What happened to the colonists of Roanoke Island, 436 years ago? It’s known the world over as one of history’s greatest mysteries, and it happened right here.
Their story has been told over the last nine decades nearly every summer night, except Sunday, to millions of locals, vacationers, celebrities and world leaders just a few steps from the site of their last known location.
The producers of “The Lost Colony” is the Roanoke Island Historical Society, with Executive Director Chuck Still now at the midpoint of his second season at the helm.
Still has been managing performing arts institutions since 1990, including two stints as a Founding Executive Director, one in Connecticut and one in Texas.
Before going into administration, Still worked in production management for five professional regional theatres and on Broadway, and he took time out of his busiest part of the year to share more about possibly the best known Builders and Shapers: Nonprofits of the Greater Outer Banks, our collaborative series with the Outer Banks Community Foundation and Outer Banks Visitor’s Bureau.
Who do you serve?
With their production of The Lost Colony, RIHA has served the entire Outer Banks for 86 years and continues to do so.
Though it pays homage to the area’s historic legacy as the site of the first English colonies, The Lost Colony was always about attracting people to the Outer Banks and over the years has brought almost five million people into Fort Raleigh National Historic Site.
It hasn’t led nearly as many people to careers in theatre, but some of those who chose that path, like Andy Griffith, have become a much a part of OBX history as Virginia Dare.
Every summer it fills the enormous stage at Waterside Theatre with dozens of young performers, changing lives, entertaining patrons and honoring the history that sets Roanoke Island and the Outer Banks apart.
When and why was your non-profit created?
Inspired by the 1921 film about the Lost Colony, one of the first in North Carolina, the Roanoke Island Historical Association was formed to honor the history of those initial English expeditions which they did by creating Fort Raleigh and holding annual pageants.
Later during the Depression, local businessmen helped RIHA mount the first outdoor symphonic drama which became The Lost Colony.
Initially intended for a single summer, the first season in 1937 was so successful that it has continued to change and grow ever since.
With a historian mandated in the organization’s bylaws, RIHA also maintains archives of historical information about the historic Lost Colony and the production as well.
What are some of the benefits?
A film of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s visit to the Outer Banks in The Lost Colony’s inaugural season shows his motorcade on a sandy road passing deserted windswept dunes.
While there is no straight line from that visit to what the Outer Banks has become today, there is no question that the original purpose of The Lost Colony was economic.
Local businessmen convinced RIHA to produce the drama and bankrolled the first year.
It was an attractor first and foremost and in the early years served as the de facto visitor’s bureau for the Outer Banks, arranging housing and giving directions.
RIHA and the Colony have also played an important role in American theatre as well.
It was the first of Paul Green’s outdoor dramas, a movement that would sweep the nation in the years after the depression, and it has launched the careers of many actors and technicians, so much so that The Lost Colony received a Tony Award in 2013.
There is pride in that, of course, but then there is pride in all that RIHA does. Perhaps its greatest benefit is the way RIHA maintains the legacy of that first Colony and its role in the history of our nation.
As the Storyteller proclaims in the finale, even now you can hear the whisper of their names. That whisper is the breath of the Roanoke Island Historical Association.
Do you think the issues you address will ever go away? Why or why not?
The history RIHA embraces will never go away and the mystery of the Colony’s fate keeps that expedition ever present for researchers and scholars. Still, the heyday of outdoor dramas has largely passed.
RIHA’s challenge is keeping The Lost Colony interesting for a modern audience. How does one take a script written for a Depression era audience and make it sing for a post-COVID world addicted to screens and 5G?
The history remains but how well that story is told determines the impact that history has on a contemporary crowd. That is and will be RIHA’s eternal challenge.
What else would you like the readers to know?
It’s a cliché and woefully inaccurate to say this isn’t your grandfather’s Lost Colony when really it’s not even 2019’s The Lost Colony. The 2022 season saw the introduction of the kind of technology only seen on Broadway and major tours.
Panasonic 32 K lumen projectors have replaced heavy scenery and new orchestrations full of musical underscoring keep the pace of the production swift.
Puppets representing the colonists and natives now engage in battle instead of the antagonists themselves but there are still enough swordfights and stunts to appease the traditional crowd.
Native Americans now play all indigenous roles and the new script incorporates more native views into the story. Our collaboration with the Lumbee tribe is one greatest things that has happened to RIHA in its history.
RIHA is also proud that several of the artists involved in the new production recently received acclaim for their work on Broadway.
David Thompson, who wrote the new adaptation of Paul Green’s script, Sam Davis, who wrote the new score, and Christopher Ash, who created the projections all worked on Tony-Nominated New York, New York for which Thompson and Davis garnered their own nominations.
Sadly, none of them won a Tony, but still it shows the level of talent involved in the current version of The Lost Colony.
What’s new? What are your upcoming events or initiatives?
As of this writing, The Lost Colony is halfway through a 74 performance season with the dog days of August ahead. Still some of our favorite events are still to come.
We just held auditions for Virginia Dare Night on August 18, when we celebrate her birth with live babies replacing the dolls that usually take the role.
August 18 also includes the presentation of Company awards that honor this year’s cast with awards named for stalwarts from Company’s past.
And we have a special treat next week. The First Lady of North Carolina Kristin Cooper, wife of Gov. Roy Cooper, will be visiting with a cameo performance the night of August 1.
For more information and to purchase tickets to see The Lost Colony, visit TheLostColony.org.
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