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TheatreFest Celebrates the Queen of Mystery

North Carolina State University is internationally known for its engineering and technology programs as well as its veterinary hospital. None of these disciplines is typically associated with the arts, but NC State puts great effort into developing its arts programs, especially theatre.

At NC State, there is no theatre major. There is, however, an impressive theatre program that is open to all students and a theatre minor that has been filled to its quota every year since it was started. The minor now has a wait list of students who want to explore their love of theatre while majoring in a different field. Many of these students go on to MFA programs in fields like costume design or work in theatre across the country.

At NC State, a land-grant university with a mission that goes beyond its students, theatre is more than education. University Theatre includes the community in both its audience and its productions, especially during the summer.

In 1990, NC State hired John McIlwee, a fashion designer who worked in professional theatre in New York City, as its new theatre director. McIlwee made the move because of his family and only planned to take a short break from professional theatre.

Within six months, he knew he wanted to stay at the university. He's still there.

Early on, he noticed that there was a summer theatre famine in the Raleigh area. All of the local companies halted production during those months, and he felt that gap was a real loss to the community. So he and a colleague started TheatreFest, which has been running ever since. (It took only a two-year hiatus while the theatre was renovated; with its new soundproofing, the building could now host two plays simultaneously, which comes in handy during TheatreFest.)

Typically, TheatreFest consists of three full plays in a rolling repertory, so that each night in

Something's Afoot
Something's Afoot (photo by NCSU Theatre)

June, theatregoers can see one of the performances. This year, they changed it up a little due to their selection of "Something's Afoot," which McIlwee describes as "a musical spoof" of Agatha Christie's play "And Then There Were None." Ten characters are "stuck in this creepy manor," and everyone gets murdered.

Because this musical involved an "incredibly detailed" and precise set (every object must be placed exactly right, since it is later used to kill someone), the TheatreFest staff decided that for the 2016 TheatreFest, they would produce two full-length plays and one special event.

Since McIlwee is a big Agatha Christie fan (he's acted in, directed, or designed over 11 of her plays), and TheatreFest has included Christie plays before, they decided to make 2016 a Christie-themed TheatreFest.

Sometimes in planning TheatreFest, McIlwee said, "a theme comes about," and sometimes it doesn't. This year, he was all too happy that it did. He even decided to get back on stage this year for his favorite Christie play, "The Hollow" (for which he also designed the set and costumes).

Agatha Christie is the bestselling novelist of all time (her books are outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare). She was also a very successful playwright. Her play "The Mousetrap" is the longest-running stage production ever (its 25,000th performance was held in 2012 and starred Hugh Bonneville, Patrick Stewart, Julie Walters and Miranda Hart). Audience members are famously asked not to reveal the twist ending after leaving the theatre.

The Hollow
"The Hollow" (photo by NCSU Theatre)

"The Hollow" was originally a novel, but Christie adapted it for the stage in 1951. When she did so, she dropped the beloved Hercule Poirot, a move that director Mia Self feels demonstrates Christie's deep understanding of the differences between the novel and the play.

"The Hollow" is McIlwee's favorite Christie play, largely because it is "infused with humor" that isn't necessarily found in her other works. He played Sir Henry Angkatell, who with his wife Lucy is hosting a weekend party that is interrupted by the murder of Dr. Cristow, one of the guests. McIlwee said he played Sir Henry partly because he was "the only one old enough" but also because he felt that even today, over sixty years later, his character and his relationships still seem fresh and modern.

Indeed, the relationships in "The Hollow" are complicated and dramatic. Midge is in love with Edward, who is in love with Henrietta, who is in love with Dr. Cristow, who is married to Gerda and reunites with his ex-mistress Veronica at the party.

Got that? No? Part of the beauty of Self's direction is that every character's motives are perfectly clear to the audience, but at the same time, it's difficult (but fun) to predict who the murderer is. Therein, Self says, is the challenge of Christie: The complexity of her plots mean that not only must the identity of the murderer be believable, but the red herrings must be too - all without creating "lots of noise."

Actor technique, Self says, becomes very important, and she notes that the TheatreFest actors were good at inviting Audience members to understand the characters and speculate on the mystery without "manipulating" them. The actors, McIlwee said, enjoyed "getting to know their characters" during rehearsals so much more than in other, less character-driven plays. He adds that Self was good at directing the actors' energy; in a quiet but suspenseful play, it was important that she pinpointed when actors began to lose their energy - which would, in turn, make them lose the attention of the audience.

At over two hours, the play is longer than the contemporary audience is accustomed to, but it kept my interest and excitement throughout all three acts. Its simple elegance was also a great contrast to "Something's Afoot," which McIlwee describes as "more is more is more."

In addition to "Something's Afoot" and "The Hollow," TheatreFest included an original

Tea with Agatha
Agatha chats with her guests
(photo by NCSU Theatre)

production, "Tea with Agatha." A short drama written by Mia Self (who, beyond having a self-proclaimed crush on the BBC's Poirot, was not previously a Christie fan) based on her research into biographical and autobiographical sources, "Tea with Agatha" also included dinner and a behind-the-scenes special effects tour. (Murder, even on the stage, is not easy, and guests enjoyed getting to see how "Something's Afoot" made it from page to stage.) The dame of mystery herself was played by JoAnne Dickinson, who flew in from Boston just for TheatreFest (she also played Lucy in "The Hollow").

"We had a hell of a good time" doing Christie, McIlwee says. He and Self especially enjoyed the audience's reactions, which were all different - from the 12-year-old who said she knew who the murderer was all along to the adult who was, according to Self, "dead set it was someone else" at intermission. All in all, the TheatreFest staff found that there are a lot of people who love Agatha Christie and will see pretty much anything that has her name on it - from one of her plays to a musical spoof to an original teatime production. The performances attracted even more Audience members than NC State's previous, sold-out Christie plays.

What's next at NC State? University Theatre has already announced its 2016-17 season, which includes everything from dark romantic comedies to Oscar Wilde, "The Secret Garden" to "The Merry Real (House)wives of Winsdor" (adapted from Shakespeare by an NC State acting coach). The staff, which is growing as demand for programming increases, will continue to cultivate one-on-one relationships with its student artists, who come from departments across all of NC State's varied colleges. The TheatreFest committee is planning next summer's lineup. Meanwhile, University Theatre's audience is more dedicated and loyal than those of most theatre companies. Self told me a story of a man who had come to TheatreFest every summer with his wife until she died; he returned this year for the first time since her death as a "tribute to her."

Not only did TheatreFest create a really excellent and entertaining tribute to Agatha Christie this summer, but it is so beloved by its patrons that it becomes a tribute itself. What more could you want from - or as - a theatre?


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From This Author Taryn Oesch

Taryn Oesch Taryn is a copyeditor and freelance writer in Raleigh, where she is a behind-the-scenes member of the theatre community. Her favorite plays/musicals are Next to (read more...)

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