On the northeast side of Durham, at the intersection of Club Boulevard and Roxboro Road, there's a grimy warren of low-end retail establishments. Aside from a friendly neighborhood grocery store and a quality taqueria or two, it's an unforgiving stretch of gas stations, fast food, check cashing stores and pawnshops. This intersection isn't far from my house, and it's mind-blowing that for a few years, there was a theater here.
And it wasn't just any theater that was tucked between a pawnshop and a storefront church, but one that put on plays with titles like Slavs! (Thinking About the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness) by Tony Kushner, and Vampire Lesbians of Sodom/ Sleeping Beauty or Coma by Charles Busch, as well as works by Paula Vogel, Craig Lucas, Joyce Carol Oates and Don DeLillo.
That storefront on Club Boulevard was an early residence of Manbites Dog Theater, a company founded in 1987 by Jeff Storer and Ed Hunt. After several years without a permanent home, it occupied the Club Boulevard space for three and a half years in the mid-1990s before purchasing the theater's present building at 703 Foster St., at the intersection with Geer.
Hunt and Storer have been such a fixture of the theatrical underground—and buried under the constant work it requires—for so long that they've scarcely had time to take stock of the fact they've become a local institution. But starting this weekend, Manbites Dog will spend the next three weeks commemorating its 25th anniversary, culminating with a Dec. 16 open house that will feature music by the Drowning Lovers, Curtis Eller and Justin Robinson and the Mary Annettes.
Storer and Hunt have also completed a long-gestating project: a hardbound book of 205 photographs by Alan Dehmer that document almost all of their approximately 75 shows, from such early efforts as 7 Blowjobs, The Mystery of Irma Vep and The Love Suicide at Schofield Barracks to last season's Cape Disappointment and In on It.
And starting Thursday, the company is restaging its very first show, Jeffrey M. Jones' Seventy Scenes of Halloween, which it produced in an empty shoe store in downtown Durham's Five Points area in 1987.
In the theater's typically perverse fashion, it is producing this show not at Halloween but at Christmastime, just as they did a quarter century ago.
That show played to a full house on its opening night, as Hunt remembers, "and an audience of about four the following night." Thus the pattern was set: a challenging play people that hadn't heard of and the convincing of people to see it. Among those who saw that show was a teenage Adam Sobsey (now a contributor to Indy Week and its blogs). He was so moved by the show and the performance of one actor, Michael Hayes, who was his high school drama teacher, that it changed his life.
"Seventy Scenes of Halloween was the play that made me want to be a playwright," Sobsey says. "All I really knew of theater to that point was American realism, conventionally presented Shakespeare and musicals.
"I liked working in the theater, but I always felt some nagging dissatisfaction with the art form until I saw the Manbites Dog production of Seventy Scenes. At the time, what I mostly responded to was the play's nonlinear, modular dramaturgical design," Sobsey continues. "It was unpredictable, violent, strange and deeply affecting.
"Above all, it was funny: the funniest thing I had ever seen onstage."
Sobsey has a keen interest in the new production, for he is one of its directors. And if Sobsey, a Durham native who returned to his hometown in recent years after working and studying theater in New York, Austin and elsewhere, represents the closing of a circle for Manbites Dog, then his co-director, Akiva Fox, represents the triumph of the company's present reputation.
Fox says he and Emily Hill and Dan VanHoozer, his artistic collaborators in the then-Washington, D.C.-based Haymaker Collective, were drawn to Durham because of the ground that was made fertile by Hunt and Storer.
"We literally knocked on the Manbites door the first time we came to visit Durham," Fox recalls. "We wanted to introduce ourselves, because the sign on the door said 'theater.'
"And Jeff and Ed didn't say 'Who the hell are you?' They said, 'Welcome, we're thrilled to have such enthusiastic new members in our community. And would you like to apply to perform your first production in our building?'" In October 2011, Haymaker made its local debut with their self-written show Living with the Tiger.
Fox and Sobsey are overseeing a script that is very typical of Manbites Dog's adventurous spirit. Seventy Scenes of Halloween contains 70 scenes in which we see the deterioration of a couple's relationship. But there are twists: Two characters are played by four actors—Hill, VanHoozer, Carl Martin and Amber J. Wood.
"It's 70 scenes chronicling the relationship between two characters, Jeff and Joan, on Halloween evening," Storer says. "The scenes can be done in any order the director and the actors want to do them."
Hunt chimes in: "They're totally mixed up in terms of any numerical chronology, in terms of any kind of understanding of what's happening."
