ARARAT, Va. — The Cherry Orchard Theatre in Ararat, Virginia, will begin it’s month-long 20th season on Aug. 3 on an outdoor stage in the middle of the orchard for which it is named.
Frank Levering, owner of Levering Orchard, which his grandfather founded in 1908, and the guiding spirit of the theater company he founded in 1999, reminisced on Friday, “The twentieth season. This is a marker. We’ve come through hell and high water. Over that amount of time, you go through almost the whole spectrum of experience. It’s been amazing in many ways.”
One year during rehearsals, Levering fell out of a tree, breaking three ribs and puncturing a lung. But the show went on.
“It does rain sometimes,” said Levering. “The actors perform at rain-speed,” which he said is an old outdoor theater term for trying to finish the play before a threatening rainfall manifests itself. Sometimes audience members will break out umbrellas to ward off light drizzles, and torrential rains sometimes move the show into the orchard’s pack-house, perfumed by peaches picked earlier in the day, or maybe the show moves to the woodshed, but the show goes on.
The show must always go on.
Though the theater began regular seasons in 1999, its history goes back a little further.
“It all got started in 1996 when my grandparent’s house burned,” said Levering. “Nobody in the family was in the house,” he quickly added. Only the walls were left standing after the fire, and Levering said at the time, “Before we let the Volunteer Fire Department come in to finish burning it, let’s do a play about the people who lived in that house.”
So Levering wrote a play about his grandparents, and 1,200 people came to see it over three weekends.
“It was mind-boggling,” he said. “It was like what was called ‘a happening’ in the ’60s. It was a wonderful experience for everybody.”
Levering decided something interesting was happening, and did not call in the fire department to finish off the old partially-burned farmhouse.
“The walls served as a backdrop for the theater,” said Levering. “They were at oblique angle to the stage, and added an interesting feature.”
The walls were only torn down about five years ago when Levering became anxious about them falling on some cherry-picking customers.
“One of the things I’m proudest of is getting people involved with the theater who never were before,” said Levering. “People like Misty here.” Levering nodded in the direction of Misty Hagwood, who was sitting beside him.
“I asked if I could sit in and watch at an audition,” said Hagwood. “I got cast in two parts in a six-week run.”
“She has since become a co-conspirator,” chimed in Terri Ingalls, a frequent Cherry Orchard author and leading lady who has been with the company since its second season, and was sitting on the other side of Levering. “Misty not only did some acting, she wrote a play.”
“Not only did she do it, she did a fantastic job,” added Levering.
“We’ve done many, many original plays,” said Levering. He names off a few. Misty Hagwood’s play, “The Greenbriar Ghost” is a play told by a ghost. “The Sacred Path” is based on a dream.
“It’s a little surreal,” he says. “We’re able to do stuff that is not your usual community theater stuff. We push things a little bit. A lot of the plays are about this part of the country and the culture. Now and then we’ll do a standard.”
“I don’t remember many standards,” replied Ingalls.
Ingalls has written a one-woman show, “Flights of Imagination,” which will premiere this season with Ingalls performing her story of the golden age of air travel in the 1960s, in which she had a bird’s eye view as an employee of Piedmont Airlines.
“Flights of Imagination” is one of many plays that has had its world premiere at Cherry Orchard Theatre.
“It’s just a fancy way to say it’s never been done before,” said Ingalls.
Ingalls wrote the first draft of the piece when she was awarded a residency at Wildacres Retreat in Little Switzerland three years ago. Being able to write for days on end without being disturbed or having to answer the phone was indispensable in writing a piece of this length, said Ingalls.
“It’s been revised many times, but I was very, very fortunate to start that way.”
“This plane is not stopping at the Cherry Orchard Theatre,” said Levering, who added that it is not unusual for a piece of theater which gets its start at his theater to go on to other venues.
“I would bet that’s going to happen,” he added. “Terri knows how to tell a story. She has so much wit and humor. You can sit back and have fun with this trip down memory lane. To me, it’s a crowning jewel of the season. It’s Terri at her best, and I have such high expectations. It will help people discover the theater.”
