Last August, when Durham’s Manbites Dog Theater Company announced it would close in June, it felt as if a loved one had been given a year to live.
Since then, I’ve been in denial that this anchoring institution of the Triangle’s theater community no longer will be around to delight, inform and provoke. But now, as reality sets in and as the play "Wakey Wakey" winds down not just the season but the entire 31-season run, I have time to reflect.
I can at least look back at how much Manbites has meant to me as an audience member, a theater participant and a performing arts critic.
When I moved to Raleigh in 1970, local theater productions were mostly decades-old Broadway fare and Shakespeare, but rarely anything new or cutting edge. As the Triangle grew, audiences and actors wanted more.
In 1982, Raleigh Ensemble Players was formed (I was a co-founder) to stage contemporary plays that previously could be read about only in the New York press.
Other fine independent and alternative theaters soon followed that lead, but, to me, none were more consistently satisfying and involving than Manbites. Having seen nearly 1,800 shows from over 70 local companies in my 47 years here, I can unequivocally state that my most fulfilling theatrical experiences have always been with this remarkable company.
That’s because, from the beginning, co-founders Jeff Storer and Ed Hunt demonstrated the transforming power of intimate theater that comes from gripping scripts, fearless actors and visionary directors.
The company’s first production, Jeffrey Jones’ “Seventy Scenes of Halloween,” was a jolt to local theatergoers. Staged in a former shoe store on Durham’s West Main Street, the play’s short, nonlinear scenes were funny, scary and disturbing, ultimately revealing the disintegration of a marriage by piecing together the disparate clues.
In 1990, the company came to national attention with its original double bill of “Indecent Materials” and “Report from the Holocaust.” The text of "Indecent Materials" was taken from N.C. Sen. Jesse Helms’ speeches condemning the National Endowment for the Arts for supporting photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. The "Report from the Holocaust" text came from AIDS activist Larry Kramer’s book of the same title. After its local run, the show went on to New York City’s Public Theater, with coverage from The New York Times and Time magazine.
Manbites’ loyal audience followed it over the next eight years to a handful of temporary locations while we contemplated how lives are connected in unknown ways in Craig Lucas’ “Blue Window.” We were chilled by the exploration of sexual abuse in Paula Vogel’s “How I Learned to Drive.”
Manbites finally secured a permanent home on Durham’s Foster Street in 1998. Over the next two decades, we witnessed not only the company’s own productions but those of local guest companies, featuring new playwrights and blossoming performers. Manbites was a welcoming, safe place for a wonderfully diverse audience to see works about the full range of human experience.
Despite many significant shows over the decades, those during the company’s last few seasons seem to have risen to its greatest heights. I’ll never forget the gut-wrenching troubles of sibling relationships in Tarell Alvin MCraney’s “The Brothers Size," the ugliness of prejudice during Durham’s school desegregation in Mark St. Germain’s “The Best of Enemies” and the gender-bending alternate world created by the Delta Boys’ adaptation of Virginia Woolf”s “Orlando.”
Of course, other Triangle theaters have produced memorable works in the last 31 years, but Manbites maintained such an undeviating focus that it was like visiting an old friend at every production, something to be relied upon. I’ll greatly miss that old friend, but my life has been immensely enriched by the relationship.
I can also console myself with the knowledge that Manbites’ mission will live on. From the sale of the Foster Street building, the company’s co-founders say they'll set up a fund to provide financial support for local theater companies and artists like those they have fostered over the years.
Thanks, Jeff and Ed. You’ve stayed true to the company name: “When a dog bites a man, it’s not news; when a man bites a dog, it is.”
What: “Wakey, Wakey”
Where: Manbites Dog Theater, 703 Foster St., Durham
When: 8:15 p.m. May 24-26, 30-31, June 2, 6-9; 2 p.m. May 27, June 3, 10; 7:30 p.m. June 1 (special event with performance TBA)
Info: 919-682-3343 or manbitesdogtheater.org