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Playhouse supporters celebrate old and the new

Playhouse marketing director Dane Whitlock (right) thanks Bob Otto as Charlotte Otto looks on. Playhouse marketing director Dane Whitlock (right) thanks Bob Otto as Charlotte Otto looks on.

Local folks know of the early days of the Flat Rock Playhouse on the Great Flat Rock — the circus tent, the Lowndes House and then the performance barn still used today. But the theater founder’s plunge into drama was 80 years ago, when young Robert William Smith boarded a ship in Liverpool for Baltimore.

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First taking the name Robroy McGregor, he later chose Robroy Farquhar, from his mother’s family, and immediately began doing what he was made to do. He organized a play-reading group in New York City with fellow actors who bounced from stage to stage, in New York, Bedford Springs, Pa., and Miami. They called themselves Vagabonds. In Miami, Robroy heard about a place in the North Carolina mountains where Floridians liked to summer. His dream of opening a summer theater was about to hatch.
On Monday night, supporters of the Flat Rock Playhouse gathered at the theater’s downtown venue to look back on 80 years of the Vagabond and Farquhar’s lifelong achievement, which became the State Theatre of North Carolina in 1961, and to celebrate the 2017 season.
A respectable-sized audience that half-filled the Main Street theater-in-the-round heard Vagabonds describe how much the Playhouse had meant to them.
After a live performance of recent Music on the Rock tributes to Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and James Taylor, Artistic Creative director Lisa K. Bryant welcomed the guests with a dozen thank you’s and a tribute to the devotion of actors. Eighty-five percent of professional actors are out of work at some point in the year yet they never give up.
“The job will end,” she said. “It’s live theater. Even on the highest level of the great Broad Way the show always ends. And then what?” They go on. “They do it because they have to, because it’s inside of them.”
Set designer Dennis Maulden, the unofficial Flat Rock Playhouse historian who exhausted his life savings to fund his apprenticeship in 1966, made a plug for the new Playhouse exhibit at the Heritage Museum just up the street from the Playhouse Downtown.
Paige Posey, an actor, director and former Playhouse administrator, is currently directing “Tuna Christmas” and serving as board president.
“The Playhouse is in good hands,” she said. “The staff is amazing, the Board of Directors is engaged and working hard.”
Patrick Clanton, currently starring in “Smokey Joe’s Café,” recalled stepping on to the property as a college sophomore from Elon University.
“Many theaters are trying to start a program like this and they’re just not quite there,” he said. “There’s something magic in the air in Flat Rock. From the moment I got here I knew this was the place I was supposed to be.”
A surprise announcement recognized a large donation from Playhouse patrons Bob and Charlotte Otto, who moved from Cincinnati to Lake Keowee in the South Carolina Upstate six years ago.
Bob was an international manufacturing manager based at General Electric’s aircraft engine plant. Charlotte retired as global external relations officer for Procter & Gamble and has now “re-retired” from a consulting job with Weber Shandwick, a large public relations firm. The Ottos were stunned to find the theater that matched big-city quality when they drove up the mountain from their lake home.
“It’s extraordinary,” Charlotte said. “A big part of it is the resourcefulness and creativity people bring to their craft here. Just look at Dennis and the sets he designs.”
“This is not a bunch of amateurs hanging around,” Bob added. “This is a first-class theater and the productions they put on are just wonderful.”
Having emerged from a near-death experience five years ago, the Playhouse is on more solid footing. The mood on Monday night was decidedly more upbeat than donor events darkened by the grim reaper’s shadow in 2012 and 2013. The Playhouse still needs revenue beyond ticket sales, which was one reason for the 80th anniversary celebration and official 2017 season kickoff.
“We’re still struggling,” Bob Otto said. “That’s the way it is. Because you don’t get all of your income from ticket sales. It doesn’t come from tax money. It is a nonprofit. You have to have a lot of donors, you have to have a lot of corporate people and you have to have a lot of individuals.
“The bottom line here, all of this discussion tonight was about family. We are a family, in this whole town, in this whole region, and as a family, whatever your background, whatever your education, whatever your political bent, the one thing that we need to all come together to do is the support of Flat Rock theater. That is our family, that is the organization that nurtures the new stars of tomorrow. This is what it’s all about.”