WILMINGTON—It’s hard to remember what it is like going to a full capacity, in-person concert, theater production or community art show. Once March 17 hit almost 10 months ago, all activity pretty much ceased across the globe. Concerts came to a halt and livestreams popped up in their stead. Art exhibits went virtual. Theater productions became pre-filmed or livestreamed.
Though the arts may have had its hurdles to overcome in 2020, it also managed to keep our minds off some of the darkest days of the year.
Even if it’s hard to remember standing elbow to elbow, swigging a whiskey and watching your favorite band take the stage, 2020 wasn’t a complete bust. Somehow, some way, the Wilmington arts scene showed rays of light poking through the shadows.
Here are a few of the most memorable moments — in no particular order.
Resurrection of the Drive-In
What’s old is new again … isn’t that the saying?
With the pandemic closing down movie theaters nationwide, streaming services grew by 37% and so did the resurgence of the drive-in.
Locally, multiple organizations and venues began setting up screens in lots large enough to host folks by the carload. Cucalorus Film Festival had pop-up screenings every Friday from June through December in the UNCW Kenan Auditorium parking lot. Wilson Center and Thalian Hall got in on the action in the fall at the CFCC Hanover Street parking deck. Even Mayfaire hosted a few holiday drive-ins in front of Belk.
Cucalorus will continue screening flicks at the drive-in in 2021, with a return date slated for Jan. 22. Whether other organizations and venues keep up the old-school revival is yet to be determined.
Cucalorus Film Festival
Speaking of Cucalorus, the annual film festival marched on in 2020, despite not being able to celebrate fully in person. Cucalorus hosted more than 90 films, available for viewers to screen from the comfort of their homes. They also hosted in person drive-in cinema screenings over two weekends, and half of of the films were made by female, Black, Indigenous and Latinx filmmakers. The Connect conference continued and centered on conversations about racial equity and inclusion.
Chief instigating officer Dan Brawley told Port City Daily in November that this year was a “reset to Cucalorus,” solidifying their deeper commitment to long-term relationships with filmmakers. Every filmmaker and programmer accepted into Cucalorus was paid in 2020; that will be a permanent part of its foundation moving forward.
Film in ILM
In general, and in spite of a pandemic shutting down most businesses, the film industry in Wilmington was reinvigorated, especially through the last half of the year. “Scream,” “USS Christmas,” “Hightown,” “This Country,” “I.S.S.,” “Static,” and “International Space Station” all filmed from August on — not to mention productions that wrapped before March 2020. It generated around $60 million for our local economy.
According to Johnny Griffin, director of the Wilmington Regional Film Commission, 2021 is already looking promising too.
“I don’t have any way to predict what the number will end up being for next year,” he said earlier in December, “but I think it will be on track with an upward trend for us and continued strong interest in the region. We don’t see any reason for it to decline.”
Diana Ross and Drive-in Concerts at Wilson Center
Cape Fear Community College’s Wilson Center was able to slay with one powerhouse performance before the rainfall of concert and Broadway touring cancellations set in for the year.
One of the best moments from the stage was when 12-time GRAMMY winner Diana Ross sashayed through a 17-song set, and four costume changes, on Feb. 28. She belted decades-long famed hits to a sold-out, very enthusiastic singing crowd — from “I’m Coming Out” to “Upside Down,” “Love Child” to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” She even graced audiences with “Ease on Down the Road” from 1978’s “The Wiz,” a reimagining of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.”
Wilson Center also was the first venue to host drive-in concerts through the summer in the parking lot behind their 3rd Street theater. Every weekend it would welcome various local acts, like Striking Copper, Travis Shallow and Bob Russell, and Massive Grass to entertain audiences safely distanced in their cars.
Neighborhood Concert Series
During the height of the shutdown in spring, folks desperate for live music saw neighborhood musicians set up on street corners or travel up and down area sidewalks by foot, serenading neighbors on front lawns. Impromptu concerts were hosted everywhere from Sunset Park to Carolina Heights, Princess Place to Forest Hills.
