By: Robin Pyatt Bellamy, Mountaineer News Contributor
Posted: May 09, 2020 | 09:39PM EST
“You need three things in the theatre — the play, the actors and the audience, and each must give something.” -Kenneth Haigh
It was a long time ago, but my sister was born to be in theater. She didn’t go to Hollywood or anything; instead she went to school, raised a family, and did a lot of volunteer work. For the last few years, her focus has returned her to her passion. She helps with Theatre West Virginia.
For those who don’t know, this is the group that brings you Hatfields and McCoys, Honey in the Rock and many other magnificent productions. With head offices in Beckley, operations are currently split between two donated spaces. General Manager Scott Hill has offices is in United Bank , with the mailing address a post office box. The ticket office is at City National Bank, Beckley and rehearsals are done under Artistic Director, Nick Yurick. Other administrative staff include Meaghan Macey - Company Manager (also director of the professional youth training academy), and Nathan Dunn - Production Manager/Technical Director (also a teacher at the academy). There is a new location they call “The Tree” where it will all come together.
Theatre West Virginia is much more than just an entertainment company. Actors, technicians and other seasonal employees are a combination of local talent, college students/apprentices/interns and others from outside the Beckley area. Many of these folks return almost every year.
Why would they come back? The time it requires is brutal. An additional job is common. TWV is a nonprofit, professional theatre company. The pay is not great. Auditions, rehearsals, costume fittings and other pre-launch necessities fill every available minute, so employers have to be flexible sometimes. Then once they are ready, the summer is filled with amazing theater.
Theatre West Virginia, originally the West Virginia Historical Drama Association, was founded in 1955. Its first production was the outdoor drama, Honey in the Rock, which opened a Cliffside Amphitheatre at Grandview State Park near Beckley on June 27, 1961. Ewel Cornett, a producer in the early 1970’s, commissioned West Virginia native Billy Edd Wheeler to write the feud play, and with both productions running, attendance easily doubled.
Theatre West Virginia began touring the state, performing in community centers and schools. By 1980 the troupe was touring the eastern United States from Florida to Pennsylvania. The talented performers at one point even had marionettes in a show!
Due to financial troubles, the company had limited productions in 2014. So limited in fact that they only presented Hatfields and McCoys. In 2015, Theatre West Virginia returned with Honey in the Rock as well as Annie Get Your Gun and Pippi Longstocking on the schedule. Honey in the Rock, where playwright Kermit Hunter depicts the founding of the Mountain State in 1863.
Hatfields and McCoys, Honey and the Rock, and more recent addition Rocket Boys the Musical are now yearly staples. The actors may change, but those stories are the backbone of the productions. Since 1961, additional productions have included:
These courses are how my stellar sister got involved. Her daughter Emma wanted to enroll, but not alone, so her mom took the class with her. Now they were an official theater family. Emma is enrolled in university, but will still be helping where she can.
That course was in 2015. Since then she has been in the ensemble and played other stage and behind the scenes roles. Last year (2019), she appeared in Annie as Mrs. Pugh, Paradise Park: The Musical as Joyce, and her favorite role, Spirit Hatfield in Hatfields and McCoys. Amy has helped backstage whenever needed, doing anything from helping other actors get into costume, cleaning bathrooms and wrangling child actors. She also serves as member of the TWV Advisory Board and help with grant writing and other fundraising.
Like Hollywood, the theater is not glamorous. Those fortunate to be contracted for a full summer season will begin by a few weeks spending all day in rehearsals. Most of the time they are done outside, requiring sunscreen, insect repellent and large quantities of water. Summer in the hills of West Virginia can be rather unpleasant. When the initial performances begin, rehearsals for the next show also begin. This means that actors are usually rehearsing for one show during the day and performing a different one in the evening. Some, like Brittney Fitzgerald Lester who dances regularly with the company, come back year after year. The season runs from June to the first week of August. That translates to a whole summer of commitment.
You’d have to really love theater to take this on. Some come aboard for internships and apprenticeships, usually for some kind of college or professional credits they may receive. Many are quite young and not from the area. To help mentor these “kids”, Amy houses one or two every summer, and keeps in touch. They have come to visit during the “off season” and chat through apps or talk on the phone almost daily. When I asked why she offers this, she replied, “I like giving the kids an opportunity to stay somewhere that may be a bit more quiet and private than the accommodations provided by the company. I think that I am paying it forward in a way or just doing what I hope someone else might do for one of my girls.”
Each person involved has a different motivation for joining, and different emotions around the participation. They members enjoy meeting many friends, of many differing ages and backgrounds, and from many places. All have the same love of the art of theatre.
Normally, you can catch the love at Cliffside Amphitheatre at Grandview, part of the New River Gorge National River, and part of the US National Park System. Due to COVID-19, the season has been canceled, but early next spring TWV will hold auditions and practices to bring the shows back in Summer 2021. Fundraisers and other events take place in various indoor facilities; this including Woodrow Wilson high school auditorium, and dinner theatre productions at Beckley’s Historic Black Knight Country Club. Once things return to normal, you can contact them through 304-256-6800 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Robin Pyatt Bellamy was born in Point Pleasant, WV in 1961 and grew up in Ravenswood. She is a professional paranormal researcher, family history researcher, and author. Currently living in Toronto, Canada she is the mother of three adult children, grandma to two littles, and a modern day “southern belle”.
Cornett, Ewel "Theatre West Virginia." e-WV: The West Virginia
Encyclopedia. 07 May 2018. Web. 07 March 2020.