North Carolina’s outdoor symphonic drama The Lost Colony was only meant to last for one season when it opened on July 4, 1937.
Instead The Lost Colony is celebrating its 76th anniversary this year, having been seen by more than four million visitors.
The Lost Colony is a historical play by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paul Green (In Abraham's Bosom) that has become a North Carolina performing arts institution. Originally staged as a pageant, this drama is set on Roanoke Island in the New World, the first English colony in North America, and follows the lives of the 117 English colonists who settled there in 1587 before mysteriously vanishing.
This play has become the longest-running symphonic drama in the United States and is the country’s second longest running outdoor drama. “The Lost Colony was the very first one of this [outdoor] genre,” says The Lost Colony’s CEO, Bill Coleman. Marketing Director Charles Massey explains, “‘Symphonic drama’ means [that the show] includes history, folklore, music, dance, religion, and human rights. It’s a very special kind of art form.”
Among the many Lost Colony alumni are such showbiz notables as Andy Griffith and Lynn Redgrave, along with 2013 Tony nominee Terrence Mann (Pippin), Joe Layton (Barnum), Leon Rippy (The Patriot), Eileen Fulton (As the World Turns), R. G. Armstrong (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), and 2012 Tony Award® winner Steve Kazee (Once).
“My summers spent at The Lost Colony were some of the dearest moments of my life so far,” says Kazee, who began in the choir in 1997 before graduating to the role of romantic lead, which he played from 2001 to 2003. “The relationships that I built there and the life lessons I learned, not just professionally but personally, have withstood the test of time and I am incredibly proud to call myself a member of The Lost Colony family,” says Kazee fondly.
The show’s artistic team currently boasts a five-time Tony Award-winner, William Ivey Long, who is nominated this year for Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella and is also chair of the American Theatre Wing.
“I grew up working alongside my family there,” says Long, who is about to begin his 43rd season with the show. “I hope to continue passing on my enthusiasm and my excitement for this labor of love. I can truthfully say that I learned my craft under the guidance of my parents, costume designer Irene Smart Rains, and [choreographer] Joe Layton,” he continues. “All of the basics and all of the techniques of the theatre and professional behavior, I learned during those summers on Roanoke Island working with The Lost Colony.”
Other members of the team include director Ira David Wood III, music director McCrae Hardy, eight-time Tony-nominated lighting designer Paul Gallo, and choreographer Jimmie Lee Brooks.
The drama features a combination of music, dance, and dialogue that blends history with universal themes of freedom, struggle, and perseverance. Produced by the Roanoke Island Historical Association (RIHA), a non-profit dedicated to preserving the history of the colonies on Roanoke Island, the show is one of the last remaining New Deal Federal Theatre Projects, which funded theatre and other live performances throughout the US during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
How to explain the show’s enduring popularity and longevity? One factor is that the show makes the most of its historical roots, creative story, and irreplaceable setting. Another is Paul Green’s text, which gives the lost colonists a unique voice. As marketing director Massey puts it, “The reason [the show] has gone on so long is that it’s a really interesting story. It asks as many question as it answers, and in asking those questions, everyone involved deals with a great deal of imagination. It’s something people own, and it’s our story. It’s the story of our country, and what we started with.”
Receiving a Tony Honor is “a huge deal for us,” says CEO Coleman. “We are the only outdoor theatre and the only North Carolina theatre that has received a Tony Honor. This is a really important factor for building audiences and supporters, which will keep this show alive for another 75 years.”
Massey adds, “This award is for the people who have nurtured The Lost Colony and made it continue for all these years. It really goes to anyone who has ever seen the show, anyone who has participated inRevised June 5, 2013