A Retrospective of Wilmington’s Rich Performing Arts History & Its Modern-Day Artistic Renaissance with the Opening of CFCC’s Humanities & Fine Arts Center
The Cape Fear region has long been a bastion for the performing arts. In the eighteenth century, amateur theatre companies were found around the state, including Wilmington, N.C. with the original Thalian Association (the current Association is named as the state’s official community theater company). Thomas Godfrey, laid to rest behind Saint James Church in downtown Wilmington, is credited with penning the first play to be written and performed in the American colonies in 1767, “The Prince of Parthia”, which was published in 1765. With the death of Colonel James Innes, a prominent public official for our area, planter and colonial soldier, a bequeath was made to our state to build the first free school for the “youths of North Carolina.” In 1806, the first performance was held in the Innes Academy, built as a school and theatre, constructed on the current site of Thalian Hall. The Innes Academy served Wilmington for 50 years until growth, progress and the desire for larger, fashionable shows in the Port City replaced the Academy with Thalian Hall in 1858. Thalian Hall was a massive investment in the cultural arts of our region, equipped with a great deal of stage technology and built to accommodate ten percent of the entire city population at that time.
The dawn of the 20th century brought film, vaudeville, and other forms of new lively entertainment. Wilmington became a bustling entertainment district with over 25 theatres and performance spaces operating in Wilmington from 1900-1950, including the more well-known lost venues of the Bailey and Bijou theatres, and some of the lesser known ones, including the Majestic, Crystal Palace, Queen, Ritz, Brooklyn, Victoria, Mozart Hall and Joyland. In 1970, the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW) opened the 1,000-seat, Sarah Graham Kenan Auditorium through the generosity of the Kenan family.
The last 25 years have been witness to an explosion of performing arts opportunities in the region: the creation of the Main Attractions Series at Thalian Hall and UNCW Presents at UNCW; major renovations and an expansion of Thalian Hall Center for Performing Arts; the creation of Brooklyn Arts Center; vibrant programming at Cameron Art Museum; renovations of Kenan Auditorium, Community Arts Center, and Greenfield Lake Amphitheatre; and the development of a variety of smaller thematic venues downtown including: City Stage, Red Barn Studios, Jengo’s Playhouse, Browncoat Pub & Theatre, Cape Fear Playhouse, TheatreNow, Ziggy’s by the Sea and Dead Crow Comedy Club, among others. It also brought forward the creation of DREAMS of Wilmington, the current Arts Council of Wilmington and New Hanover County and the Alliance for a Regional Concert Hall (ARCH) in the 1990’s lead by local visionary Dr. Ruth Funk. ARCH is the organization that started the conversation and laid a great deal of groundwork for creating awareness for our community’s need for a major regional performance hall.
As this quarter century comes to a close, it appears that the need has been met with the October 10, 2015 official opening day that marks the finale of the week-long opening celebrations of the Cape Fear Community College Humanities and Fine Arts Center, just two days shy of the 157th year since Thalian Hall’s opening night in 1858. The new, 1,559-seat downtown venue shatters the ceiling for the type of performance that we will be able to experience in the Cape Fear region because of its scale and technology. The programming arm of the Center, Cape Fear Stage, will curate three distinct series: PNC Broadway Series, presenting national touring Broadway productions; Star Series, bringing comedy and concert star power to the stage; and Contemporary Dance Series, hosting new work from around the state, country and the world in our intimate studio theatre space. The Center is not only a place to be entertained, but is also a major laboratory for experiential student learning, offering technical theatre, carpentry, electrics, clothing and costume design, marketing and customer service. The Center will find upwards of 5,000 students going through the building every week to study in 25 classes, laboratories and studios, as well as the performance spaces and administrative offices where students will get hands-on training. UNCW has also recognized the Center as a place where their students can earn academic credit hours from their work with us.
Even before the Center opened, our major venue partners like Thalian Hall Center for the Performing Arts and UNCW’s Kenan Auditorium have maintained close connections with us, and each other to support and collaborate in order to build a stronger cultural quality of life for our region together. Over the past year we have closely coordinated dates and programming to minimize conflicts of major and similar programs on the same nights, as well as developing major partnerships to bring programming to our community: the Dusan Tynek Dance Theatre Residency and Performance, co-presented by UNCW Presents and Thalian Hall; “Disney’s Beauty and Beast” at CFCC’s Humanities and Fine Arts Center, co-sponsored by UNCW Presents; and the test-drive of the Center, “Sound + Space Tour,” co-presented by CFCC’s Humanities and Fine Arts Center and Thalian Hall.
We have also begun to develop ways to unify our volunteer programs, as volunteers are the lifeblood for our venues, keeping our doors open for performances. We have all agreed to utilize the same electronic sign-up system, making it easy for volunteers to work at multiple venues, as well as developing a system for venues to recognize and reward volunteer service at sister venues. It truly is a unique collaboration rarely seen across the country. Interested volunteers may become involved by visiting each venues’ website.
It truly is a period of artistic renaissance for the Cape Fear region. Opening the paper or checking a community calendar any given day offers a wealth of experiences from which to choose. From Broadway to community theatre; symphony orchestra to rock ‘n roll; ballet to contemporary dance; international star power to local up-and-comers; avant garde to traditional roots and blue grass, and beyond, the Cape Fear performing arts scene has you covered!
About CFCC’s Humanities and Fine Arts Center
The Humanities and Fine Arts Center: Cape Fear Community College’s arts hub and eastern North Carolina’s largest and most technologically sophisticated performing arts center is located in downtown Wilmington at 703 N. Third Street.
The Center’s performance hall is designed with three floors that wrap the stage, creating excellent views for every guest. The height and drama of the space provoke a reverent and energizing feel. Whether seated in the Orchestra, Grand Tier, or Balcony, guests enjoy an intimate setting, and the feeling of being part of the show.
The Center’s three-story, glass-walled lobby can comfortably accommodate thousands. Whether our guests are checking in at Ticket Central, visiting one of our concessions counters, or relaxing under the trees in our courtyard, the Center’s spacious design will never feel cramped. Our trained Guest Services staff and volunteers will be with you all the way. We are committed to a culture of hospitality at the Center. Our goal is to make your experience seamless and delightful. Be our guest!
Behind the big stage is our studio theater, which hosts professional and student performances meant for a smaller stage. In between are 25 classrooms, labs, and studios where CFCC arts students train and grow in world-class facilities, becoming what makes Wilmington a performing arts destination. Far more than just a performing arts venue, the Center is a powerful investment in the arts for current and future students. Please learn more about us and our programs at www.capefearstage.com.