Feature: NACC Theatre

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On rural Sand Mountain in northeast Alabama, a community college theatre department strives to produce Broadway-caliber shows using state-of-the-art technology and an array of local talent.

by RAY MACON

They’ve brought magic to the stage. Complex details are standard parts of every show. Want to see a helicopter landing on the set? Maybe a Cadillac driving into the audience area? How about watching buildings transform into a wall during a depiction of the French Revolution?

If you like that way of limitless thinking, you would enjoy the theatre productions at Northeast Alabama Community College, located eight miles northwest of Fort Payne, Ala. The campus sits on 117 acres with 18 buildings for instruction in everything from science to criminal justice to the arts.

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]“We attempt, as close as possible, to produce Broadway-caliber shows,” says Mark Webb, theatre director and instructor at NACC. “It is changing all the time…the scale of the productions.”

Any successful revival of a play requires imagination, creative scenery and flipping the script.

The NACC Theatre program, directed by Webb and Brad Archer (scenic/ lighting/technical director and instructor), has been recognized multiple times as one of America’s finest. Not many theatre companies would brave “Les Misérables,” “Into the Woods,” “The Wizard of Oz” or the beloved “Steel Magnolias.” NACC Theatre has conquered all these and more.

“I tell the company that every cast member has to be better than the origi – nal,” Webb says. “Otherwise it will not be good, not fresh enough for our loyal audiences who might have seen the show before.”

NACC performances draw locals and people from across the region, seat – ing 10,000 to 12,000 patrons each year.

Webb, who has spent a near-lifetime in the theatre, is Alabama born, raised and educated. At 13, he performed in his first play in Guntersville, Ala, filling the role of Aslan in “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.” He attended high school at the Alabama School of Fine Arts in Birmingham, Ala., earned his bachelor’s degree in theatre at the University of North Alabama and his master’s from the University of Montevallo. Webb has appeared in approximately 100 plays and directed more than 90. He’s made a home for himself in Rainsville, Ala., and a name for the local community college’s theatre program at the same time.

“We characterize ourselves as a ‘college-community theatre,’” Webb says. “We’ve done so many of the big-name shows – as big as they get. Thankfully, Archer can make them fit.”

The NACC Theatre Department holds its showsat the expansive Tom Bevill Lyceum Hall. The stage spans 54 feet, and the theatre seats 724 people. Most college theatres are half this size, and many theatres in New York City are too small to handle large productions NACC has undertaken. Webb says the space gives the company an opportunity to think big.

“Can we create worlds and ideas that may give us a different impression and force us to think?” Archer asks. “We have an obligation as a form of art to present things that might not be so comfortable for us. And sometimes this takes a big production.”

There are few shows bigger than “Les Misérables,” which the school produced in spring 2014. Based on the novel by French writer Victor Hugo, the show is powerful, sad – and three hours in length. NACC utilized 130 students and community members for the enormous cast and crew.

“We did some things in the show that had not been done before,” Webb says. “Our two main set pieces, large buildings, suddenly fractured in half to become the rebel barricade. In our research, we found ourselves to be the only company to present the show in that manner.”

NACC doesn’t have a problem finding crowds to fill the seats. “Our patrons help to keep our tickets affordable,” says Regan McClung, theatre office manager. “[NACC] President David Campbell ensures that we have all the resources we need to keep abreast of today’s evolving technologies.”

If you live nearby, there’s probably a space for you in a future show. Our auditions are open,” Webb says. “They have been that way for years. We couldn’t do these large productions without the help from the local community. The only requirement – you have to be at least 9 years old.”

Growing young talent doesn’t come cheap. The college provides more than 50 fine-arts scholarships each year at a cost of more than $220,000.

Take a walk around the beautiful NACC campus, and you will see the word “community” a lot. Leaders of the college are proud of the arts and cultural experiences the institution provides.

“We offer choral music, concert and jazz bands, a musical performance chorus, as well as art, writing and literature and the theatre,” Campbell says.

“We consider providing these fine-arts programs to our community an essential part of our mission as a college. “Our Theatre Department has a history of excellence stretching back some 30 years, when the department was founded by Mrs. Ann Everett. Before 1982, Jackson and DeKalb counties had no arts outlets.” The theatre has moved twice since being born in a gymnasium (with an audience of 22) in 1983.

Webb and Archer have pushed NACC productions to even higher levels of art, Campbell says.

Despite challenges associated with education funding, NACC makes theatrea priority. And the local community has embraced the program.

“Seeing someone you know and love on the stage really does make a difference in how you feel about the show,” McClung says. She has been working with the company for 12 years and acted in “It’s A Wonderful Life” and “Blood Brothers.

