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Dave Hart, who inspired young actors, succumbs to cancer

David Earl "Dave" Hart, an actor and director and most of all passionate drama teacher who ignited the creative muse for hundreds of young actors, died at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem Wednesday, April 8, after a long battle with cancer, the Flat Rock Playhouse said. He was 61.

Hart was an accomplished actor who also created beautiful works of art from watercolors and crafted theatrical design. But he was best known as "the 'HART' of Studio 52 and YouTheatre," the Flat Rock Playhouse said on its Facebook page.

"He was just a gentle soul, so loving and so giving," Lisa K. Bryant, the theater's creative artistic director, said in an interview Thursday. "He cared about those kids and their families. He cared about the theater. He was just an endless fountain of support and passion and encouragement. He was a unicorn. He was just so full of magic and so special. I think his kindness and warmth will be missed the most."

Born Jan. 13, 1959, in Glen Cove, New York, to the late Donald Wood and Lucille Frances (Avery) Hart, Dave was an artist, actor, director in the theater, teacher and a minister. He performed in many national tours and regional theatres from Maine to Seattle, Washington.

He is survived by his loving companion of 10 years, Lawrence “Wade” McNeilly of Hendersonville, and their beloved pit bull mix, Tommy,  a sister, Cynthia H . “Cindy” Stevens and her husband, Robert, of Farmington, Maine, nieces and nephews Travis B. Stevens and his wife, Jennifer, of Farmington, Mallory W. Hafenecker and her husband, Travis, also of Farmington, Shelby H. Stevens and her husband, Chris Long, of Lincolnville, Maine, and Avery T. Preston and her husband, Dean, of Penbroke, Maine, along with several great-nieces and nephews.

"A passionate advocate for arts education, Dave inspired hundreds of students to express themselves, believe in themselves, pursue their dreams and flourish," the Facebook tribute said. "He was a passionate leader and thoughtful director whose productions were touching, stimulating, and adored. He was kind, sensitive, and devoted to his family, his friends, his students, and his Playhouse. He has left an immeasurable legacy for our students, our fellow Vagabonds, and our community. He was loved by all, and we will miss him deeply. Our hearts and prayers are with his family at this time.

"You will be forever missed," the Playhouse said. "Your casual 'bum-bum-bum' bass notes resonating through the halls will be forever remembered in our hearts and minds. The angel chorus is rejoicing for their glorious gain."

After a successful year in 2019 and a strong box office start to this season, the coronavirus shutdown has brought challenges anew. The Playhouse canceled productions through mid-July, bumped three big shows to next year and scrapped the apprentice class for the first time in its 68-year history. The news of Hart's passing compounded the sadness for the Vagabond Nation.

"That's the part that's the worst right now," Bryant said. Hart had been battling cancer for some time. He received a bone marrow transplant last summer "and was progressing, slowly, but progressing." He recently "had a tummy ache," she said. "They took him into ICU and he went very quickly after that. His body gave out after such a long time of being poked and prodded and medicined."

Hart joined the Playhouse in 2000 as an actor, appearing on stage as Julian Marsh, in 42nd Street), Jud Fry in Oklahoma, Dickinson in 1776, Emile de Becque in South Pacific, opposite Lisa K. Bryant, Jonathan in Arsenic Old Lace and Abel Frake in State Fair.  After an artistic residency in the Franklyn County, Maine, school system, he started teaching fulltime at the Playhouse in 2008.

"He and I were co-teachers together before I went to North" Henderson High School to head the theater department, Bryant said. When Bryant became creative artistic director, Hart became her close collaborator as associate artistic director in charge of teaching and the youth productions.

He directed the youth and family theater productions of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, The Orphan Train, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Disney’s Peter Pan Jr., The Boxcar Children, Disney’s Mulan Jr., Charlotte’s Web, I never Saw Another Butterfly, The Wizard of Oz, James and the Giant Peach and The Trail of Tears and  the Playhouse production of Driving Miss Daisy.

"To say that David (I met him as David Earl Hart) was a dear and generous soul or an amazing artist or a gifted and nuanced actor would be totally accurate but would still leave so many descriptives unsaid," Dennis Maulden, the set designer who has been with the Playhouse since 1967, said in a tribute on Facebook. "Until I can summon those words, I have to resign myself to finding his expressive face, his directorial insights, and his loving spirit reflected by and embodied in the legions of theatre students and friends who found through him the vocabulary of their art, their place in the world...their creative home."

"With Covid, we can't do anything (with a crowd) but we are going to have a 'Heart to Hart' celebration of his life later in the summer when it's safe for everybody," Bryant said. A sister who lives in Maine is starting the Dave Hart Scholarship Fund for children who want to attend Studio 52, as the youth theater department is called now. The scholarship will serve as a memorial "to support his love, which was the kids, the families and the theater."

What else might people want to know about Dave Hart?

"That he's just loved by legions and legions of people," Bryant said.