35 years of laughs, tears, music
In April of 1981, the Smoky Mountain Community Theatre put together its first show, “Blithe Spirit,” at the little theatre at Swain County High School. Fast forward 35 years and 114 magical shows later, the group is still performing and amazing crowds.
“It’s incredible for a town the size of Bryson City to have this theater still,” said Teresa Maynard. “Of course in this day and time, even at a large town, a lot of theaters are closing.”
Maynard joined the Smoky Mountain Community Theatre (SMCT) in 1982 and still actively participates in shows and is a board member.
During its first eight years, the group performed to small local crowds at the high school with musicals like “Hello Dolly” and classics like “A Christmas Carol.”
As the shows became bigger and grander, they needed to find a place that could accommodate their growing membership and larger crowds.
“Basically, we outgrew the little theater,” she said. “We wanted the visibility, a place that was our own where we could grow.”
The group moved to the Gem Theatre on Main Street in 1989, and hasn’t looked back since. A movie theater from 1950 until the mid-80s, many original features including the seats, brick layering and lighting remain.
After each year, small updates were added including an expanded stage, curtains, a moving backdrop, extra lighting, a sound system and more. By 1996, the group purchased the theater and paid off all debt by 2001, officially making it their home.
The community theater group continued making updates but also kept the place’s old charm. For example, they updated the marquee, but held on to the old ticket booth. Structurally, they left it the same with upgrades like a new roof.
Since its inception, the group has gone through its fair share of ups and downs, applauses and boos, and tomatoes and roses.
They have played to an audience as little as four people and a standing room crowd where folding chairs filled the aisle.
“We had a packed house for ‘The Diary of Anne Frank,’” said K. Sharp, another theater member since 1982. “The fire marshal would’ve closed us down for sure.”
In the past, the group has put on magnificent musicals with costumes dating the period of the show and performances that required more than 20 cast members.
However, the lights aren’t as bright as they used to be.
“We’re keeping our head above water. We’re doing good,” said Toby Allman, former president of the SMCT. “Attendance isn’t as good as it used to be, but that’s with all theaters.”
“It’s been a struggle to keep the theatre alive for 35 years,” said Maynard. “A lot of members have moved away or passed. We have a much smaller membership than we ever had, but we keep going because we believe this community needs a community theatre.”
Attendance for live performances across the nation has been dwindling due to many reasons including the advancement of movies and television, the youth’s disinterest, people’s availability to volunteer their time, and much more, she said.
Maynard said she has even seen a decrease in children coming to the shows and participating in the plays.
With technological advances in movies and the rise in television shows, Allman said that the younger generation has started to gravitate away from live performances.
The Kudzu Players in Jackson County are no longer around, but recently a new group has started and had its first performance this past weekend. The Paper Mill Players opened to a full house on Sunday’s performance of “Dearly Departed.”
The Overlook Theatre Company based in Franklin hosts a couple shows a year at the Smoky Mountain Center for the Performing Arts.
According to a survey published in 2013 by the National Endowment of the Arts, attendance at musicals declined by nine percent and non-musical plays dropped 12 percent from 2008 to 2012. From 2002 to 2012, non-musical plays dropped 33 percent.
The Smoky Mountain Community Theatre hasn’t fallen to that trend completely yet. Since 1994, they’ve shown three to five shows each year.
Most recently, more than 130 people attended performances of “Babes in Toyland” in December 2015, the theater’s fourth production of the year.
“It fluctuates,” said Robert Willcox, current president of SMCT. “Sometimes we have huge crowds and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes it depends on the name of the play, and sometimes it depends on who’s in it.”
The group credits tourism for playing a role in the continuing success of the theatre and being able to support four shows a year.
“I’ve heard a lot of people like it because they don’t have a theatre in their towns,” Allman said. “We’re lucky to have our own theatre. A lot of people say that where they come from, they don’t have a live theatre.”
Allman believes nearly 75 percent of the people who come to the shows are from out of town or tourists visiting the area.
Willcox said that tourists have told him they sometimes schedule their vacation around certain plays at the theater.
Of course, there are always those visitors who don’t plan on coming to a live show when they visit Bryson City but end up stumbling through the doors anyway.
Sharp said it’s becoming normal for tourists to walk up to the ticket booth and ask what movie is playing, only to find out it isn’t a motion picture but a live performance.
“And they’ll still walk in,” she said.
The group’s first production for 2016 is the musical “Rocky Horror Show” directed by Donno Layton, owner of the Donno’s Higher Ground Tattoo in Bryson City.
“We expect not only Bryson city residents, but tourists,” said Willcox. “It’s a big enough draw based on the name.”
With a full cast and rehearsal beginning this week, SMCT will begin the year with a bang.
In part two of this story next week, the Smoky Mountain Times will showcase some of the greatest performances and moments in the 35-year history of the Smoky Mountain Community Theatre.