hansel and gretel

Column: Storyland Theatre celebrates 35 years with farewell event

(Disclaimer: Columns often contain opinion.)

The exact date is a blur.

I think it was March 16, 2020, but I honestly don’t remember too many dates in MarAprMayJunly 2020. What I do remember was that we were supposed to rehearse for Beauty and the Beast. The curtain was set to rise just before the kids got out of school for Masters.

By then, we’d memorized our lines (OK most of them); we knew our songs, choreography and blocking. We’d had our costume fittings. I was ready to be Renee, the sister of Beauty in this adaptation.

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Instead on that blurry day in March, we sat in a circle as Barbara Feldman delivered the fateful news — the show would not go on.

Storyland’s first show: October 1988. “Beware What You Ask of a Fairy” with playwright Rick Davis in background. L to R: Saundra Clements, Chantey Bruni Upton, Jenny Dushku, Matt Stovall, Peggy Williams, Barbara Feldman, Jeff Pullium. Photo courtesy Storyland Theatre Facebook page

The thing we later called COVID-19 was shutting down everything nationwide. In our own community, concerts and plays were being called off; schools were shutting down and businesses were closing.

But Barbara Feldman was hopeful.

We’ll postpone it. Maybe we can do it in the fall, she told us at the time.

What we didn’t know then was that Beauty and the Beast would never make it to the stage — ever. And that we were part of the last Storyland group to rehearse one of their original plays. On March 11, the curtain will come down after 35 years of Storyland Theatre with a special event at 3 p.m. at the Imperial Theatre, which includes a documentary that yours truly is part of.

When I was asked to be in Beauty and the Beast, it had been a few years since I’d done a show with Storyland. My theater resume has three Storyland credits. I did Cinderella twice — once in October 2006 and again in January 2017. And I was in a show called Beware What You Ask of a Fairy in October 2007.

In my 35 years of journalism, I’ve written thousands of stories. Some stories and sources stick with you longer than others. Barbara Feldman and her baby — that is Storyland — falls in that category.

I don’t remember exactly when I met Barbara, but I distinctly remember writing about Storyland Theatre’s 10th anniversary season.

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Paul Jones as King and Julie Jones as Queen, parents of baby Aurora in Sleeping Beauty. . Photo courtesy of Branch Carter.

For years, my mother faithfully cut out and laminated the many articles I wrote for The Augusta Chronicle. I still have them, and if I looked long enough, I’d likely find that article. I still can see it in my head. I remember the photograph taken from a rehearsal at the Augusta University Performing Arts Theatre.

Over the next 25 years, I’d talk to Barbara in a variety of capacities.

My children were still young when I was first introduced to Storyland. Exposing them to the arts early in their lives was important to me. Their first theater experience with the troupe was Bilbo and the Magic Ring, Storyland’s spin on The Hobbit.

From left, Nancy Cisick, Barbara Feldmand and Ashley Kight in Cinderella. Photo courtesy Storyland Theatre’s Facebook page

I vividly recall watching the late Jaime Burcham as Golem. Burcham was a bright creative light dimmed way too early. He died at the age of 28 in a 2003 drowning accident. Other Augusta stage luminaries — Matt Stovall, Tere Luke and Richard Justice who are no longer with us — performed with the group.

I think that initial performance had an impact on my son as well. He would go on to read all of the J.R.R. Tolkien books countless times and watch all the movies. He and his two sisters were also performers throughout high school and college.

Storyland plays were written with children in mind. They weren’t retrofitted stories originally designed for older audiences. Only 45 minutes long, they engaged elementary school aged children and could hold their attention for just long enough. And being a family on a tight budget, the price was right as well.

I also arranged for their classes to take field trips to see Storyland and served as a chaperone a couple of times. For the school groups, Storyland provided curriculum-based resources to make the field trip a complete learning experience.

I didn’t write stories on every Storyland production, but I did write some. I had the chance to interview people like Michael Fortino, who went to Storyland productions with his classes at Westmont Elementary School and later performed with the group. Michael has pursued an acting career. One role that gained some attention was as Ricky the 7-Eleven clerk in Stranger Things. He had a bit of a cult following with a Facebook fan page called Bring Ricky Back to Stranger Things.

Michael wasn’t the only actor Storyland touched.

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Barbara Feldman and Steve Walpert in The Frog Prince. Photo courtesy Facebook

In 35 years, Storyland performed for more than 750,000 children and adults. A performance schedule was hectic as many as 13 shows crammed into less than one week. For years, Storyland actors played to packed out houses at Augusta University and the Imperial Theatre.

 There’s nothing like hearing an audience full of children laugh at the silly things the characters sometimes did on stage. I met plenty of actors who said the genuine responses the children brought were sometimes more meaningful than the applause of adults.

Before the show, Barbara or another representative gave the theatre etiquette speech which included points like not talking during the show, but it was ok to laugh and clap; those responses were always appreciated.

From left, Charmain Brackett, Nancy Cisick, Lacie Carmichael and Margaret Meyers in Beware What You Ask of a Fairy in October 2007. Photo by Allie Brackett

What some people might not know about Storyland is that for many years, the organization provided college scholarships to Augusta University students.

Also, Barbara made sure that any child who wanted to come was able to come. If a school couldn’t afford a ticket, she’d find a grant to take that excuse out of the way. And military families came for free for many years. When retired Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Foley, former Fort Gordon commander, gave Barbara and Storyland an award for their support of the military, it was a highlight of her career, she recently told me.

It’s hard to say goodbye to something so beloved, but if Storyland impacted you or your children, please come at 3 p.m. and be sure to bring the Kleenex.

Maybe Barbara will give her famous theater etiquette speech one last time.

Charmain Z. Brackett is the publisher of Augusta Good News. Reach her at charmain@augustagoodnews.com. Subscribe to the newsletter here.

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One response to “Column: Storyland Theatre celebrates 35 years with farewell event”

  1. Robyn Wittenberg Dudley says:

    Great story! Kudos and Thank You to Barbara Feldman for creating Storyland Theatre for the Augusta area community.