By Bernie Petit
It’s been around for 50 years, but the Davidson Community Players (DCP) is still introducing itself to new audiences in North Mecklenburg and beyond.
“There are scores of patrons who don’t know anything about our history,” said executive director Matt Merrell. “They just know that we’re producing a show that they want to see, so they come out.
“Many of our patrons are continuing to discover us for the first time.”
The booming growth in the Lake Norman region over the past 20 years means that Davidson is a very different place than it was when it held its first production – the original play “Times of Harvest” – in July 1965.
Back then, the Players was a sleepy summer theater company that only performed on the campus of Davidson College while the students were on their extended breaks.
“We produced all of our shows over on the campus of the college and we can only get access to that space when the students are gone,” Merrell said.
That’s how it went for 30-plus years, until the theater added a show during spring break.
“We would rehearse a show elsewhere and then come into the college space during the break and do one weekend of performances and then we were done,” he said.
Merrell, a former lawyer who has worked nearly 20 DCP shows as either an actor or director since 1997, was a DCP board member when those spring shows were added.
DCP’s shows were selling well, its patrons were constantly asking for more shows and there was a demand for youth theater classes that wasn’t being met.
“We realized there was both tremendous growth in this region with people moving into the Lake Norman area and new neighborhoods going up everywhere,” he said.
“But there was also this tremendous demand for the arts in this area.”
To begin to meet that demand, the organization partnered with the Town of Davidson in 2008 to purchase and convert an old abandoned church into the 110-seat Armour Street Theatre.
Since then, DCP has expanded its programming, going from two or three shows a year to eight productions. The accessibility to more space has allowed it to add acting classes year-round, cultivate the resources to hire an education coordinator and provide full- and half-day summer camps for kids ages 4 to 16.
“Now we feel like we’re offering this broader array of artistic experiences for adults and for youth,” he said. “So the organization has changed dramatically since we acquired that space.”
DCP is also a fairly mature company now, Merrell said – one that has played an integral role in building community in Davidson and Lake Norman.
Kids that started out in its Connie Company Productions (named after DCP founder Connie Welsh) have worked their way up to leading roles in the theater’s main stage productions.
Support of the theater is demonstrated through not only high attendance but through strong community financial as well.
“We just feel like the power of what we do helps knit this Lake Norman community together,” Merrell said.
The secret, if there is one, is producing quality work that people want to see, he said. For the Players’ 50th anniversary, it gave its patrons the chance to decide which musical it would perform for its biggest show of the year.
They chose “Chicago,” which will be performed June 18-27 at the Duke Family Performance Hall on the Davidson College campus. And, in a nod to patrons that have been with the theater for a while, the Players will reprise the comedy “Don’t Dress for Dinner,” which it first performed 10 years ago.
“We try to choose shows we think our audiences want to see and that will get them to come back and see us again,” Merrell said.
The goal is for the Players audience to continue to grow with the organization as it strives to meet the community’s demand for the arts.
DCP’s continued growth will mean more shows, more programs and more space to offer programs in the future, Merrell said.
“As we continue to meet the demand, we continue to bring more and more patrons and families into what we do,” he said. “And so while we’re proud of our past, we’re really excited about our future.”
Celebrate 50 Years of the Davidson Community Players
The Davidson Community Players present the musical “Chicago” from June 18-27 at Duke Family Performance Hall, 207 Faculty Drive, Davidson. Players patrons voted for “Chicago” to be the musical production for the theater’s 50th anniversary. Click here for more details.