Outdoor Theatre and the New Deal, Take Two
Back in February, I first wrote about two amphitheaters represented in the Institute of Outdoor Theatre’s archives that were constructed through New Deal programs. I now present another amphitheater that has its beginnings in the Great Depression and New Deal programs: Waterside Theatre in Manteo, North Carolina.
Roanoke Island residents in 1936 commissioned Paul Green to write a play to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the birth of Virginia Dare. In 1937, the play, The Lost Colony, debuted at Waterside Theatre in Manteo, North Carolina. The world and the United States were in the depths of the Great Depression, and would remain so for another two years. But President Franklin D. Roosevelt had placed relief and reform measures in place to help lessen the worst effects. Those involved with the The Lost Colony benefited from New Deal programs, and without them, the drama may not have developed.
Waterside Theatre was built by local Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) labor and Works progress Administration (WPA) funding. Construction was led by Albert Quentin “Skipper” Bell, and was completed within about six months. The Lost Colony’s first director, Samuel Selden, requested the stage be built first so rehearsals could take place while the seating was completed. Costumes were made by local WPA seamstresses, and boys from a nearby CCC camp had roles as Natives. While many of the other actors in the play came from Roanoke Island, six leading roles (along with several assistants and counselors) came from the WPA’s Federal Theatre Project in New York City. Among the actors were Katherine Cale, as Eleanor Dare, and Lillian Ashton, as Queen Elizabeth.
The Lost Colony was originally intended only for the summer of 1937, but public outcry warranted the drama becoming a yearly production. The theatre had not been built to last as a permanent structure. In 1941, with funds matched by the WPA and under Bell’s watch, the theatre was improved to resist the “peculiar atmospheric condition” of Roanoke Island. (1941 souvenir program)
Since the Waterside Theatre was first built, it has been destroyed twice – once by fire in 1947 and once by Hurricane Donna in 1960. Despite these obstacles, the theatre was rebuilt and the stage remains much the same as 1937 when The Lost Colony first debuted. What has changed is the seating and addition of rain shelters and concession stands, but the stage is still very much recognizable as Bell’s 1937 construction.