Lost Colony (play)

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The Lost Colony is a musical play based on historical accounts of Sir Walter Raleigh's failed attempts to establish a permanent settlement, the Roanoke Colony in the 1580s on an island in what was part of then the Colony of Virginia.[1] Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paul Green The Lost Colony marks a shift in Green's work from more traditional forms of drama to focus on the creation of large-scale outdoor musical spectacles he termed "Symphonic Dramas." The Lost Colony has been performed since 1937 in an outdoor amphitheatre located on the site of Sir Walter's original colony on Roanoke Island in the Outer Banks region near present-day Manteo, North Carolina. As of 2012, it is the United States' second longest running historical outdoor drama, behind The Ramona Pageant.

Synopsis[edit]

Historical background[edit]

Before Jamestown and Plymouth, a group of about 120 men, women and children established one of the first English settlements in the New World on Roanoke Island in 1587. Shortly after arriving in this New World, colonist Eleanor Dare, daughter of Governor John White, gave birth to Virginia Dare. The Governor's granddaughter was the first English child born in North America.

However, life on the island was difficult. Low on supplies and facing retaliation from the Native Americans they had displaced, the colonists sent Governor John White back to England in the summer of 1587 for supplies. Because of the impending war with Spain, Governor White was unable to return to Roanoke Island until 1590. When he arrived, the colony had vanished, leaving one tantalizing clue as to their whereabouts: the word "CROATOAN" carved on a post. The fate of those first colonists remains a mystery to this day and is one of America's most intriguing unsolved mysteries![2]

1937 production[edit]

The principal characters of The Lost Colony outdoor drama from the 2008 production

On July 4, 1937, The Lost Colony first opened. The drama underwent many conceptions before July 1937. While annual celebrations of Virginia Dare's birthday, August 18, date back to the foundation of the Roanoke Colony Memorial Association in 1894, those early events were primarily picnic meetings with hymn singing and commemorative speeches. In 1923, the festivities were expanded to included dramatic sketches; and, by 1925 local residents performed a full-scale pageant of the story—an oratorio of the events using pantomime, music, and narration.[3] W.O. Sounders, editor of the Elizabeth City Independent was a passionate supporter of the pageant and a proponent of plans to expand the celebration.

Roanoke Island native and Dare County School Superintendent Mabel Evans Jones awakened a wider interest in the story with a 1921 silent film of the historic events that she conceived, wrote and produced, and in which she starred. The finished film toured across North Carolina. It was the first silent film produced in the state.[4]

"CRO" tree prop

The pageant was very successful with the 1926 celebration attracting the largest crowd to that point,[5] and organizers sought to build on their achievement in their preparations for the 350th anniversary of Virginia Dare’s birth. They approached North Carolina playwright Paul Green about developing a new pageant script.

Having previously visited the island on several occasions, Green had already considered writing a piece about "those tragic first settlers" and was pleased to join with Saunders and Bradford Fearing, president of the Roanoke Historical Society, when he learned of their plans for the celebration of the 350th anniversary of Virginia Dare's birth. Initially, the team thought that the plot would follow the legend of Virginia Dare falling in love with Chief Manteo's son and giving birth to a new race that has since vanished. Preparations for the production were to include a nation-wide beauty contest to find a young woman to play Virginia Dare.[6] However, Green envisioned a spectacle with a combination of music, dialogue, and dance that he called “symphonic drama”. Blending history with common themes, he gave voice to the lost colonists by creating a drama sympathetic to common ideals of freedom, struggle and perseverance—guiding themes for a nation in the grips of the Great Depression.

The original production had difficulty finding funding as early pledges of support evaporated as the depression deepened. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) stepped in to provide funding and labor for the production through its various agencies, and North Carolina Congressman Lindsay Warren secured the production of 25,000 memorial half dollars that were sold to raise funds.[7]

English-born architect Albert Quentin “Skipper” Bell began construction of the large-scale set with construction assistance from the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Previously, Bell had designed a log-structured village on the grounds of Fort Raleigh. WPA funds, through the Federal Theatre Project, were also used for salaries as part of a Theatre Works initiative to assist out-of-work Broadway actors from New York City. English-born actress Katherine Cale originated the role of Eleanor Dare, Virginia's mother, while Lillian Ashton portrayed Queen Elizabeth I, Earl Mayo played the comic Old Tom, and Jack Lee narrated the production as The Historian.[8] Other talented performers were hired to fill the major roles with the Carolina Playmakers, Roanoke Islanders, and the CCC members rounding out the smaller roles.

The production was directed by Samuel Selden, one of Green's associates in the UNC Playmakers of Chapel Hill, under the supervision of Frederick H. Koch.

Music for the production was directed by the WPA Federal Music Project's North Carolina director, Eric Stapleton, and was drawn primarily from old English hymns, ballads, and folk songs the settlers might have carried over with them.[9] Acclaimed American composer and conductor Lamar Stringfield has been credited with composing the original music for the play;[10] however, this contribution is not noted in the original program. The new Hammond electric organ provided musical accompaniment. (By the late 1960s, this particular instrument was in a local Catholic church.)

