Walltown Children’s Theatre is known for dance, theater and, well, children.
Each Christmas, the theater presents “The Durham Nutcracker,” a singing and dancing spectacle that puts a Bull City spin on the holiday classic.
So what was a group of grotesquely masked actors (think “Elephant Man”) doing this week in the Berkeley Street space’s new black box theater?
You’ll have to see Little Green Pig’s Theatrical Concern’s “Hunchback” to figure it out, if you can. The traveling theater company trades in the “strange” and dreamlike.”
But count on more of it, as Walltown enters a new stage, literally, thanks to the recycling of another local theatrical space and a longheld vision of cofounder Cynthia Penn-Halal.
The work on the black box theater began about a month ago in the former church building’s sanctuary.
With about $10,000 of tech equipment donated from the now closed Common Ground Theatre on Hillsborough Road, and funding from the Rust Foundation and Duke Office of Durham and Regional Affairs, about three dozen volunteers started renovating.
The sound booth sits over a one-time baptismal pool. The risers seat 60 people where the church choir once sang.
And the walls, except for mirrors, are painted black – the better to show off experimental work with minimalist sets.
“‘Hunchback,” will be the first show in the new space.
Director Jaybird O’Berski admits he wasn’t sure the piece about impersonation and “the arbitrariness of ugliness and beauty” was the right fit for Walltown.
“We had thought they were an exclusively children’s theater, and that work that is challenging might not be appreciated,” he said. “But it turns out it’s exactly the opposite.”
An affordable space
Penn-Halal founded Walltown Children’s Theatre in 2000 with then-husband Joseph Henderson and runs it with her board and one employee, teaching classes and holding summer camps.
But she says she always dreamed of having a black box theater to showcase Walltown’s and other groups’ work.
Renting other performing spaces can be “really costly,” Penn-Halal said. “For people who are not going to charge $20, $25 a ticket, there are not a lot of options where you can present your work.”
The black box theater is already booked for the Women’s Theatre Festival in August and screenings of Durham filmmaker Rodrigo Dorfman’s short film “And the Children Will Burn,” about undocumented children hiding in a safe house somewhere in the South.
The new theater helps fill a gap for groups like Little Green Pig.
For an itinerant company, “having a space with lights that are theater lights and professional equipment is huge,” said assistant director Tamara Kissane.
“You know there are seats, there are bathrooms, it’s climate controlled,” she said. “All of the things we take for granted are not (guaranteed) when you’re performing in storefronts and outside.”
Having the black box space will also enable Walltown to teach stagecraft, adding classes in lighting, sound and set design, said teacher Lisa Suzanne Turner and board president Cara Williams.
“Basically we want to have kids involved in every aspect moving forward,” Williams said. “The primary focus for Walltown will still be the same. We’ll still be giving our kids an opportunity to perform.”
About 550 children take classes at Walltown each year.
Now Penn-Halal hopes that even more will participate.
“Durham is changing very, very quickly,” she said. “I, and we, hope this theater will be a part of that change but also be a source of pride for the Walltown community.”
Did you know?
Little Green Pig's name is a reference to the play “The Pillowman” by Martin McDonagh. A pig in one of the play’s stories chooses to remain green despite pressure from his pink contemporaries.