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Highlands Playhouse Marks its 80th Birthday at an Artistic and Financial Crossroads

Matt Peiken | BPR News

The remote, Western North Carolina town of Highlands is known for its leafy mountains, tony shops and pricey living. Only 941 people claimed it as their home on the last census.

That doesn’t seem to deter some of the nation’s top young stage talent from spending their summers at Highlands Playhouse, building up their resumes and entertaining a largely senior audience with the tried and true in musical theater.

The current production, “Damn Yankees,” closes the Playhouse’s 80th season. Highlands Playhouse is formally celebrating its 80th season with a July 27 party before and after the staging of “Damn Yankees,” and performances of that show continue through Aug. 4.

“When we go to our New York auditions, we can have 4,000 to 5,000 actors auditioning for us. We’re actually at a point where we’re busting at the seams,” said Bill Patti, in his sixth season as artistic director. “We try to create and environment where coming to Highlands is an experience rather than another gig for them.”

The theater is at a crossroads, both artistically and financially. Housing costs, alone, account for about 15 percent of the company’s annual budget, which two years ago was just over $600,000. Before Patti arrived, Highlands Playhouse focused on productions with smaller casts. Now, Patti sprinkles the calendar with large-cast musicals.

“We joke that we’re putting Disneyworld on a postage stamp. We want to do those big shows,” he said. “We’re going to New York and finding dancers, New York actors. We want to be able to at least believe that no show is unproduceable here.”

Costs are up, but so is attendance. Directors says “Guys and Dolls,” which preceded “Damn Yankees” this season, drew some of company’s largest audiences in years. That’s saying something because, at $40 a pop, only Flat Rock Playhouse in Hendersonville has seats that can cost more.

But Highlands is unique, even among the region’s most prosperous communities. Its downtown is polished with high-end boutiques and pricey restaurants, manicured facades and sidewalks paved with brick.

Vangie and Rich Curtis built their lives in community theater before moving to Highlands 12 years ago. Vangie Rich had performed in “On Golden Pond” 42 times before Highlands invited her into their production -- it was the first time she’d ever been paid to perform. Today, the Riches are in their 80s attend nearly every production.

“Just coming to this historic place, it had a feel about it, almost like there were ghosts in the back,” Vangie Rich said. “I keep telling them I’m retired, I’m not doing anymore plays, and they say ‘We’re we’re doing ‘Calendar Girls’ next spring,’ and I say ‘I don’t know -- can I have a wheelchair?’”

The Riches and other regulars turn out for quaint and arguably dated shows that fill Highlands’ calendar. Kate Jones is a 22-year-old who spent recent seasons behind the scenes at Highlands. She now studies theater and arts administration at UNC-Chapel Hill and says, even there, attracting young people into the audience is a challenge.

“No matter what happens with this company, our audience is going to pretty much be the same. But there are a lot more younger families that are coming to town,” Jones said. “I would love to see a more diverse audience base, but you gotta get people started at a young age, and engaged in that.”

Credit Matt Peiken | BPR News
Lance Matzke (right) greets audiences in the Highlands Playhouse lobby during the opening night of "Damn Yankees."

“You certainly don’t want to disappoint your core audience and the people who have supported you,” said Lance Matzke, who is only in his second year as the managing director for Highlands.

“At the same time, you have to be a viable theater, and as our community skews younger, so will our productions.”

Along with the stagefare, Highlands Playhouse is also a one-screen movie theater, and it will continue showing movies when the stage company moves after next season to an expanded Highlands Performing Arts Center. Some worry about losing the charm and acoustics that come with performing in a former school auditorium built in the 1930s.

“I wanted to be in the driver’s seat of this place from the first time I walked in. It’s got a really Wes Anderson vibe, it’s got red velvet curtains, it’s got the vintage red seats,” Matzke said. “To me, it’s just perfect. It looks grand. There’s a ton of sentiment in the town about the theater itself, but the Highlands company existed before we got into this space and it will afterwards.”


Matt Peiken was BPR’s first full-time arts journalist.
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