Jordan Sutherland’s Porchella Music Series in the Ardmore/Carolina Place District has continued from spring into winter. Every week he features locals like Tres Altman, Big Al, Ross Paige, Chris Cook, Jones Smith, Mike Blair, among others. They travel up and down the neighborhood, from Metts to Wrighstville, Pender to Gibson, and he posts maps of where they’ll stroll on his Facebook page.
In Carolina Beach, the Traveling Music Trailer, founded by Kevin Blake and Cullen Seward, allowed musicians and bands to socially distance and slowly tour neighborhoods on a flatbed, playing their sounds for the islanders. The trailer hosted acts like Jeremy Mathews, Emily Burdette, Sai Collins and others through 2020. The owners see a trend they hope to continue regardless of the pandemic.
“We have been booked for a few private gigs in 2021,” Seward said. “However, our main focus will be to establish relationships with HOA’s and neighborhoods in general to branch out in more areas. After a busy holiday season, we plan on regrouping in early 2021 to continue to find creative ways to safely bring music and joy to our communities.”
Livestreams and New Music
Amid a year of stages that went dark, musicians adapted by turning their homes into makeshift studios and performing live via social media, their websites and YouTube channels. Locally, Wilson Center launched Ghostlight Series, showcasing featured artists like Chase Johanson, Perry Smith and Delia Stanley. As well, David Dixon, Rebekah Todd, Jeremy Mathews, Mark Sinnis, Travis Shallow and Jesse Stockton regularly posted their own individual livestreams.
Festivals also weren’t left in the lurch — they just looked a little different. Kevin Early McClary hosted May’s “Don’t Leave Your Stoop.” The event raised $1,200 for Nourish NC and featured 20 local musicians throughout the day playing from their homes.
Though 2020 may have stifled in-person audiences, it wasn’t in short supply of inspiration. Many local musicians used the excess of time to create more. Wilmington audiences were graced with new music galore, as heard from Jason Andre, Doug McFarland, Randy McQuay, Justin Lacy, Travis Shallow, Sean Thomas Gerard and David Dixon.
Black Lives Matter Exhibits
Art exhibits were forced to be virtual as the governor’s executive orders required nonessential businesses to shut down, including galleries and museums.
As May rounded the way and the death of George Floyd incited protests in support of Black Lives Matter worldwide, posters became ad-hoc art. Murals took over cities nationwide, making their way into households that tuned into the ever-evolving breaking-news cycle of marches throughout the summer.
Locally, UNCW’s Office of the Arts began curating protest signs for a summer exhibit. Then it put up a Black History Exhibit honoring UNCW’s prominent figures who helped trailblaze for equal rights. Come September, after the chancellor updated UNCW’s Policy on Banners, Posters and Temporary Outdoor Signs, all Black Lives Matter banners displayed on department buildings throughout summer were moved into a virtual art exhibit.
“The ongoing virtual exhibit is a part of a larger campus-wide project,” director of arts engagement Fidias Reyes said in a press release in November. “The Office of the Arts is collaborating with staff, faculty and students to create a public art installation on campus.”
It closed its call in November for artists to propose a Black Lives Matter design, which will center on social justice.
Another BLM installation was erected downtown facing 3rd Street, adjacent to Jervay Freedom Park. However, the mural wasn’t approved without controversy from Wilmington City Council — specifically, Councilman Charlie Rivenbark who called it “racist” and an endorsement of the social justice movement.
UNCW professor Janna Siegel Robertson, Greyson Davis and Cedric Harrison put together a proposal that had to go through various evolutions before landing on “Black Lives Do Matter: End Racism Now.” A group of 18 artists dubbed “Eighteen Forward” painted each 4-foot-by-8-foot letter to represent significant figures or images, such as local artist Minnie Evans and local protesters from lowercase leaders. The installation will be up through August 2021.
Neighborhood Arts Markets
Artists got creative through the pandemic to continue bringing their works to the masses, especially after a year of canceled markets and fairs.
