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Manteo theater keeps the story of The Lost Colony on stage for 8 decades and going

In nearly nine decades, "The Lost Colony" play in Manteo has only been interrupted by World War II, a theater fire and the pandemic.
Photo by Vicki L. Friedman
In nearly nine decades, "The Lost Colony" play in Manteo has only been interrupted by World War II, a theater fire and the pandemic.

“The Lost Colony” play at Waterside Theatre in Manteo has changed since it was first performed 87 years ago, but is still sought-after for performers and locals.

In 1937, a cast of locals debuted “The Lost Colony" at seaside Waterside Theatre in Manteo, North Carolina, in what was planned to be a one-year summer run.

It's 87 years later and the show goes on.

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paul Green wrote the script that chronicles the journey and unsolved mystery of 117 English men and women who came ashore on Roanoke Island in 1587 only to disappear three years later when an English ship returned with supplies. Credit the passion of a close knit Outer Banks community on Roanoke Island for preserving the longest running outdoor symphonic drama in the nation.

Stacey Maxwell, who owns a theater company today, was fresh out of college when she heard the buzz surrounding the play that launched the career of Andy Griffith, a cast member from 1947 to 1953.

The theater major drove to the Southeastern Theatre Conference in Louisville after being turned away in Manteo because she wasn't a dancer. "I'll do anything," she pleaded. "I just want to be part of this."

Maxwell, who started as an actor tech and moved into different roles, has the year 1587 and a compass with its coordinates pointed to Manteo tattooed on her arm. Like so many others, she is a collector of anything associated with "The Lost Colony."

"If they're cleaning out the storage closet, I'm the first one at the dumpster," she said. "When they were ripping out old bench seats, I was standing there taking them."

After having a bottom welded to it, one of those old bench seats is in her living room along with a discarded totem pole.

"Once 'The Lost Colony' is in your soul, it just stays there," Maxwell said. "It's a family about carrying on the tradition of the show."

A declining art form

In nearly nine decades, the play has only been interrupted by World War II, a fire to the theater and the pandemic.

While billed as the No. 1 OBX attraction, “The Lost Colony” has seen declining attendance, a concern for outdoor theater venues nationwide. The theatre, tucked inside the wooded Fort Raleigh Historic Site, seats 1,600. Last year, average attendance was 371.

"This was once a flourishing art form," said Chuck Still, who saw the play at age 14 and today is executive director of the Roanoke Island Historical Association, the producing organization of "The Lost Colony."

Still recalls the days when folks traveled to Manteo just to see the play and the Chamber of Commerce remained open all hours to help people find accommodations afterward.

"Now it's hard to get people out of their rental houses and to back away from Netflix," he said.

By 2018, it was obvious that to survive, "The Lost Colony" needed to evolve. The association's board of directors undertook an ambitious plan to redo the production.

They turned to a Tony-nominated director and ghostwriter both from New York to transform it into a modern production, adding puppets, projections and better lighting. They shortened the show from three hours to two. Gone was the clunky scenery that took up to five minutes between acts to clear.

The 2024 production of "The Lost Colony" is on a stage that is nearly twice the size of a Broadway one.
Photo by Vicki L. Friedman
The 2024 production of "The Lost Colony" is on a stage that is nearly twice the size of a Broadway one.

Another change that took effect in 2021: no more red face. Before that, young Caucasian men played the roles of Native Americans. In the early days, they rubbed themselves with Texas dirt – red dirt powder mixed with peanut butter, Skin So Soft and Dawn dish detergent. The solution became runny on the most humid nights or when a rain shower interrupted a performance.

"The script was rewritten to make the Native American perspective more prominent, and it was decided all the Native parts were going to be played by indigenous people," Still said.

Chloe Greene, part of the Chickahominy and Tuscarora tribes, is one of 13 Native Americans in today's 58-member cast.

"I'm happy that we have somebody willing to give us an outlet to tell our part of the story," she said.

Not everyone is happy with the changes to the show, particularly Manteo old-timers.

"Everyone thinks the years they were in it were the best years," Maxwell said.

The 2024 production features lively music and intricate dance on a stage that is nearly twice the size of a Broadway one. New technology purchased thanks to a $5 million capital grant includes state-of-the-art projectors, new lights and quality speakers that lend themselves to a "whiz bang" production, in Miller's words.

The carefully choreographed sword fights and scene when the settlers cross the ocean – the lights and effects combine for a spectacular thunderstorm – create a mesmerizing watch.

The show runs every night except Sunday all summer through Aug. 24. Heat takes its toll on the actors, whose parts force them to wear layers of heavy clothing often alongside actual fire.

The cast prepares for the evening just as an elite athlete would gear up for a game.

"Getting your body physically conditioned to perform is the biggest challenge," said Joey Cassell, who plays Sir Walter Raleigh. "I've never drank so much water in my life."

When the lights come up, the question remains. What happened to "The Lost Colony" and Virginia Dare, the first baby born in an American English colony?

Greene theorizes a hurricane and Cassell suggests they left with the Native Americans when their supply of food dwindled.

It's conjecture that makes for good conversation for the walk back to the car or the dinner table later.

"The way the action grabs the children, they're mesmerized with it," said Manteo resident Susan Fearing, who has seen "The Lost Colony" at least once every season since 1980.

"If you're grabbing children, they'll ask questions. To have them interested in history and education is a win-win. It's great to have theater of this caliber right here in Manteo."

For tickets and additional information, visitThe Lost Colony.

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