Highlands Playhouse celebrates 80th season

Highlands Playhouse is wrapping up 80 years of performances and staff and guests celebrated this anniversary on July 27. Dwight Bryant has spent 25 years at the Playhouse serving in a variety of roles including president, vice president and treasurer of the Playhouse Board of Directors.

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Performers in “Damn Yankees,” the final production of the 80th season at The Highlands Playhouse.

“To me I think the Playhouse is such a gem for Highlands,” said Bryant. “So many young actors began their careers here. With so many plays and movies, it’s a great place for young people. It’s a local, city, state and national treasure.”

Started in the mid-1930s, the Highlands Community Theater troupe originally performed in the auditorium of Highlands School. Eventually the school was relocated to 545 Pierson Drive and the old building housing the school was demolished, but the auditorium was left standing and is the Playhouse today at 362 Oak Street. The Playhouse is one of the oldest theaters in North Carolina, said Playhouse Artistic Director Bill Patti.

“As far as we’re concerned, we are the second oldest theater company in North Carolina,” he said. “Flat Rock Playhouse started the same year as us (1937), but we took two years off during World War II.”

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Bill Patti and Lance Matzke sitting on the steps of The highlands Playhouse on the day of dress rehearsals for “Damn Yankees.”

Things have changed over 80 years, but mostly in a positive way said Patti. Highlands Community Theater has more members, and Patti said their productions are attracting some big time talent.

“We’re really proud that we’re bringing in really top class talent,” said Patti. “These are high-profile actors that don’t really come to towns like this. When we first started, it used to be 80 percent local actors. Now it’s 10 percent local.”

The Highlands Community Theater will move to the Performing Arts Center after the 81st season in 2019. The PAC is currently being renovated to include a much larger theater and other production improvements including a full fly (flight system), stage wings and a 350-seat theater.

“This move is exciting for us because we’re busting at the seams,” said Patti. “We’re limited to one set with no wings. Our production quality and the ability to showcase great spectacles will improve ten-fold.”

Even though the move seems to be a step in the right direction, the original Playhouse will be missed.

“Such great memories,” said Bryant. “There have been so many amazing productions that have been done there, it’s difficult to look back and pick a favorite that sticks out.”

Lance Matzke, Playhouse managing director, said the move to the PAC is a smart choice.

“I know there is a lot of sentiment for this building, but it will be nice to consolidate with the PAC,” said Matzke.

Matzke added that it’s that sentiment that helps the Playhouse keep its doors open.

We have a lot of generous and dedicated supporters in the community,” he said. “Ticket sales only account for half of operations costs.”

The final production of the 80th season is “Damn Yankees,” directed by Patti. The story is based on a novel by Douglas Wallop called “The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant,” about a middle-aged baseball fanatic who sells his soul to the devil to become the best baseball player ever and lead his beloved Washington Senators to the championship.

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The premise of the “Damn Yankees” is a baseball fanatic sells his soul to the devil to become the greatest baseball player ever and lead his team to win the pennant.

Heidi Karol Johnson plays the role of Applegate (the devil). This is not her first time performing in this play, she has performed it both in college and regional theater. However, this is the first time she is playing the character Applegate, who is usually performed by a male actor.

“It’s fun and interesting to be androgynous,” said Johnson. “This is an old time musical with that positive spirit. It’s so much fun. It’s the joy of musical theater come back.”

“Damn Yankees” runs until Aug. 4. The Playhouse also shows movies and is currently featuring “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again.” For ticket information call the Playhouse at 828-526-2695.

Article and photos by Brian O’Shea
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