From Stage To Screen, Asheville Couple Investing To Keep Local Theater Alive

Feb 4, 2021

Mike Lilly (left) and Jeff Benninghofen in the on-screen version of "The Man in the Bright Nightgown," filmed in the Asheville backyard of Mike and Brenda Lilly.

Virtual theater is commonplace during the pandemic—that is, if there’s any theater at all, people are watching it streamed on screen.

Mike and Brenda Lilly are a married couple in Asheville taking virtual theater one step further. They estimate spending about $4,000 of their own to adapt a stage play into a short film.

“The Man in the Bright Nightgown,” based on a one-man stage play of the same title by Greensboro playwright Tom Huey, is a 40-minute film screening through February under the umbrella of Asheville Community Theatre.

“A lot of theaters are in a world of hurt,” Brenda Lilly said. “Anything that is going to continue to bring audience to community theater in any way, I think, is a positive thing.”

Mike Lilly helped bring Huey’s stage play to life more than 30 years ago, and the new filmed version of “The Man in the Bright Nightgown” was an opportunity for him to perform again. He starred in the production staged in 2019 in ACT's 35 Below space. Brenda Lilly grew up in Asheville, but built a career in Los Angeles writing for television. She reworked Huey’s one-person play into a two-person screenplay. 

“We were thinking it’s an easy production, it’s one person, maybe you can just go down to the theater and film it, and I am not a fan of that,” she said. “I’m not a fan of just turning a camera on and letting someone act on stage.”

The Lillys turned their back porch and yard into a production set and hired a handful of faculty and students from Western Carolina University to design the set, light it, direct, film and edit. Brenda Lilly is on Western’s theater faculty and teaches writing there to film and theater students.

 

“I wanted to do a film here,” she said. “Plus there’s the challenge of taking on one thing and turning it into something else, which I enjoy.”

While she doesn’t necessarily envision “The Man in the Bright Nightgown” as the next Netflix offering, Brenda Lilly sees a continued melding of theater and cinema. With film departments at universities throughout the state, she said North Carolina is positioned well to thrive in this industry.

“I came out of kinda big-budget things, where you had a two-hundred-person crew, network budgets,” she said. “To be able to do this, this is very much a new model of what people are looking for in this industry, less-expensive ways, more contained ways to make television.”