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Dinner theater company holding steady in Ferrum
Director Rex Stephenson talks about the evolution of he Blue Ridge Dinner Theatre over the past three decades. Behind him, second left to right are, actors Willette Thompson, Emily Rose Tucker, Nate Buursma and Anna Holman on stage. (Bulletin photo by Mike Wray)
Three decades after its start, the Blue Ridge Dinner Theatre in Ferrum is going strong.
BRDT started in 1978 with six or seven performances of just one play, "Too Free For Me." Its founder and head, Rex Stephenson, was a drama professor then for Ferrum College.
"A historian found this marvelous case of a black (slave) woman who sued" for freedom from slavery for herself and her children, he said. She won the case, which was tried in 1851 in Franklin County. The play that showed her situation was the first performed at Blue Ridge Dinner Theatre.
"It was a big hit, and we started doing historical plays for a while," Stephenson said.
The early productions were funded with a grant from the Virginia Commission for the Humanities. The three-year funding "gave us a nice, firm base of people who got used to coming" to Ferrum productions, he added.
"Then the money ran out, so we had to go make a real living. That's when we switched to dinner theater, American classics and popular shows."�
People began coming regularly from North Carolina, all over Virginia, and West Virginia. "We live off busses on matinees," Stephenson said.
Stephenson now calls himself "semi-retired. They have a funny title for me, Playwright-in-residence or something," he chuckled.
Except for one year when no shows were done, the program has grown through the years.
BRDT received its permanent home in 1985, when a chapel was converted into a theater. It is a 252-seat thrust theater, meaning that the seating wraps much of the way around the stage.
By 1990s, the production company was "pretty much doing musicals and popular pieces that we knew would draw larger audiences," Stephenson said.
In the beginning, the performers were all Ferrum College drama students. As the season expanded "and the parts became more difficult and we needed more variety," Stephenson began going to booking conventions to hire actors and singers, he said.
For about 12 years, he has been going to these conventions, which are held during the winter in St. Louis, Mo., Cambridge, Ohio, and Boston. Stephenson attends the conventions with an idea of the roles he will need to fill.
"It's the most marvelous thing in the world," he said. Over a three-day period, "you get 700 eager actors. ... They get a minute and a half to sing and dance and act."�
Stephenson selects the performers by mid-March. This year's group includes "two great singers with masters in music, one in opera; two Ph.Ds ... four or five undergrads" and two Ferrum students, he said.
The BRDT is a resident company, meaning that all members of the company must be available to work full time and live at Ferrum College from May through August. Regular BRDT members receive free room and board and a salary. Interns receive free room and board but are not paid. Both kinds of members may earn college credit without paying tuition.
Stephenson said he is pleased with BRDT's success. Even during last year's tough economy, audience numbers were not down, although it was the first year numbers did not grow by 2 or 3 percent, he said. "Better than probably any other company, we've hung on," he added.
"We're trying to keep professional theater in Ferrum six months out of the year," he said. They have shows at Christmas and Easter as well as the summer. "If we can hold on to that, I'm more than happy."�
Founded in 1978, the Blue Ridge Dinner Theatre at Ferrum College has produced four to five major plays per season as well as a number of other productions. Its website is blueridgedinnertheatre.com.
Remaing shows this summer are:
"¢ First Baptist of Ivy Gap by Ron Osborne
Six women come together in their small town Tennessee church to share lives, loves and laughter during World War II years. Twenty-five years later they reunite to share secrets that will keep you in stitches from beginning to end.
Preview: Tuesday, July 6
Matinees: July 7, 8, 13, 14
Evenings: July 10, 17
"¢ The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
In this musical classic from MGM, Dorothy runs away from the neighborhood spinster, meets magical characters and returns to her heart's desires.
Preview: Tuesday, July 20
Matinees: July 21, 22, 27, 28, Aug. 3
Evenings: July 24, 31
"¢ BRDT Benefit: Mark Twain's Last Lecture Tour
Rex Stephenson will make a special appearance as Mark Twain. Celebrating the 100th anniversary year of his death, Stephenson will recount numerous life stories and scenes from his best novels. A portion of the proceeds will be donated to the St. James Food Bank.
Matinee: Aug. 6, 12:30 p.m.
Evening: Aug. 7, 6:30 p.m.
Returning company members for the 2010 season include Nate Buursma, Kelly Sullivan, and Joe Ray.
New company members include: Mary Allison (Ohio), Rachel Blankenship (Virginia), Emily Bramblett (Florida), Micah Hein (Ohio), Cassandra Henwood (Illinois), Blake Holen (Nebraska), and Josey Miller (Pennsylvania).