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Pondering the "pentimenti" that underlie the present shape of our cultural efforts and institutions

Change is a constant in the Triangle arts scene—and (mostly) for the good 

The shape of things coming and going

click to enlarge Raleigh Memorial Auditorium, as seen in 1985, 1988 and as it looks today - FIRST TWO PHOTOS COURTESY OF PROGRESS ENERGY CENTER, LAST PHOTO BY ROB FLYNN/ ROBERT A. FLYNN INC.
  • First two photos courtesy of Progress Energy Center, last photo by Rob Flynn/ Robert A. Flynn Inc.
  • Raleigh Memorial Auditorium, as seen in 1985, 1988 and as it looks today

The day the first issue of the Independent came out, in April 1983, I was working in the office of UNC-TV's Stateline program at the General Assembly. One of the reporters came in, brandishing the new paper excitedly. It was all politics, all the time, in the first years. In 1989, I published my first article in the paper's then-miniscule arts section, a review of a George Bernard Shaw show at Playmakers in Chapel Hill.

When the Independent's arts editor asked me to think back over the cultural changes that have occurred in the Triangle during the paper's 25 years, I was happy for the opportunity. I'd already been thinking quite a bit on this subject, as I've been spending time with a new friend who is the same age as the Indy. Her perspective is, naturally, rather different from mine, and it has made me more aware of the "pentimenti," the ghostly outlines of past forms, that underlie the present shape of our cultural efforts and institutions.

Miss A, as I'll call her, has for instance never known the state art museum in any form but the one we have today, on Blue Ridge Road, with amphitheater and sculpture park. The current North Carolina Museum of Art opened with great fanfare and a hot-air balloon festival on its raw, unartful grounds the same month the Independent began publication. I can still see the ghost of its previous, sketchy incarnation down on Morgan Street in a disused state office building, but soon its no-longer-new shape will have been altered completely by new additions. For Miss A, the pentimento behind the museum will be the "new" building, lurking behind the expanded (or, newer new) one that is scheduled to open in April 2010.

One of the few advantages of aging seems to be that one can see the layers of Time's palimpsest. Although I generally hold with Mark Twain's maxim that there is no such thing as progress—only change, and damn little of that is for the better—I have to say that the changes in the Triangle's performance venues have been progressive. The Museum Park Amphitheater is a wonderful outdoor venue, far better than the Forest Theater ever was. Can you remember Raleigh Memorial Auditorium before its renovation and expansion? There was a huge flap about the proposed changes at the time, but the project was well designed, taking away nothing from the imposing building, and adding two wonderful rooms in 2001. The existence of the Fletcher Opera Theater has been key to the development of opera in this area, and is a superb theater for the ballet, while the quality of Meymandi Hall has helped the N.C. Symphony become an orchestra that could attract a conductor of the caliber of Grant Llewellyn.

Other facility changes have supported the explosive growth of performance rosters. Never will Miss A have said "There's nothing going on this weekend," because there have always been more cultural activities than even the most dedicated culture hog could cram in. Durham saved its vaudeville-era Carolina Theatre (sort of), bringing live events back to its stage in early 1994. Soon Durham will be able to host traveling Broadway shows at the performing arts center currently under construction (and slated to open at the end of this year), although it remains to be seen whether any art will happen there. The exquisite 2005 renovation and updating of UNC's Memorial Hall—now the jewel of the Triangle's mid-sized venues—has made possible a range of performance types in Chapel Hill that previously couldn't be seen there. You definitely wouldn't have seen ink pouring down from above a stage full of Taiwanese dancers in the old hall.

Nice facilities are nice, but visionary people matter more in building culture, like the people who conceived of and are building the Carolina Ballet in Raleigh, and the people who, in 1978, brought the American Dance Festival to Durham (where it will celebrate its 75th birthday this year). Miss A hasn't known a time without dance action, but Miss K remembers all too well when you might get two or three touring dance events a year. Thanks to these organizations, the several local dance companies and the extraordinary arts programmers at our universities, your chances of viewing dance any given week are very good.

In the local theater scene, 25 years has brought fresh vision—and highlighted the importance of endurance, of sustained effort, of never saying "die." It is hard to remember that Manbites Dog Theater didn't always exist. Founded only in 1987 by Jeff Storer and Ed Hunt, it shot up, died, was resurrected and rose again to become the nexus of experimental theater in this area. That we are now enjoying a tremendous flowering of theatrical art all over the region is due partly to the tremendous energy generated by the artists and audiences attracted to Manbite's work and tenacious example. And the most recent good news was the opening of the Murphey School Auditorium by Raleigh's Burning Coal Theatre.

While some, like longtime News & Observer columnist Dennis Rogers—Raleigh's beloved star of page and stage—have moved on or out of local theater, others like the indefatigable Ira David Wood at Theatre in the Park keep on keeping on. It is as important to be able to see artists and their institutions mature as it is to seek out the new talents. Looking back at my earliest writing for the Independent, I'm reminded that 19 years ago, I reviewed TIP's production of Amadeus with Wood in the Salieri role and Jordan Smith as the Baron van Swieten. In this issue, I review Amadeus at the venerable Playmakers Rep in Chapel Hill, with Ray Dooley, who began with PRC in 1989, as Salieri. Jordan Smith currently appears with David Ring (whom some will remember from Manbites Dog's early years) in Ghost and Spice's Mamet double bill at Common Ground Theatre (also reviewed in this issue). So, plus ça change ... yet some things remain the same as we negotiate the remarkable changes of the last 25 years—like traffic!

Five years after that first issue in 1983, the Indy's few arts-related articles maxed out at 350 words, and the A&E section wasn't created for years after that. But that was OK—you picked up the Spectator for reviews and cultural coverage, and the News & Observer had a rich book section and both it and the Durham Herald-Sun regularly covered local music, theater, dance and art. (And, by the way, the N&O used to have a full-time art and architecture critic!) There was a halcyon period, in the 1990s, of broad and deep cultural coverage, from multiple points of view, in the area's publications.

The subsequent diminishment of that critical coverage, concurrent with the incredible growth of cultural offerings, has been one of the relatively few negative changes in the Triangle's cultural scene. I lament it, but Miss A doesn't even see the ghosts of critics past hovering behind her computer screen. For her, thanks to the surge of Internet publications and communication, it's all arts, all the time. You might even call that progress.

  • Pondering the "pentimenti" that underlie the present shape of our cultural efforts and institutions

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