“My personal tastes for performances always lean toward the shows with originality and creativity,” McClung says. “I look for well-written scripts, the show’s particular commitment to quality and detail. ‘West Side Story’ and ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ were two of my favorite production.”

All of these require a bit of stage magic, as in the 2009 show ‘Miss Saigon,’ a re-telling of the famous opera ‘Madame Butterfly’ by Giacomo Puccini. The cast was large, and there were cultural differences to overcome. A helicopter and Cadillac were needed to match the original Broadway effects.

“That’s the wonderful thing about theatre, there is an illusion of reality,” Archer says. “Because of the blades, lights, sound, we can blind the audience to a degree. You see the helicopter, but you don’t perfectly see it so you accept that it is real.”

Archer recreated the town of Liverpool, England, on stage for the 013 production of “Blood Brothers.” Other shows like “The Mousetrap,” “Second Samuel” and “Arsenic & Old Lace” required building entire homes on stage.

Some are on turntables and carousels to reveal other scenes.

NACC’s summer 2015 offering was a revival of 2006’s “The Foreigner” by Larry Shue, about a devilish plot to get a Southern fishing lodge condemned. The comedy was a near-sellout.

Baby Boomers Linda and Robert drove an hour from Huntsville, Ala., to see the play. “We loved their production of ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’ [Fall 2013]” Linda says. “Since then, we’ve come six or seven times. We really enjoy them.”

Janna Harris is in the audience to support her daughter Emily, who is attending NACC for training in the fashion industry. “She loves this theatre and has worked as costume coordinator several times,” Harris says. “This will prepare her for the movie, television or theatre industries.” In the lyceum lobby, well-dressed 20-somethings rub elbows with older fans who took courses in the arts 40 years ago.

“My grandfather was a patron of this theatre,” says NACC student Matthew Patrick. “People in the community talk about it. They support it with their own money.”

Patrick attests to being a theatre aficionado. Having seen plays in places ranging from Frankfurt, Germany, to New York City to New Orleans, Patrick is sincere about the work of his college theatre department.

“It’s very popular, and there’s a reason for that,” he smiles. “It’s good.”

Travelers cross many borders to see works produced by the NACC community. Pat Fawcett got on a plane and arrived a day early from Oregon to see her granddaughter act in “The Foreigner.” “I wouldn’t have missed it,” Fawcett says.

A rising star, Candice Fawcett played Catherine, a former debutante stranded in the middle of nowhere. The first time she and her boyfriend appear in the play, it is beginning to rain outside the set. The entire front row shifts backward when Catherine, in a manner more like the bride of Frankenstein than a former belle of the ball, yells “I’m pregnant!” – right on cue with a flash of lightning, clap of thunder…and laughter.

It is theatrical effects like that and hundreds of other well-thoughtout surprises that have made NACC performances triumphs with audiences. NACC students Zack Reed (Ellard) and Jordon Johnson (Betty) play Southerners whose drawls are as thick as their hearts. The audience reacts with laughter and loud applause to almost anything spoken by the two characters.

“It’s a magnificent program,” says Brenda, an audience member who has been in a couple of holiday productions. “Director Webb and his company are very ambitious and don’t hold anything back.”

In fall 2015, the college will present Dan Goggin’s “Nunsense,” the secondlongest-running off-Broadway show with some 3,672 performances.

In spring 2016, expect the quirky folk tale “Big Fish,” based on the Daniel Wallace novel. The movie version was filmed in Wetumpka, Ala., in 2002. Directed by Tim Burton, it included Siamese twins, a giant, witch, mermaid and werewolf.

“‘Big Fish’ is about a relationship between father and son,” Webb says. “The son wants his father to stop telling tall tales. In the end, you will ask…were they real?”

After the play, I grab some food at a Fort Payne eatery where I tell my server I’ve just seen “The Foreigner” at NACC Theatre.

“When I turned 9, I played a munchkin there about 30 years ago in The Wizard of Oz,” she gushes. “I love that theatre.”

And she’s not the only one. I intend on makingthe trip from Atlanta to see many more performances. With the wealth of community participation, everyone has a stake in its success.

McClung agrees. “It takes a village to solve problems…and make magic!” she says.

Upcoming Shows

FALL 2015
NUNSENSE, a musical comedy

WINTER 2015
HOLIDAY SHOW

SPRING 2016
ALABAMA BALLET
BIG FISH the MUSICAL

Tickets are $5; Reserved Seating: 256-638-4418 x 2218

Northeast Alabama Community College Accolades

} Top 5 percent of 1,200 community colleges in the nation (Aspen Institute)
} Top 15 percent of community colleges in America (CNN/Money)
} Top 20 nationwide (TheBestschools.org and CarrerGuide.com)
} Model, Best Practices College (Alabama Community College System)

For more information, call 256-638-4418 or see nacc.edu.


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