President Franklin D. Roosevelt saw the production on August 18 of that year and remarked, "We do not know the fate of Virginia Dare or the First Colony. We do know, however, that the story of America is largely a record of that spirit of adventure."

Longest-running symphonic outdoor drama[edit]

Roanoke Island and the Outer Banks of North Carolina experienced a boom in tourism: hotels, motels and restaurants thrived despite the bleak economy. The village of Manteo was changed: the town’s streets were named from characters in the drama. Though the production was meant only to last for one season, The Lost Colony has become a North Carolina tradition, produced for over four million visitors since 1937.

Many local Roanoke Islanders and North Carolinians have played a part in the drama. Among them, Manteo-born Sen. Marc Basnight (Dem., N.C.) who performed as a colonist child, Marjalene Thomas who first performed with the show in 1938 and throughout the years played every female role — with the exception of one, and Robert Midgette (The Lost Colony’s current fight director) who has been with the show 38 years. Actor Andy Griffith, who performed at the production's Waterside Theatre on Roanoke Island from 1947 to 1953, liked Manteo so much he decided to live there permanently.

The production has served as a training ground for hundreds of alumni over the decades. Like Andy Griffith, notable actors Leon Rippy, Chris Elliott, Eileen Fulton[citation needed], Terrence Mann and R.G. Armstrong got their stage legs at the Waterside Theatre. Academy Award-Winner Ted Tally spent a summer in the production long before winning top honors for his screenplay of Silence of the Lambs[citation needed]. His niece appeared in the 2008 production.

The current production is led by an artistic team, several of whom credit The Lost Colony for their own beginnings. Five-time Tony Award-winning Production Designer William Ivey Long and Emmy-nominated Executive Director/Producer Carl V. Curnutte III began their artistic careers with the show. Robert C. Richmond, the production’s current director staged William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing for a special reception at the White House for President George W. Bush.

The drama is performed nightly June–August at 8:00 pm Monday-Saturday.

The theatre on Roanoke Island where the play is performed.

Costume shop fire[edit]

On September 11, 2007 a resident of Nags Head, North Carolina spotted a fire across the sound on Roanoke Island and called 911. All fire departments north of Oregon Inlet responded to find part of The Lost Colony’s Waterside Theatre in flames. The fire crews worked to control the blaze, and to save the men’s dressing room structure nearby. In spite of their efforts the maintenance shed, Irene Smart Rains Costume Shop, and a small storage building were completely destroyed. No cause has been determined.

Except for a few costumes stored at the dry cleaners and others on display at the NC Museum of History in Raleigh, the production's costumes suffered a total loss. The destroyed costumes include vintage costumes by Irene Rains in the 1940s and 1950s; all of Fred Voelpel’s costumes made in the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s, and the costumes designed by Tony award-winner William Ivey Long.

Another fire is a part of the production's past. Sixty years before on June 24, 1947, a late afternoon fire destroyed most of the theatre. However, the costumes in the 1947 disaster escaped the flames and the theatre was rebuilt in six days and resumed production that summer. American actor Andy Griffith was in the company at the time and assisted with the rebuild.

Recovery from the 2007 tragedy involved assistance from federal, state, and local sources in additions to donations from individuals and foundations. The costumes were replaced and the building was rebuilt for opening night on May 30, 2008.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Green, Paul and Laurence G. Avery (2001). The Lost Colony: A Symphonic Drama of American History. Chapel Hill: University Press of North Carolina. ISBN 978-0-8078-4970-5. 
  2. ^ Powell, William S. (1985). Paradise Preserved: A History of the Roanoke Island Historical Association. Chapel Hill: North Carolina University Press. ISBN 978-0-8078-0975-4. 
  3. ^ Downing, Sarah (2013). Hidden History of the Outer Banks. Charleston, SC: The History Press. pp. 41–43. ISBN 978-1-60949-914-3. 
  4. ^ Towler, Teuta Shabani. "Silent Film Started a Long Tradition". The Outer Banks Voice. Retrieved 26 February 2014. 
  5. ^ Downing, Sarah (2013). Hidden History of the Outer Banks. Charleston, SC: The History Press. pp. 41–43. ISBN 978-1-60949-914-3. 
  6. ^ Green, Paul (1994). A Southern Life: Letters of Paul Green 1916-1981. University of North Carolina Press. p. 302. ISBN 0-8078-2105-5. 
  7. ^ Green, Paul (1946). "Preface" 'The Lost Colony'. Chapel Hill, NC. p. xiii. 
  8. ^ 'The Lost Colony' Souvenir Program. Chapel Hill, NC. 1937. 
  9. ^ "Early Music in the Play" 'The Lost Colony' Souvenir Program. Chapel Hill, NC. 1937. 
  10. ^ "Marker H-94: Lamar Stringfield 1917-1959"North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources

External links[edit]