By Nathan Ham
The Blue Ridge Community Theatre is back and ready to present some high-quality events and performances with a new director and a reorganized group of passionate supporters.
Julie A. Richardson was elected as the new president for Blue Ridge Community Theatre last September and is certainly no stranger to theatre in the High Country.
“I became involved with Blue Ridge Community Theatre when I was in college at ASU. My focus was on theatre with a music background. I began working in the scene shop every day as a way to get into my craft and while working as a technician with Vernon Carroll, somehow all students became involved with Blue Ridge Community Theatre as it became a reality,” Richardson said.
Richardson continued to work her way through the various levels of a stage production. “I was able to work on load in when Blue Ridge Community Theatre would ‘take the stage’ at Farthing Auditorium (now the Schaffer Center) and became involved in the technical area by doing lighting and set work. I then started designing lights for several productions including Fiddler On The Roof and Carousel plus I ran a follow spot for Music Man and Sound of Music to name a few.”
The Blue Ridge Community Theatre was first founded in 1975 and continuously put together productions until taking a temporary hiatus following their last production, The Red Velvet Cake Wars, in 2014. The theatre typically found performers and talent from not just Watauga County, but also Alleghany, Ashe, Avery and Wilkes counties. Richardson is thrilled to see what the newly-energized theatre can accomplish.
“I am humbled to become President for BRCT and look forward to bringing us back into the community. It is vital to keep art in the community alive and present in all forms. We look forward to being a vital part of the arts in the county again and working with the other budding theaters in our area. It’s exciting to return to our community of live arts,” Richardson said.
Richardson says that she was first contacted by past BRCT president Kathleen Rowell in September to gauge her interest in reviving the theatre. Following that initial conversation, Richardson met with Rowell, Trimella Chaney, the director of the Watauga High School Pioneer Playmakers and Dr. Janet Spear the founder o the Lees-McRae College Summer Theatre.
“We discussed Blue Ridge and wanting to see it come back to life but how and who has time. With the Appalachian Theatre getting ready to open, they wanted to see BRCT involved being one of the first donors. No true resolve was made that day but many ideas and thoughts transpired,” Richardson said.
Later in the month, Richardson would meet again with Rowell as well as with board members Ann Berger, Anna Ward and Casey Courtney. It was then that they asked Julie if she would consider becoming president of the Blue Ridge Community Theatre.
“Being a working professional stage manager and director I tend to ‘go where the work takes me’ and not always in the High Country. But stating if we start building the board with new members and have strong support I would take the position,” Richardson said remembering back to that meeting. “When we all agreed I asked each person there to find a least one new board member and reach out to last members. This has worked well and we are looking forward to forming a strong board and gaining many volunteers from those who wish to help when they can. Having this all in place will be the foundation for producing a season and building our sponsor base.”
Dr. Speer remembered back to when she first got involved with the Blue Ridge Community Theatre.
“Blue Ridge Community Theatre had already enjoyed one successful year in 1975-76, so when I stepped into it, the experience was sheer joy. For decades, I put together a large musical that included every kid who wanted to perform. We’d put kids in shows that didn’t have kids; we’d always find a place for them. Sometimes the show would have 100 in the cast,” said Speer. “I’m not sure about how artistic we were, but I do know the community was at the center of what we did. Entire families grew up with Blue Ridge Community Theatre. These are memories I will never forget.”
Dr. Speer recalled the productions of Fiddler on the Roof and Annie being two of their biggest and most impressive shows.
Speer says she thinks the theatre is in great hands and is willing to help out in any way she can and would even consider directing shows if needed.
“I think the leadership that they have right now is outstanding. There’s nobody better than Julie and Kathleen who understand the community. I think they are doing all of the right things and I’m so pleased with how they are handling everything and how they are moving forward,” Speer said.
Kathleen Rowell, who was part of the earlier meetings with Richardson and has spent numerous years with the Blue Ridge Community Theatre, said that as times changed with Appalachian State building a bigger and better theatre program and the other community theatres that started to spring up, it became harder and harder to find actors, volunteers, stagehands and everything else needed to put a show together. She sees a lot of that changing now that Richardson is leading the efforts to bring the BRCT back.
“Julie is taking it and running and I think it’s exciting that Blue Ridge Community Theatre is going to make a big comeback under somebody’s direction who has a lot of energy,” Rowell said.
It also helps that the theatre has a prime location to put on performances with the revitalization of the Appalachian Theatre. The BRCT donated $10,000 to the initial fund to save the Appalachian Theatre.
“We believed in the cause to get the ball rolling on that. It has been great for us because even though we haven’t been doing shows, our name is still out there. Every time Appalachian Theatre gets talked about, they talk about Blue Ridge Community Theatre,” Rowell added.
Many of the board members are rejuvenated and ready to see the return of the BRCT as well.
“I had the privilege and pleasure of directing Thorton Wilder’s Our Town for BRCT in the spring of 2010 at the Valborg Theatre at ASU. The cast, crew and staff for BRCT were supportive and remarkable in every way and the public response was most encouraging. This area has an impressive array of talent and interest in the performing arts and I believe BRCT embraces and enhances that venue,” said Charlie Ellis. “I am delighted to be a member of the Board of Directors of BRCT and hopefully will have the opportunity to direct another production.”
Anna Ward is the secretary for the BRCT and says that her time spent as a child participating with the Blue Ridge Community Theatre was one of the most important experiences of her childhood.
“It shaped my life path. Growing up in the mountains was wonderful, but I was always drawn to the arts and in those days, there were not a lot of options for kids. I was in the chorus for the big musicals — My Fair Lady and Carousel were my favorites — and I remember how those shows brought together so many people from different parts of the region,” Ward said. “Being a part of those shows gave me both a creative outlet and a supportive community that I really needed as a young person. I went on to study and teach theatre as an adult. I am excited that we have this opportunity to bring BRCT back to life and provide community-oriented hands-on theatre experiences in the High Country.”
Dr. Linda Welden, a retired professor of speech of Appalachian State, serves as an ex-officio trustee for the BRCT. She appeared in several productions with the Blue Ridge Community Theatre in the 1970s and 1980s and stayed on for many more years, even serving as president of the theatre or three years. She is really happy to see what the future holds for the BRCT.
“I am so very happy that BRCT is experiencing a rebirth under new, vital, and younger leadership, and feel that the newly renovated Appalachian Theatre is a dream come true in that it will provide a permanent home for BRCT along with all the other organizations that will benefit from its existence,” Dr. Welden said.
The first show for the latest reincarnation of the Blue Ridge Community Theatre will be “High Country’s Got Talent! On May 23 at the Appalachian Theatre. This event will showcase a lot of local talent and highlight the importance of having a local community theatre.
“It is an amazing outlet for the community to not only get out there and do something a little out of their comfort zone but to also make friends. We’re so stuck on our phones now. Get out there and trip over your feet dancing and laugh with some other people. It’s a great way to reconnect person to person and have fun,” Rowell said.
Interested acts will be called upon to audition on Sunday, April 5 from 1:30-5:30 p.m. at Boone United Methodist Church, located at 471 New Market Boulevard. There will be several different categories to choose from that will include solo vocal performances, group singing, individual dance, ensemble dance, instrumental music, magic, performance art and storytelling.
Judged will then choose the finalists that will compete during the May 23 event at the Appalachian Theatre. Prizes will be awarded for winners and runner-up finishers.
Or more information on the theatre or to apply to audition, visit the theatre’s website at www.blueridgecommunitytheatrenc.com.
Photos below are from previous Blue Ridge Community Theatre productions in the 1980s and 1990s.