There's nothing like being at WalMart and a little kid walks up and introduces you to his mom because he saw you in Jack Tales."

For more information about the Blue Ridge Dinner Theatre, visit To purchase tickets, call 365-4335.

Dramas and Tales by R. Rex Stephenson

Blue Ridge Dinner Theatre Web Site

Jack Tale Players Web Site

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