PlayMakers or Playmakers, it’s a proud history

Apr. 15, 2014 @ 11:08 AM

Why aren’t the PlayMakers in the Playmaker’s Theater?

It is a question many Chapel Hill people asked the first time they learned that the PlayMaker’s Repertory Company stages its productions not in its named venue but a few blocks away in the Paul Green Theater on Country Club Road.
The modern PlayMakers Repertory Company, the successor to the Carolina Playmakers, spells its historic name with a capital “M” in the middle.
The understandable confusion gets us into the history of drama at UNC-Chapel Hill and the impact it had throughout North Carolina and the rest of the country.
The history is a rich one. If you are interested, do not miss the upcoming talk on the history of the Carolina Playmakers. Cecelia Moore, special assistant to the chancellor at UNC-Chapel Hill, will deliver the Coates Lecture on the topic “A Model for Folk Theatre: The Carolina Playmakers” on Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. in the Wilson Library.
Moore told me that her talk will focus on “the UNC drama program in the 1930s, its place in the growth of college drama programs and its reputation as a regional theater with a unique focus on folk drama.” 
But she also told me “about the origin of the program, commonly called the Carolina Playmakers, with Frederick Koch's arrival at UNC in 1918.”
Encouraged by university President Edward Kidder Graham to extend the benefits of UNC’s programs throughout the state, famed English and writing professor Edwin Greenlaw recruited Koch from North Dakota to develop a drama program that would include the writing and production of original “folk dramas.”
In addition to the classes Koch taught, Moore said, “he also started an extension program, the Bureau of Community Drama, which was designed to be a resource for high school and community theater groups and projects throughout the state.” 
Koch got a quick start, writing and overseeing production of three pageants in three years: “Our Heritage: A Pageant of Local History” in Rocky Mount (1919), “Raleigh: The Shepherd of the Ocean” (1920), and “A Pageant of the Lower Cape Fear” in Wilmington (1921).
These pageants were precursors of “The Lost Colony,” the long-running outdoor drama written by Koch’s student and colleague, Paul Green, and first produced by Koch in 1937.
According to Moore, Koch “set up the Playmakers as an experimental theater to perform student-written plays. In addition to on-campus performances, Koch took the plays on tour.”
In an overloaded bus, the Playmakers went all over North Carolina and beyond, even appearing at the White House in 1926. 
In the following decades, Moore said, “this troupe of students, faculty, and community members helped to define American folk drama. By the 1930s, the Playmakers were well-known in the theater world, made famous by the tours, by the publication of three volumes of folk plays, and by the reputations of Paul Green and Thomas Wolfe, graduates of the program.”
Koch also liked to perform. The May 11 edition of the Daily Tar Heel reported that a special production of “Hamlet” would celebrate Koch’s 30 years of playmaking, including his early years in North Dakota. The drama staff, the report said, “is joining its forces to make the production a gala event in the history of the Carolina Playmakers. This great drama will be produced in the Forest Theatre this year in celebration … of Professor Koch’s playmaking. Professor Koch himself will play the title role.”
In her lecture Moore will explain how Koch's and Green's work on regional drama was a natural model for the Federal Theatre Project when it was established in 1935 as part of Franklin Roosevelt’s package of programs in response to the Great Depression.
Moore’s account of the work that Koch began will give us one more reason to cherish Chapel Hill’s dramatic traditions, whether we celebrate them in the Forest Theater where Koch played Hamlet, or in the old Playmakers Theater, or in the Paul Greene Theater where the modern-day PlayMakers make their home.

HEAR MORE ABOUT PLAYMAKERS
Cecelia Moore’s interview on WCHL’s Who’s Talking is available at http://chapelboro.com/category/wchl/lifestyle-weekly/whos-talking/


D.G. Martin hosts "North Carolina Bookwatch," which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. Preview the upcoming program on UNC-MX digital channel  (Time Warner #1276 or #4.4) on Fridays at 9 p.m. For more information or to view prior programs visit the webpage at www.unctv.org/ncbookwatch.