"It turned out to be a model of the kinds of plays we've tried to do," Storer says. "Throughout 25 years, we've tried to produce plays that experiment with form."
Over the years, Manbites has defiantly refused to bow to commercial considerations with its programming. "I think they figure that it's easy to give audiences what they know, but that it's exciting to give them what's new," Fox says. "That's the mission behind the material they choose for their own productions, and it's also why they present more experimental work like Haymaker's in their Other Voices series."
While the theater would have an infinitely easier time selling tickets to tried-and-true titles—a famous comedy by Shakespeare or Mamet or Simon, perhaps—Hunt, Storer and their collaborators have focused on new or newish works that haven't been performed in the Triangle. It's a testament to the strength of their audience loyalty that they can bring people to see, say, a tale of gay Asian-American teens called Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them, or a show that transplants West African myths to the Louisiana bayou called The Brothers Size, to name two recent productions.
"It all came back to us, in 1987, trying to define theater in a way that it has not been defined in this area," Storer says. "In 1987, most of what we were getting was Broadway touring shows. All of the off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway stuff we were seeing in Chicago and New York was not being done here."
Hunt interjects, saying, "The one strong exception to that was Raleigh Ensemble Players, which had been around for about five years." (Raleigh Ensemble Players folded earlier this year. Storer says that while the loss is sad, it's more important to celebrate the fact that the group managed to survive for 30 years doing difficult material.)
Storer and Hunt also sought to show plays that dealt with realism in fresh ways and scripts that often explored personal loss. And then they were interested in "out-and-out political theater," best typified by the most important work of agitprop of the 1980s, Larry Kramer's AIDS call-to-arms The Normal Heart (which Manbites Dog produced in 1988). In 1990, the theater received national publicity for Report from the Holocaust/ Indecent Materials, co-written by Storer and Hunt, which tackled AIDS and North Carolina's infamous U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms.
In 1994, they programmed a festival of LGBT-themed plays at Durham Arts Council, which was the object of picketing (and sell-out crowds) after the Indy ran a cover featuring headlining artist and provocateur Tim Miller, naked and superimposed over a photo of Helms.
The 25 years of Manbites Dog's existence comprise by their count 150 shows, 2,000 performances and 120,000 attendees. Virtually every Manbites Dog production has been documented by photographer Alan Dehmer, who first shot them on assignment for a now-defunct weekly called The Leader (which was published at a time when, as Hunt notes, this region had five daily newspapers and at least three weeklies). For the last year and a half, Dehmer, Storer and Hunt have been editing the photos that will be published but not in chronological order. "We're going to reshuffle them, in black and white and color, according to categories such as 'isolation' and various themes that the plays have expressed, so what you get is a visual continuity of an idea," Storer says.
Storer says proof copies of the book will be displayed at the Dec. 16 open house, and copies printed to order will be delivered by Feb. 15. (Disclosure: The book includes photos of one play I worked on in 2005 and a half-dozen plays my wife, Katja Hill, acted in or directed.)
These photos represent an extraordinary record of a fringe theater that has stayed alive through frugality, perseverance, artistic excellence and audience loyalty. Storer wanted photographs that avoided the standard staged publicity shots, Dehmer says. "Jeff wanted more conceptual shots that would capture the essence of the play, which was so important to my future work as a photographer."
In 1998, Manbites Dog moved into its present home at the heart of a vibrant downtown district. But it wasn't such an obvious decision to buy a building then, as Hunt recalls. "We were looking to move downtown and our realtor showed us this space on Foster Street that used to be a print shop. She said, 'You really ought to buy it. If the neighborhood takes off, you won't be able to afford the rent.'
"We were like, 'Buy it? We don't even own a house.'"
Hunt and Storer, who still do not own a house, went to their supporters and raised the money. Despite the optimism of the realtor, it took a long time for the neighborhood to take off, but now there's undeniable pleasure as they watch their intersection go through a boom phase. In the last two years, a microbrewery, a music club, a restaurant, another bar or two, and assorted fitness and dance studios have opened within two blocks of 703 Foster St. Saturday mornings, the street is closed to cars and filled with pedestrians for the Durham Farmers Market.
"It's amazing to look back 25 years and see that Jeff and Ed started with Seventy Scenes of Halloween, an eye-popping play that came out of the New York avant-garde," Fox says.
"It announced the kind of work they were going to bring to the area. And they haven't wavered from that promise ever since—they're doing work now that's as strange and challenging as that first play."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Cutting edge legacy."