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CCCC grassroots theater thrives in Chatham

Click to enlarge CCCC grassroots theater thrives in Chatham

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‘Kudzu, the Musical,’ a delightful, poignant show about identity and change in the old ... (more)

Click to enlarge CCCC grassroots theater thrives in Chatham

click to enlarge ⊗

In 2003, Central Carolina Community College theater instructor Ellen Bland and her students garnered ... (more)

Click to enlarge CCCC grassroots theater thrives in Chatham

click to enlarge ⊗

In 2003, Central Carolina Community College theater instructor Ellen Bland and her students garnered ... (more)

07.22.2009Arts & EntertainmentCollege & Community

PITTSBORO - Stage productions become genuine magic at Chatham Mills as challenges prompt creativity and less becomes more. Audiences beg to get in, and beg for more.

Such has been the case since 2003, when Ellen Bland, Central Carolina Community College humanities and theater instructor, directed “Millworker.” The cast and crew consisted of 10 of her readers’ theater class students and several community actors and musicians.

Bland and former student Drew Lasater created the play from “Like a Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill Worker,” a volume of Southern oral history stories gathered by students at UNC-Chapel Hill in 1988. The show chronicled in word and music the everyday struggles and hopes of residents in a North Carolina mill town during the Depression.

The cast and crew found a performance arena in the unfinished, unheated, un-air conditioned Chatham Mills, an old mill building in Pittsboro. They created and brought in their own scenery, lighting, and sound, and made creative adjustments to the non-theater space, building a bare-bones stage in a corner of the mill.  

Then the magic happened.

The theater group expected a small audience. To their surprise and delight, the initial audience was more than 400. The Raleigh News & Observer acclaimed “Millworker” as one of the top 10 shows of 2003 in the Triangle. Bland and the group went on to do a year-long show tour to former mill towns across the state.
The N.C. Museum of Art, in Raleigh, selected “Millworker” as its inaugural theater production and more than 600 came to see it. The show eventually returned to Chatham Mills and performed for a total of 4,000 people. “Millworker” was honored with the prestigious N.C. State Theatre Award for Community Theatre.

“I love the theater you take to people and it’s about their lives,” Bland said. “People can relate to it. The shows we do are grassroots community endeavors in a grassroots space.”

Since “Millworker,” Bland and her theater classes have established an impressive reputation for contribution to the arts.

“When I saw ‘Millworker,’ it moved me to tears,” said Molly Matlock, executive director of the Chatham County Arts Council. “What Ellen did was so powerful. All her productions have been specific to the individuals and community that live here, but have also raised Chatham’s visibility for cultural experiences off the beaten path.”

The grassroots theater model works well for Bland because she never knows who is going to be in her classes until a semester begins. She uses the students in her acting and production classes as the core for each show. The material is selected to fit the strengths and create challenges for the diverse populations who enroll in the classes, as well as speaking to the diverse community audiences.  Then community members join in and another show is brought to the stage.

“I love seeing the transformation of the students and community folks through the process,” said Bland, who has been teaching at the college for 18 years. “Because of the space, and because we select our show based on who we have, we are faced with a great sense of immediacy which forces greater imagination and demands more investment from everyone involved as they literally ‘build’ not only all aspects of the show, but the theatre itself.”

Bland has created one success after another since  “Millworker”: “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”; “Dreamland,” a musical adaptation based on Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”; “We Regret to Inform You,” a theater piece incorporating letters written by soldiers in Iraq as well as other source material; “Back County Crimes”; and the latest, “Kudzu, a Southern Musical.” All played to sell-out crowds and positive reviews. Lasater has continued to collaborate with Bland on these shows as writer, performer, or assistant director.

“‘Kudzu’ was particularly a labor of love for all involved,” Bland said. “With 40 people involved from the college’s theater courses and the community, the show resonated with the audiences.”

“Kudzu,” is based on the comic strip created by Doug Marlette, who died in 2007. He collaborated on the musical with Jack Herrick and Bland Simpson, fellow North Carolinians and members of the Red Clay Ramblers. “Kudzu” captures the dilemma of retaining the identity of the “old South” while trying to embrace the changes brought with development and time.

More than 900 people came to see it during its seven performances in April and May. Each performance received standing ovations and rave reviews. The show sold out quickly, so Bland and music director Creighton Irons added an additional show that also quickly sold out.

“Arts have a welcome here in Pittsboro,” said Tom Vanderbeck, Chatham County commissioner. “Healthy arts attract businesses and residents to move here and stay here. “They are an indication of a healthy community. Many kudos to the college, Ellen Bland, her students, Tom Roberts, and the community for making these theater productions possible.”

Roberts, owner of Chatham Mills, and principal of Chatham Mills Development Corporation, has permitted Bland to continue to stage plays in the Mill’s vast, unfinished front space that once housed heavy looms for weaving labels for designer garments. The students have built a bigger stage, created rustic risers for the audience, and provided a space that other community non-profit groups use for their events as well. Roberts plans to improve the mill and create a Chatham Mills Performing Art Center.

For more information on the college’s theater classes, go online to