First staged in 1937, The Lost Colony it is the nation’s premier and longest-running symphonic drama. Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paul Green, The Lost Colony’s 77th anniversary season opens May 30 and plays through Aug. 22, 2014 at Manteo’s Waterside Theatre, on North Carolina’s Outer Banks.
The Lost Colony is the “grandfather” of all outdoor dramas and is produced by the Roanoke Island Historical Association (RIHA), a non-profit whose mission is to celebrate the history of the first English colonies on Roanoke Island, North Carolina, and to honor the founders of The Lost Colony symphonic drama through drama, education, and literature.
Over 200 actors, technicians, designers and volunteers rehearse each May to bring The Lost Colony to life for another summer season. The production is enormous. The stage itself is over three times larger than most Broadway stages in New York. You will be seated in the center of the stage area with action happening on three sides of you and even sometimes right next to you in the aisle. Come see epic battles and Indian dances. Experience the sorrow and heartbreak of tragedy and loss. Witness the pageantry of the Queen and her court and celebrate the birth of Virginia Dare. There is music, laughter, romance and dance. The Lost Colony is widely acknowledged as the precursor to the modern American Broadway Musical.
You should plan on arriving one half hour prior to your first scheduled event. For example if you’re doing the backstage tour at 7:00, arrive by 6:30. This gives you plenty of time to park, pick up your tickets, take some pictures, etc. Parking is very close to the box office but there is about a 150 yard walk from the box office into the theatre, so plan accordingly.
The theatre opens for seating one half hour prior to curtain, but the rain-shelters are open at 6:00. Restrooms, gift shop and concessions are available.
The play begins promptly at 8:00 (7:30 on Mondays). Late arrivals may be held from going to their seats at the discretion of the house manager.
The drama is performed in two one hour acts with a 15 minute intermission.
By ‘people’s Theatre’, I mean theatre in which plays are written, acted and produced for and by the people for their enjoyment and enrichment and not for any special monetary profit.”
Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Green wrote those words about The Lost Colony in 1938, a year after its debut. By then, America’s first outdoor symphonic drama was a critical and popular success, proof that “people’s theatre” could work. But it wasn’t always a guaranteed success.
Commissioned by Roanoke Island residents, who had a long tradition of celebrating their place in American history, The Lost Colony was born out of a desire by locals to commemorate the 350th Anniversary of the birth of Virginia Dare in 1937.
North Carolina’s Paul Green penned the production, which was a unique combination of drama, song, and dance, while Roanoke Islanders set to work building the magnificent Waterside Theatre on the very spot where the colonists settled. On July 4, 1937, The Lost Colony opened to a packed house, despite the economic hardship of the Great Depression.
The show was intended to run only through the end of that summer. But when Franklin D. Roosevelt attended on August 18, 1937, the nation’s eyes were fixed on the production, assuring that there would be subsequent seasons.
Since then, the production has seen its share of challenges and outright disasters. World War II brought the lights down on the show for four years as German U-boats prowled the sea just off the Outer Banks. In 1947, Waterside Theatre burned to the ground, only to be quickly rebuilt by local residents. And in 1960, Hurricane Donna roared over Roanoke Island, sweeping most of Waterside Theatre into the sound. The Theatre was reconstructed in time for the 1961 season.
Over 70 years in production, The Lost Colony has evolved into a statewide and national treasure. It has served as the training ground for over 5,000 actors and technicians, including such famous personalities as Andy Griffith, Terrance Mann, William Ivey Long, and Senator Marc Basnight. It has entertained over three million people from all walks of life since its debut in 1937.
But, in the end, The Lost Colony belongs to the people of Roanoke Island who have cherished and nurtured the drama from its infancy.
The House that Skipper Bell Built
Roanoke Island’s Waterside Theatre, the star-canopied home of The Lost Colony, sprang from the mind and talent of a cigar-chewing personality known affectionately as Skipper.” Albert Quentin “Skipper” Bell, a tall Englishman from Yorkshire, relocated to Canada then to North Carolina in the late 1920s. When asked why he chose northeastern North Carolina as his new home, he replied, “I thought the place was bloody tropical.”
