PENDER COUNTY — Community theater is a big part of the arts and culture scene in Wilmington, with more than 50 shows produced throughout the year. Soon, a growing municipality on its outskirts may have its own theater group to entertain audiences as well.
Untitled Theatre Productions is the brainchild of Emily Graham, an actress who has performed in upward of three dozen or so local productions in the last decade. In the next year, she hopes her love for the stage will be present in her hometown of Hampstead.
Graham is hosting a community meeting Wednesday, Sept. 6, 7 p.m., at Hampstead Annex Building, to garner feedback and assess volunteer interest to make it happen.
“There’s just nothing like that out here,” Graham said. “I’m looking forward to getting everybody in the room, talk about my vision for Untitled and what it means to me, which is: We’re gonna build a community theater group together — that’s why there’s no title. It’s open; whatever we make it to be, it will be.”
The actress — last seen as the mother in Thalian Association’s “A Christmas Story” — heads the Rookie program for TACT, which draws in new youth to theater productions. Spurring a love for the stage has also been passed on to her own children — all five — who have an interest in theater.
“But all of us doing it is very difficult — the drive to Wilmington,” she said, with added traffic, different schedules and costs rising for everyday needs. “So that was the impetus to start a theater company in Hampstead closer to where we live.”
Graham — who received her bachelor’s of arts in theater from the University of Iowa — was talking with a friend, Jaime Alberti, at a cheer banquet last year, musing over the idea. Their children are in theater together and realized the need is there.
“Jaime immediately was like: ‘How can I help?’” Graham recalled.
Alberti connected Graham to Zach White at Pender County Parks and Recreation about the use of Hampstead Annex’s auditorium, which can seat 240 people, to stage the shows. Pender County representatives will be at Wednesday’s meeting as well.
“At this time no plans, details, or agreements have been made,” White wrote in an email to Port City Daily last week.
Graham is hopeful the use of the Annex will be Untitled’s homebase, marking one large hurdle off the long list of needs. She has rehearsal spaces secured through area churches and dance studios.
Graham also is beginning to fundraise for Untitled, with a goal to get $25,000 upfront to launch the first show. A chunk will go toward securing rights and covering sound and lighting. Set design, makeup, hair, costumes, choreography, orchestra, and all the creative team will need to be procured. Graham will be directing the shows.
“I’m being paid zero,” Graham added. “This first go ‘round, it’s going to be all volunteer-based, except for possibly the musicians, lighting and sound — that might be something that we have to pay for. This is not a money-making venture; it’s really to create, put it out there and pour it back into Untitled, so that we can keep it going.”
Graham doesn’t have a musical title in mind quite yet to launch the first show. She envisions ticket costs to be around $15, with shows running two weekends. Money from sales will be put back into the company to continue bringing more productions.
“The performers I’m not worried about — people are going to come out of the woodwork. They always do,” she added.
Alberti said the amount of talent in Hampstead and surrounding Pender County is vast. She has two children, Topsail High schoolers Lillian and Natalie, active in the arts. Natalie has been in Thalian Association and Opera House productions, and attended the North Carolina School of the Arts Summer Drama College Conservatory Prep Program last summer. She also is set to appear in the pilot of local filmmaker Jonas Pate’s (“Outer Banks”) new show, revolving around teenagers starting a band, The Runarounds, and going on tour.
Natalie has been helping Graham spread the word on the initiative, creating an Instagram to get out the news about the meeting.
“There are limited opportunities out here for both children and adults to participate in theatrical arts in Pender County,” Alberti wrote in an email to PCD.
The closest theater company outside of Wilmington’s many is in Onslow County. Sneads Ferry Community Theater — where Graham first performed locally when she moved to the area — suspended shows in January 2022.
“Many of the area’s schools are no longer able to offer chorus or similar vocal courses due to lack of funding, space, or perhaps perceived value for this type of art-based program,” Alberti added. “Just like the recent community-based choirs that have emerged for our youth because of it, we need to do all we can to support the music, visual and theater arts programs in our schools and community while we can.”
Alberti said Pender County officials have been “extremely supportive” about expanding its offerings. It already hosts movie nights, games, tournaments, concerts and other community events.
“Zach [White] also encouraged us to seek guidance and support from the leaders of the Pender County Arts Council, including the mayor of Burgaw, Ms. Olivia Dawson,” Alberti said.
Eventually, Untitled will evolve into offering classes, workshops, and camps. Alberti would also like to see shows eventually scaled at the almost 800-seat historic Penderlea Auditorium in Willard, roughly 10 miles north of Burgaw.
“But we’re gonna start small,” Graham said. “It’s really grassroots at this point and so I want to see who is out there, who would be willing to help.”
The meeting will include a presentation about Untitled, with the goal to start with two productions a year: one adult and one children’s musical. Graham will answer questions from the audience and assess volunteer interest.
“It’s an avenue for those who want to explore or excel in any or all elements of theater, from singing, dancing, acting, art, music, set design, lighting, costuming, or even directing,” Alberti said. “Theatre brings people together. It inspires. It tells stories. It unites people from various backgrounds and experiences to create something magical and beautiful.”
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