Over the summer, No Boundaries International Art Colony hosted two pop-up events around North 15th Street in downtown Wilmington. No Boundaries’ artists set up booths in various yards to push their paintings, ceramics and other creations. Live music was played by local musician (and UNCW professor) Nicholas Laudadio, and Harry Taylor did tintype portraits outdoors as masked passersby supported them.
In October the Carolina Place/Ardmore Historic Street Car District neighborhood came to life with Art-obefest. More than a dozen front porches transformed into mini markets for local artists and makers. Musicians and poets also performed throughout the day at various neighborhood stops, once again drawing in community-wide support.
When galleries and museums shuttered, it had many rethinking how to present new art to the public. Cameron Art Museum launched #ConnectWithCam, leaning into the virtual platform. It hosted Art Explorer Thursdays for kids via Facebook Live, as well as meditation and art talks. It even showcased the springtime exhibit “Structure in Space and Time – Photography by Phil Freelon” as a virtual gallery.
When CAM finally was able to open to the public in September, it did so celebrating female artists from their collection in “She Persists.” The exhibit also marked the 100th anniversary of the 15th and 19th Amendments, allowing Black people and women their rights to vote (it’s also on display virtually and will remain up through March 2021).
Wilma Daniels Art Gallery, Art in Bloom and New Elements also showcased virtual galleries of local artists, like Janet Triplett, Owen Wexler, Dick Roberts, Gale Smith and Melissa Wilgis, as well as Abby Spangel Perry, Amber Watts and other CFCC faculty artists.
Thalian Hall’s Portico
Pandemic or no pandemic, Thalian Hall’s use of its outdoor portico steps and “stage” facing Princess Street broke the drought of in-person music, theater and comedy in 2020. It was 100% a win.
Thalian launched a reggae jam first in October, featuring three bands and emceed by Night Nurse Reggae Redemption Radio host Kimberly McLaughlin-Smith. Live painting also took place from Cammeron Batanides. It did a comedy showcase as well, and by the end of October, was welcoming Opera House Theatre Company’s socially distanced, outdoor production of “The Rocky Horror Show,” which ran two weekends to sold-out crowds.
Thalian Portico Series wrapped up the year with Opera House’s musical revue “The Piano Men” in November, before bringing bluegrass artists Big Al Hall and Jimmy’s All-Star Bluegrass Revue in December.
Fingers crossed it continues in 2021.
Radio Dramas and Livestreams
Opera House Theatre Co. (OHTC) was able to successfully launch its new year’s show “La Cage aux Folles” in January, followed by “The Sound of Music” in February before it shut down the rest of its season when the novel coronavirus hit in March. Livestreams and pre-filmed shows galore took up the rest of the year, as seen with Thalian Association’s holiday show, and OHTC’s Musical Theatre Mondays, hosted and performed by local actors.
But OHTC’s successful run of “The Rocky Horror Show” was a steal of the year. The company somehow made it even more intriguing by having actors perform a traditionally grope-y show with restraint from touching one another per Covid-19 protocols.
UNCW Theatre Department also had students back on the stage twice in their fall semester — a real highlight being the original show about Black culture, “Am I Next? Voices From Wilmington, NC.” Written by UNCW students, multiple vignettes were created by interviews with local leaders, activists and scholars, and asked questions, like “What does race actually mean? Are you proud of your race? What does the celebration of Blackness or Black culture look like and mean to you?”
Big Dawg Productions also was able to do one full run on stage with “Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End” in February. The company was into the production of “The Book of Will” in March before it had to close the rest of its season. By late spring it was launching the radio drama of Orson Welles’ famed (if not apropos) “War of the Worlds.” And by Christmastime, it brought back its annual tradition of “Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol” as a radio drama.
Big Dawg executive director Steve Vernon chose the radio-drama format with the safety of actors in mind, since they don’t have to rehearse close to each other and can talk into mics. More importantly, he says this retro way to enjoy theater requires audience attention even more.
“I love that radio theater can be such an immersive experience for the audience,” Vernon said. “They really get to use their imagination, which allows them to stay engaged.”
Have arts news? Email Shea Carver at firstname.lastname@example.org