The show does go on: TheatreNOW to celebrate third anniversary

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In just three years, Alisa Harris has turned TheaterNOW into a showcase for local talent and fine dining. Photo courtesy Mark Steelman.
Just three years after the first curtain call, Alisa Harris has turned TheaterNOW into a showcase for local talent and fine dining. Photo courtesy Mark Steelman.

The opening night of TheatreNOW back in 2012 was comedy of errors gold in the making.

Just a few hours after receiving a temporary certificate of occupancy, but still awaiting official kitchen clearance, the dinner theater’s owner, Alisa Harris, and staff had to quickly throw together a meal–sans food, plates, silverware, tables and chairs, and all while juggling an unexpected newborn and actors and technicians who had never graced the Tenth Street playhouse stage before.

But, as they say in the theater world, the show must go on.

And go on it did – with plated Whole Foods selections and, appropriately, a production about a play that goes awry when the cast fails to show up for a performance and the crew is forced to step in.

“It was theater irony at its best,” Harris said with a chuckle.

She can laugh today because, since that haphazard first night, TheatreNOW has grown into a well-earned reputation for fine dining paired with local talent – and a passion for community outreach, to boot.

TheatreNOW, 19 S. Tenth St., is celebrating three years on the scene with a birthday party from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. on Monday, July 20. The event includes free admission and cake, live entertainment and a $3 special on all bar and kitchen goodies. Wilmington sketch comedy troupe Pineapple Shaped Lamps will perform, followed by a little live music and karaoke.

It’s a way for Harris to say thanks to the theater community and patrons who have helped TheaterNOW, which also has a non-profit arm that serves area youth, survive and thrive.

Since 2012, TheatreNOW has put on 35 dinner show productions, 20 of them created by local writers specifically for, or making world premiers at, the theater. It’s also maintained a long-running, award-winning weekend children’s series, Super Saturday Fun Time. TheatreNOW has also hosted dozens of live music events, fundraisers, comedy events and film screenings.

It’s quite an undertaking, considering the theater started simply enough.

Harris had the theater built from scratch--a la a dilapidated soul food eatery that was torn down to make way for her business. Photo courtesy Alisa Harris.
Harris had the theater built from scratch–a la a dilapidated soul food eatery that was torn down to make way for her business. Photo courtesy Alisa Harris.

“I had kind of semi-retired,” said Harris, a former talent agent and graphic designer who has been performing since childhood. “So, I started doing some dinner theaters around town…and I was like, I could do this.”

After toying with the idea, Harris eventually found a good spot:  the home of a vacant and condemned soul food restaurant. She had the building demolished and started over.

Deep in construction, Harris’ personal life was centered on the adoption process to build her family. And word came a bit quicker than she imagined that the agency had made a match.

“I didn’t even have a car seat…I was out buying stuff the day before,” she recalled. “Luckily, I had gone through almost every detail of TheatreNOW at that point.”

That’s not to say the last three years haven’t been full of lessons learned in both arenas. As with parenting, Harris has navigated her business through some careful and reflective trial and error, honing in on the best productions and planned seasons she can put together.

“There’s no real business model for dinner theater, so I kind of made it up as I went along…There were a lot of mistakes along the way,” she noted.

But there have also been a lot of successes. Zach Hanner’s adaptation of humorist Celia Rivenbark’s “Rude Bitches Make Me Tired” last year, for one, proved wildly popular, so much so that the two are collaborating on a second installment. Hanner, a local actor, musician and playwright, is the executive director of TheatreNOW’s non-profit, Theatre Network of Wilmington.

And the dinner theater’s chef, Denise Gordon, has racked up numerous accolades for her creations.

Harris hopes to continue the momentum, shaping a 2015-16 season with a focus on original works, including an adapted version of a short story by New York Times bestselling author and Wilmington resident Wiley Cash.

“That first year was a blur, but we’ve found our groove,” she said. “And we’ve created a pretty decent reputation of putting on entertaining shows.”

Hilary Snow is a reporter at Port City Daily. Reach her at (910) 772-6341 or hilary.s@hometownwilmington.com.