In December 2023, my family attended the North Carolina Theatre’s production of Elf. It was another thrilling night back with old friends in my nearly 40-year association with North Carolina’s largest professional theatre company — one of the few in America primarily dedicated to producing Broadway-caliber musicals with a world class youth-training organization.

The vision of North Carolina Theatre is to preserve the unique American art form of musical theatre, to provide broad access to the arts, and to entertain and engage diverse audiences. It did so masterfully for four decades. But last week, the organization suspended operations and filed for bankruptcy. Downtown Raleigh and the arts community will never be the same.

For years, NCT thrilled audiences in the 2,300 seat Raleigh Memorial Auditorium, inside what is now called the Martin Marietta Performing Arts Center.

On May 24, 1984, North Carolina Theatre, opened its doors to their very first production, Camelot. Under the direction of De Ann Jones, the production starred Terrence Mann as “King Arthur” and Sharon Lawrence as “Guinevere.” Both actors have since gone on to play countless other roles on stage, TV, and film. The show opened with 825 season tickets sold and a total audience of 24,000. Upon Camelot’s opening, The Raleigh Times proclaimed that “Broadway had finally come to Raleigh.” 

Mann would go on to star and direct many NCT productions, all while becoming a Tony nominated Broadway star, and featured TV and film actor. Mann recently  starred in the Apple-TV series Foundation.  

Sharon Lawrence would go on to star in dozens of films and TV shows, most notably NYPD Blue.

I first attended the theatre’s Summer Theatre Arts School, in 1986 or 1987, at 13 or 14 years of age. I performed on Raleigh’s Memorial Auditorium Stage for the first time in 9th Grade, in NCT’s Peter Pan, and attended the training camp for years, eventually becoming a counselor. I performed in the Music Man, Camelot, the Sound of Music, Grease among others. I worked backstage, volunteered, and for years stayed connected to the organization. 

I was never that talented of an actor, singer, or dancer, but I loved it anyway. I earned my first paycheck from NCT. For every star NCT launched, dozens of others received life-altering positive experiences and got the thrill of working in a Broadway-caliber show, however briefly. While preforming on stage is different than being a live television reporter or giving political speeches, the skills I learned at NCT translated into my work in professional communication for decades. I am forever grateful.

Before Jones created the North Carolina Theatre, Raleigh’s Memorial Auditorium was a antiquated and dusty facility, mostly used for high school graduations and a few symphony concerts. The fact we were even able to stage Peter Pan was a small miracle. There was basically no backstage, and props and sets had to be suspended from the roof when not in use. There was not even a loading door for sets. The dressing rooms were on the sides of the stage and difficult to access. Many traveling shows who wanted to come to Raleigh, simply could not fit or access the building.

But Jones success with NCT led to a massive renovation of the building in the early 1990’s, with a new glass lobby, royal staircase, modern production capabilities, new seats, restrooms, dressing rooms and backstage space, along with the addition of a new concert/symphony hall, smaller opera theatre, and a 150-seat black box theatre. For years, NCT thrived, as did the Raleigh preforming arts scene. Without NCT and the renovations to the facility, famous national tour productions, like Cats, Phantom of the Opera, Les Misérables, and Miss Saigon would not have come to Raleigh.

Raleigh actress Lauren Kennedy-Brady, who starred on Broadway in Sunset Boulevard, SpamalotSide Show, and Les Misérables, began her training through the Jones-created children’s training program at the Jones-founded North Carolina Theatre.  

She performed in dozens of NCT shows over the last three decades, including starring roles in EvitaBeauty and the BeastMamma Mia!, and many others.

Along with Kennedy-Brady, NCT launched countless careers of professional actors, actresses, singers and musicians.  

Long before his fame-making American Idol appearance, a 17-year-old Clay Aiken performed in NCT’s 1996 productions of 1776 and Shenandoah. He returned at the heights of his success in 2013 to star in NCT’s Drowsy Chaperone. Aiken’s first-ever audition was for NCT.  

Film actress Kate Arrington, also started her acting career in NCT’s Summer Theatre Arts School, a children’s program created by Jones. Now known as the NCT Conservatory, the program trains hundreds of young performers each year in dance, music, and the dramatic arts.  

Three-time Tony-nominated actress Beth Leavel, a Raleigh native, also got her career off the ground with the North Carolina Theatre. Since then she has been in 14 Broadway shows, winning the Tony award for her starring role in The Drowsy Chaperone. Leavel is preparing for her latest Broadway starring role as Miranda Priestley in the new Broadway musical, “The Devil Wears Prada,” with music by Elton John.

The theater’s board (which I previously served on for 6 years) cited “external forces during and after the pandemic,” including higher production costs; the loss of corporate and personal sponsorships; a decline in sales; and a slow return of audiences to live shows for their decision to shut down.

The theatre tried to find new funding and to scale down productions to reduce expenses. “Unfortunately, those efforts did not result in the ability to continue producing live theatre at this time,” the board said. “As a part of the reorganization plan, NCT will continue its efforts to secure substantial public funding to supplement its funding from ticket sales, sponsorships, and donations.”

Among the shows that are canceled is a production of the Broadway hit “Rent,” which was scheduled for late April.

In one bit of good news, the NC Theatre Conservatory and its training programs in acting, dance and voice performance will continue. No longer will those students be able to showcase those talents in NCT mainstage Broadway productions, a sad loss of opportunity for budding NC performers. How many future Lauren Kennedys won’t get a chance to shine?

There are many reasons for NCT’s demise, the largest being the COVID-19 pandemic. Also, once the Durham Preforming Arts Center (DPAC) opened under management of Nederlander Organization, Raleigh was no longer the premier destination for traveling Broadway productions. Suddenly NCT was competing with the world’s largest theatre organization, which not only managed DPAC but hosted shows it owned and produced, with a dramatically more favorable economy of scale for presenting Broadway musicals.

As good as NCT was, its model of creating large-scale productions for a week or two run, simply no longer works.

In cancelling the rest of its season, NCT shelved plans to recreate Camelot, its first-ever show on the companies 40th anniversary.

In the words of King Arthur:“Don’t let it be forgot. That once there was a spot, For one brief shining moment. That was known as [NCT] Camelot!”