Levering recalled some of the shows that began at Cherry Orchard before going on to other venues. “Far Appomattox” has gone on to runs in Charleston, South Carolina, Los Angeles and El Paso, Texas. Jake Thorne’s one-man tribute to John Wayne, “John Wayne, his Life and Legend,” will be having performances at the Stokes Arts Center this summer before traveling to the Borderland Film Festival in San Antonio, Texas.
Sometimes the Cherry Orchard goes out into the world, and sometimes the world comes to the Cherry Orchard. Ian Morgan, with Off-Broadway’s New Group Theater, spent the better part of a month with the theater staging Scott Organ’s play “The Faithful.”
“We try to make things happen that people think can’t happen,” said Levering. “We allow people to take chances, sometimes whether they want to or not.”
Cherry Orchard Theatre
2018 summer season
August 3, 4, 5 – “The Distance Between Us,” a play. In the early 1800s, Carroll County, Virginia, was populated by many Quakers – Quaker settlers comprised nearly one-third of the total population. Yet by 1830, nearly all of the county’s Quakers were gone. This play told in letters written between a Quaker mother who left the county for Ohio, and her daughter who remained in Carroll tells the story of who these early settlers were, and why they left the South. This Frank Levering-penned play was performed previously in Hillsville, Virginia, and Davidson.
August 10, 11, 12 – “The Dead Speak,” a play. A tribute to the power of the spoken word, and to the poet Edgar Lee Masters’ “Spoon River Anthology,” this play brings together more than twenty speakers from Carroll County, Virginia, cemeteries. An eerie chorus of the dead, the play spans two hundred years of rich and startling history in one small place on earth.
August 17, 18, 19 – “Go Tell It on the Mountain” – a happening. In three uncensored evenings of stories, music, conversation and live performance, issues of social upheaval and racial tension, racial identity, local and family history, spiritual heritage, endangered sense of home and place will be explored in a dark and dangerous time in American history. If you would like to “go tell it on the mountain,” let the Cherry Orchard Theatre hear from you.
August 24, 25, 26 – “Flights of Imagination,” a one-woman show. This world premiere performance is a trip back in time – a time when flying was a pleasure and passengers and crew were friends. Terri Ingalls was part of that fun-filled life and shares it in this one-woman show. From 1966 through 1969, she was a flight attendant with Piedmont Airlines – the small but now legendary carrier that was absorbed by US Air in 1989. Pilots, passengers, emergency landings, Saint Bernard puppies, proposals of marriage, and a touch of airline history are all woven together with skill and laughter. She reminds us that flying used to be fun – especially if you were you young, and it was the 1960s.
August 31, September 1 and 2 – “The Fiddler’s Daughter” — a play with music. In the culture of Southern Appalachia, even today few men or women are held in as high esteem as a master fiddle player or maker. To make that venerable instrument sing is a gift reserved for the gods – and only a few of mortals. In honor of the instrument and the music its bow draws forth, Fiddlers Conventions abound in the region, where fiddlers and other musicians celebrate life, love, and a grand tradition reaching back many centuries. It’s in this context that this Frank Levering play tells the story of a master fiddler and his estranged daughter, whom he has not seen for many years. This premiere play features Stu Shenk, a veteran actor (he plays Sidna Allen in “Thunder in the Hills,” among many other credits) and a master fiddler himself, and Rose Warshawna. A play with universal themes, “The Fiddlers Daughter” features live music, live human beings, and the living history and culture of this part of the world.
Admission is $10. Bring a lawn chair and anything you would like to eat or drink (Adult beverages permitted.) For more information, please call 276-755-3593. On Saturdays and Sundays, you can call the pack-house number — 276-755-3593 — and speak with Frank Levering. You can also often speak with Levering at 276-755-4722 (cell phone reception permitting), or email him at [email protected]
Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.