From theater productions to poetry readings to musical training, Brunswick Little Theatre is a stage where the talented folks of Brunswick County shine.
If you haven’t yet discovered Brunswick Little Theatre in Southport, you are missing out on a lot of good theater. The community theater group not only puts on great shows, musicals and revues, but also offers musical training for middle and high school students. And more recently they have started a monthly open mic poetry night, all in keeping with their motto: “To Entertain, Enrich and Educate.” But the real story is about how they started and how far they have come.
As Stuart Callari, one of the founders, puts it, “We were three friends talking over a bottle of wine one afternoon about how much we enjoy the theater and how sorry we were that we didn’t have one in Brunswick County. So we said, ‘Let’s start one!’ We wanted to show Wilmington that we have as much talent down here as they do up there. In fact, there may be more talent in the rural areas because we didn’t have TV and a movie theater and all that stuff so we learned to make our own entertainment.” That was 36 years ago.
The first Brunswick Little Theatre (BLT) show was the musical Brigadoon at Hatch Auditorium at the Baptist Assembly on Caswell Beach in 1983. Debbie Skillman was the musical director and she is now one of the two faculty members of the youth training program.
“Back then we were a traveling troupe,” she says. “In addition to Hatch Auditorium we performed at the Jaycee Building, the alderman’s chambers at Southport City Hall, the Centennial Center and Odell Williamson Auditorium on the campus of Brunswick Community College until we finally leased the Cape Fear Alliance Church on River Road.”
Last March BLT bought the Cape Fear Alliance Church building that they had been leasing, and it is now their permanent home.
BLT went from staging one or two shows a year to doing five or six each year. Past shows have included such popular classics as Grease, Thoroughly Modern Millie, The Odd Couple, Annie, Godspell, Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown, Hello Dolly, The Lion King, Charlotte’s Webb, Nunsense, Jesus Christ Superstar and Finding Neverland, among others. All the actors have had a background in performing arts, and many are retired professionals.
The board of directors reads like a Who’s Who in the entertainment industry. Kathy Cagney Rossi, president of the board, has been a member of the Screen Actors Guild since 1990 and has appeared in numerous films, countless commercials and more than 75 theater productions in New York, Denver, Chicago and New Jersey. The other board members have extensive experience in professional and community theater and in movies and TV as actors, singers, musicians, directors, set designers and casting agents. Many of them have been in multiple BLT shows, and all of them are volunteers. Or as Rossi puts it when she’s asking for volunteers for various support jobs: “The job pays way over what you can earn and not pay taxes.” In other words, nobody is paid, but the satisfaction of helping to provide first-rate entertainment for the community is very rewarding.
Perhaps the most inspiring BLT volunteer is Paul Bertelsen, who has been the set designer for the last 12 years. Bertelsen is a well-known former Broadway stage manager and set designer. His credits include shows for Mary Martin, Eva Gabor, Joan Fontaine and Shelley Winters. Now in his retirement years, Bertelsen will only design and construct those sets that require creativity and give him a challenge. He chose not to do the last two BLT shows because they were “boring living room sets” and having done hundreds of those, they were not creatively challenging enough for him. Bertelsen turned 93 last March.
The Musical Theatre Apprentices (MAT) program started in the fall of 2015. This is an intensive yearlong class for middle and high school students who are serious about developing their skills and learning how to perform in front of an audience. The program is headed by Debbie Skillman, who is also the board secretary, and Bev Veenker; both have impressive academic, teaching and performing credentials. And they are clearly admired, loved and respected by their students, most of whom have been in the program for two or three years.
Maddie Overman has been with them since the program began. She loves it and them because, she says, “They build confidence. It’s like a family and they take you in.”
The apprentices attend class every Saturday afternoon from 1 to 3:30 pm., starting in September. The program culminates in a revue in May, which features solos, duets, choruses, dancing, singing, skits and comedic sketches. Some of the students go on to college with the goal of having a career in the performing arts, but all expect to at least perform in college shows and community theater. A few of them already have specific plans.
Thirteen-year-old Alex Gilland, who is now in eighth grade, dreams of doing voice acting. “That’s where it’s at now,” Alex says, “in voiceovers, YouTube, etc.”
And then there’s 14-year-old Ryan Sharp, who started a career in TV at age 4. His next show will be a Billy Graham special. “I will be the little kid who is bullied on the show,” he says.
The most recent addition to the BLT lineup of activities is the Open Mic Poetry reading night. This program started in 2018 and is led by Ken Greenman, a 40-year theater veteran who has been a director, actor, board member and high school theater teacher. The group meets at 7 pm on the first Friday of the month. Everyone is invited to bring and read their original poetry. Critique is offered, but only if asked for.
BLT’s purchase of the building they had leased for five years is exciting for them, but it also means they now have a mortgage to pay off so they are embarking on a series of fundraisers. The next one will be a Mah-jongg-athon on Friday, June 7 at the St. James Community Center in Southport. Rossi emphasizes that this is not a competition; it is a “day of fun for everyone” with two Mah-jongg rounds scheduled, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Lunch is included, along with snacks, prizes and a 50/50 raffle.
BLT’s Upcoming Events and Shows
Friday, June 7 10 am to 3 pm
St. James Community Center, 4136 Southport Supply Road, Southport
The entry fee is $45 per player, or you can buy a table for four for $160. Lunch and snacks are included.
The Second Time Around
June 13 to 23
A comedy about an elderly widow and widower who fall in love but want to live together without getting married so they can both keep their social security benefits. Their adult children are aghast at the idea. This is obviously a 1970s play, which makes it even funnier in 2019.
All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten
August 8 to 18
Based on Robert Fulghum’s widely read book by the same name
October 10 to 20
Generations Apart is billed as “poignant and humorous.”
Want to get involved with BLT?
BLT is always looking for volunteers. The current need is for someone with graphic design and content skills to assist with creating marketing collateral materials, including show programs, flyers and posters. They also need people to help with costume design and sew alterations. Paul Bertelsen could use some experienced carpenters to help build the sets. And they would like another lighting and sound technician. If you have any of those skills and would like to join this amazing and fun group of people, call Kathy Rossi at (910) 477-2586 or email BLT at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information about the MAT program or to register, you can call Debbie Skillman at (910) 470-5652 or email her at: email@example.com.
The Poetry Open Mic group meets at 7 pm on the first Friday of the month. Everyone is invited to bring and read their original poetry. Critique is offered, but only if asked for. Everyone is invited to join the group. For more information, contact Ken Greenman at (914) 456-0132 or email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information on all of BLT’s shows, programs and upcoming events, visit their website brunswicklittletheatre.com.