With Wortham's Embrace, Asheville's Different Strokes Fulfilling Its Own And Theater's Missions

Sep 16, 2019

Until now, renting the 500-seat Diana Wortham Theater was impractical and unaffordable for smaller-budgeted arts organizations. But a renovation and rebranding has opened two smaller, black box spaces at the renamed Wortham Center for the Performing Arts, and the Different Strokes Performing Arts Collective is the center’s first formally recognized resident company.

Different Strokes is premiering “The Education of Ted Harris” by Asheville playwright Jamie Knox, Sept. 12-28. 

The marquee of the Wortham Center for the Performing Arts
Credit Sandra Stambaugh

“Wortham has parented us up to this new level, a level that it would have probably taken us another two to three years to achieve,” said Stephanie Hickling-Beckman, the founding director of Different Strokes.

Over the company’s previous eight seasons, Hickling-Beckman scrambled for reliable performance and rehearsal space. This season, Different Strokes is producing four plays in the larger of the Wortham’s new spaces, which can hold up to 100 people. Hickling-Beckman sees the downtown marquee as a potential game-changer.

“Just having the black boxes themselves does a lot for the arts in general,” she said. “It gives us a place to perform, and that’s not just for Different Strokes, but all the other companies in town. Number two, for us, a lot more visibility. You’d think after 10 years, more people would know who Different Strokes is, but there are so many people who are still first-timers at our shows.”

The Wortham first opened in 1992 as a community-focused mission and, last year, 40 different local groups rented the main stage. But Rae Geoffrey, the center’s director, noticed a glaring absence: Local artists and audiences of color. She sees the more affordable spaces as one piece of the solution. By inviting Different Strokes as a resident company of the Wortham, Geoffrey wants to signal a welcome to others of color.

“The timing turned out perfectly for this one where our board was really committed to engaging in diversity, equity and inclusion planning,” Geoffrey said. “Like any relationship, it’s really a two-way street. We really hope we both develop deeper ties to our audiences, both expand our audiences and both meet financial goals.”

Hickling-Beckman is eager to uphold her end of that bargain. She’s among the rare black women running theater companies anywhere in this country. But while nearly three-quarters of her shows have prominently featured actors of color, only 17 percent of her cast members have been of color. Her company recently received a $10,000 private grant to hire more artists of color.

But the resident company title doesn’t buy a privilege unavailable to other local companies. Different Strokes is paying to rehearse and perform in the new space as any local renter would, and the company is responsible for its marketing and production costs. But the Wortham rental buys box office and staff support, along with space on the lighted marquee.

Geoffrey and Hickling-Beckman said attendance will only be one measure of success. By another measure, the new spaces are already working as planned. Other first-time local renters include the playwright and performer Judy Calabrese, the Blue Ridge Pride Fest Pageant and the Asheville Improv Festival, which hosts one of its three nights in October at the Wortham.

“All we’ve been doing for the past 10 years is putting on shows and I haven’t had time to develop the company,” Hickling-Beckman said. “It wasn’t just a matter of me directing, I had to get there early and start up the concession stand and make sure I had people in the ticket booth, so I was doing a lot of things to take away from time and ability to develop the company.”