The curtain went up Thursday on the Aiken Community Theatre's 2019-20 season with a classic story of love and betrayal.
“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” will continue at 2 p.m. today and at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. While the production contains the music from the Disney animated film, the story is based on the Victor Hugo novel, which does not follow the more child-friendly story of the animated Disney film.
“This is our 68th consecutive season of quality community theater in Aiken,” said Thurmond Whatley, the executive director of the Aiken Community Theatre Board of Directors. “The Aiken Community Theatre is a true nonprofit 501c3 totally run by volunteers. We have a really hard-working 19-member board. An average of 12,500 people attend our productions every year.”
ACT's other main-stage productions this year are “Of Mice and Men,” Oct. 17-26; “A Christmas Story,” Dec. 5-14; “Move Over Mrs. Markham,” Jan. 16-25; “Seussical the Musical, Jr.,” Feb. 20-29; “Death by Golf,” April 2-11; and “Annie,” May 14-23.
“We always try to do a balance of comedies and dramas and sometimes shows that might be a little out there, which we often do in the summer,” Whatley said.
This year, ACT announced a new partnership with a number of downtown restaurants and bars. Theatergoers who present their tickets can receive custom cocktails, desserts or discounts on food.
“One restaurant has cooked up an Esmerelda cocktail for the run of 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' only,” Whatley said. “We hope to add more restaurants if the trial run succeeds.”
Esmerelda is the heroine in “Hunchback.”
For a list of participating restaurants, visit ACT's website at aikencommunitytheatre.org.
ACT has an active Youth Wing program for young performers, Whatley said.
The Youth Wing presents two shows each year, one in the Black Box theater in the fall and the other on the main-stage in the spring. This year's Black Box production is “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” on Nov. 6-10. The main-stage production is “Seussical the Musical, Jr.” on Feb. 20-29.
The Youth Wing also does a fundraiser every year with proceeds helping to pay for educational programs.
Every other year, ACT sends some of its older Youth Wing performers to New York City.
“They participate in backstage New York events, which are basically educational activities the Broadway industry puts on and workshops with professionals working in New York and on Broadway,” Whatley said. “We've gotten very good responses from those instructors about how attentive and focused and how far along our students from the Youth Wing program are.”
The other year, ACT sends Youth Wing students to the Southeastern Regional Theater Conference for four-and-a-half days of educational workshops, play competitions and theater-based activities.
The Youth Wing is starting an open mic night this year. Curtain Call Open Mic will be Sept. 20 in the Black Box theater, which can accommodate about 70 people, Whatley said.
“The kids are the performers,” he said.
The Youth Wing also sponsors free workshops on Saturdays.
“They're entertaining and fun, and there's the camaraderie of being with your peers and learning something,” Whatley said. “Visiting one of the workshops on Saturday is a good way for interested students to get started.”
ACT also sponsors coffee houses throughout the year.
“The coffee house is kind of a throwback to the 1960's beatnik coffee house world,” Whatley said.
Each Coffee House begins with an open mic session.
“It might be singing or poetry. We've had people show up with very interesting instruments, play a song or two and talk to the audience,” Whatley said. “It's very informal, and audiences seem to respond very well.”
After the open mic, a featured artist performs.
This year, ACT is adding a fourth Coffee House at Christmas on Dec. 20 with holiday music by Matthew Dickerson, known as “The Dulcimer Guy,” according to ACT's season brochure.
The Valentine's Coffee House, featuring Preston and Weston, will be on Feb. 14, 2020.
“It's a nice date night that, honestly, is fairly inexpensive. For $15, you get an evening's worth of entertainment with coffee and sweets and cakes and cookies,” Whatley said.
Other Coffee House dates are Oct. 4 and May 8.
ACT also offers a summer season. This year's productions are “Sweat” on July 17-25, 2020, and “Mayor's Income, Tennessee” on Aug. 14-22, 2020.
“'Sweat' is a very strong drama about the struggles of working people and the effect the decline of manufacturing is having on small communities,” Whatley said. “'Mayors Income, Tennessee,' is a kind of a bizarre, little set of short stories written by a local performer. It's already had one production in Augusta. It's weirdly funny, and it's good to showcase local talent when we can.”
ACT relocated from its former home on Two Notch Road in Virginia Acres Park to the AECOM Center for the Performing Arts at 126 Newberry St. S.W. in 2002. The house holds 330 people. The City of Aiken owns the building, and ACT raised about $1.7 million in a capital campaign to help build the theater and bring ACT downtown.
“Because of that, ACT is the primary tenant and has first dibs on the dates we use. The other half are available to the city to rent,” Whatley said. “It's been a partnership that has just exceeded all expectations as far as success.”
Whatley started volunteering with ACT in 1978, first as an actor and then later as a director and sound and lighting technician. He has been the president or executive director for 16 years over three different periods since 1988.
Whatley said ACT is part of a larger local arts community that includes both performing and visual arts.
“It's just unusual for a community of our size to have as many artistic outlets as we have, and Aiken is very supportive of its arts community,” he said. “As for the artistic opportunities in Aiken, if you just look around, you're going to be amazed how much you can do on a weekend in Aiken if you have the time, and it won't take that many dollars either.”