In the early 1930s Bell was working in Edenton as a landscaper when Frank Stick, an artist and historical researcher, enticed him to move to the Outer Banks. Stick had designed a small, log-structured village to represent the 16th-century “Cittie of Raleigh,” obtaining Works Progress Administration (WPA) funds to build it on Roanoke Island.
A product of the Yorkshire Trade School system, Bell was adept at the little-known skills of thatching and constructing log buildings. He soon became the supervisor of construction for Stick’s project, which was raised on the grounds of what is now Fort Raleigh National Historic Site.
In 1936, before Bell could even think of returning to Edenton, Bradford Fearing, chairman of the Roanoke Colony Memorial Association (RCMA), convinced him to work on another project—the construction of an amphitheatre for a play about America’s lost colony. Bell, working closely with playwright Paul Green, supervising director Fred Koch and stage director Sam Selden, began work on the design. Then, using labor from the Civilian Conservation Corps camp and materials supplied through WPA funding, construction followed. About six months later, Bell and his team completed the daunting task.
The original Waterside Theatre provided simple, backless bench seating for 3,500 patrons. Rain shelters, restrooms and concession stands were yet to come. Drinks and snacks were sold by barkers who peddled their products from the aisles of the house. Bell referred to the main stage as his permanent set—a log-structured settlement area that included a chapel, four cabins and ramparts. His house-right and house-left stages were transition areas that softened the proscenium walls, allowing the audience to feel close to the performance.
The house-right stage accommodated a choir loft for singers and the organist, and a small performance area Bell dubbed the “Queen’s stage,” created for the performance of the intimate Queen’s chamber scene. The house-left stage featured the historian’s box and another small performance area called the “Indian stage,” used as the setting for King Wingina’s camp.
Under Bell’s watch, Waterside Theatre remained remarkably intact for 10 years, despite hurricanes, erosion and the unrelenting Outer Banks sun. But on July 24, 1947, disaster struck when a fire broke out in the backstage area. Cast, crew, local residents and fire departments battled the flames to no avail. The damage was immense. The entire main stage, left wing, two dressing rooms and the scenery docks were destroyed. The only items saved were the costumes, tossed into the sound by costumer Irene Smart Rains, and the assembly bell, which refused to burn.
There was no possibility of a performance that night, so the company and local residents solemnly gathered on the main stage amid the smoking embers of the theatre. The season would have to be cancelled. Or so they thought. Bell pulled actor Bob Armstrong (John Borden) aside and told him he could rebuild the theatre in five or six days if he had the manpower. New logs were no problem; he needed helpers. “Skipper told me to go out there and be John Borden,” Armstrong said. “Get him a work force. And I did. That was the night I really became John Borden.” True to his word, Bell and a volunteer crew of hundreds of actors, technicians and residents rebuilt the theatre. Six nights later, the lights went up on one of the most emotional performances of the show ever witnessed.
But disaster was to strike again.
Following the close of the 1960 season, Hurricane Donna roared over Roanoke Island with 100 mph winds. A storm surge destroyed one side of the backstage area and seriously weakened the main stage. Once again, Bell came to the rescue. Over the course of the next two years, he disassembled the remaining stage structures and rebuilt the entire theatre, completing enough of the structure to open in 1961.
A few years later, after cleaning and securing the theatre he built—and rebuilt—Bell passed away on Sept. 11, 1964. In 1967, a plaque in his memory was unveiled at Waterside Theatre. But one of the most lasting memorials to the legendary architect, whom North Carolina author and journalist Ben Dixon MacNeill called “the English-born doer of miracles on Roanoke Island,” is the theatre itself. Bell’s timeless design is still present to greet every audience member who attends a production of The Lost Colony. He understood, as the Queen did, that to create and sustain any project or dream, it is necessary to “make its first foundations strong, then build atop of it.” As long as there is a Waterside Theatre, Bell, the “tamer of darkness, fire and flood” will be remembered.
Photographs and production credits:
- Directed by Robert Richmond
- 2008 Choreography by Mira Kingsley
- 2009 Choreography by Sean Kelly
- Production Design by William Ivey Long
- Lighting Design by Jim Hunter
This content was originally published at the William Ivey Long website and is reproduced here with his kind permission.