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Tucked into a row of shops on East Salisbury Street in Pittsboro is pretty much a small wonder. It looks like a coffeeshop; there's a glass display of goodies, topped by a register and sampling many a tasty morsel. Indeed, you can get a variety of coffee beverages here. There are comfortable chairs to sit in, and a quiet atmosphere of small talk and good cheer. But what you actually have done when you enter is transport yourself into the Center for the Arts, which houses a wide range of music and theatre. That "small coffee shop" is actually the biggest footprint on the block. And the shop pulls double duty as the lobby to the other surprise in store: beyond the back wall is the "Suite B Theater," an 80-seat, fully functional performance space that sports modern lighting, technical surprises, and serves as home to no less than five theatre troupes. Those companies like to refer to the space as the "Sweet Bee Theater," Pittsboro's – and, incidentally, Chatham County's – only live theatre space.
When one understands the true size of the space, then it is easier to grasp, as well, that the "coffeeshop" houses the Music School, with classrooms, a faculty of six, three pianos, and a full range of instrumentation on the course catalogue. All the strings in the orchestra are represented, from piano and violin to a full contingent of guitar instruction: electric, acoustic, or bass. Or, if you prefer, you can get your bass stand-up; the full range of orchestral strings is available. One might also study voice, or even an instrument that is enjoying a bit of a renaissance: the ukulele.
How, you may be asking yourself, did all of this come to be, and how did you miss it? The Center is a full-service Arts School, designed and co-founded by Artistic Director Tammy Matthews and Executive Director Craig Witter. In this current age of social distancing, I spoke by phone with Witter this week, and he filled me in on all that was happening at the Center, right up through March. I was able to stop in that first week of March to see a presentation of a show titled columbinus, which is a dramatization of what happened at the Columbine High School in over twenty years ago. The show has been performed in repertory at the Center by a cast of eight high school students – which means that when these events took place, none of them was even born yet. Those students are a part of the Social Justice Theater of the Carolinas, which came about with a grant from the Manbites Dog folks, in their new reincarnation. It was created specifically in order to perform columbinus. The troupe has been performing the show since the twentieth anniversary of the event, back in 2018.
The troupe with the oldest pedigree at the Center is the Pittsboro Youth Theatre, which is already nine years old. When the troupe originally came about, they were itinerant. So having the "Sweet Bee" to perform in is a dream come true, and not just for the casts of the many shows already performed there. When Witter and Matthews began the PYT, it was with the understanding that, one day, the itinerant troupe would have just such a home. As Witter told me, the troupe has been growing every year since its inception.
"The company's emphasis is on family entertainment. We try to do one major musical each season. We have performed Mary Poppins here, which was a huge success; Steel Magnolias; Almost, Maine. And, of course, Godspell." Witter says the four troupes who perform this family entertainment are pretty much broken down by age. "We have had quite a line-up going. Our youngest students, ranging from ages seven to twelve, were working on a trio of stories by Hans Christian Andersen. The next age group were working on a show that tells the story of Peter Pan, specifically from the viewpoint of the fairy, Tinkerbell." The show sports the same name as the little pixie. "Next level up, the cast has been doing A Wrinkle in Time, a bit of a science-fiction tale. Our junior high students are working on a superb comedy titled Baskerville; a cast of five performs over 50 characters. And then our high school students performed Godspell." That's a line-up any troupe would be happy to accomplish. "It's really Tammy's bailiwick. She's a human dynamo; it's that energy and drive that first caught my attention. She handles everything to do with the theatre [performances]." Witter, meanwhile, handles the front of the house, as well as working on his own passion, technical theatre. The fifth troupe, the Social Justice Theatre, is a departure from the family fare the other troupes perform. "We expect to do other more gritty and serious theatre using this troupe," says Witter. "They have proven themselves really up for it."
"We actually have a fair technical aspect to our theater, as well. We were fortunate to get a gift from Mike Tiemann, President of the Board at the North Carolina School of the Arts. He gave us four top-of-the-line lights, without which we would be pretty strapped. It was a godsend." Witter has himself added the ability to provide video and media production, as well as to project words and phrases on the backdrop; this was evident in columbinus. "We have a fully-functional theater back here. It always surprises people." The sound system, Witter says, is fully up to taking on the soundtracks that the school purchases along with the show rights. It's not flashy, but it gets the job done. So when the cast begins belting out those show tunes, the orchestra is right up there with them. As designed by each show's technical specifics.
All told, there are seven separate entities within the Center for the Arts, covering a wide range of artistic focus, from instruction to live performance. "We have been fortunate; Chatham County has welcomed us, and we can bring in fairly good houses. Each of our productions usually has an eight-show run. And we have the ability to have a wide variety of shows. We'll even throw in a Shakespearean production from time to time."
As has most of North Carolina, the Center for the Arts is self-imposing the guidelines set down by the Governor for dealing with the coronavirus. But there are plans in the works for when those guidelines can be lifted. Witter and Matthews hope to be able to ramp back up to full speed, once it has been decided we are clear of this pandemic. Along with the other counties in central North Carolina, Chatham County will be able to see live theatre once more. We can all expect to see more theatre from the "Sweet Bee" stage.
The Center for the Arts is located at 18-A East Salisbury Street, just one block north of the County Courthouse in Pittsboro. There is plenty of parking in the lot adjacent, as well as parking in designated spaces on both sides of Salisbury Street. While you are making your plans for that time somewhere down the road, when we can all begin to enjoy live theatre again, don't forget to include the "Sweet Bee" in your plans.