A lot of cool things have happened to the Sunrise Theater since it was rescued from closing a couple of decades ago. (Can it really be that long?)

But surely the best piece of luck that Southern Pines’ downtown theater has experienced in more recent times came early last year. I’m talking about the hiring of MaryBeth Poplyk as its executive director — even though she’s a modest person and won’t approve of my saying that.

And now, MaryBeth and a lot of others, including the chairman of the theater board, Geoff Cutler, are moving in a most creative way — but also an eminently practical one — toward helping achieve a goal that a few of us have been making pests of ourselves about for quite a long time now: the return of live theater to the Sunrise.

Nobody’s talking about replacing movies, which are Sunrise’s financial bread-and-butter. But couldn’t we just slip in a stage play two or three times a year? Sounds great. In the real world, though, each live production could throw the movie screen into darkness for weeks — not just for the performance schedule, but also for numerous days of rehearsal and set-building. That’s a lot to ask.

On top of that, let’s face it: The modest size and limited backstage facilities of the Sunrise make it hardly the place to try and put on a full-scale production of “The Sound of Music” or whatever.

“The Sunrise is not the right place for all productions,” MaryBeth said in an interview, “but it’s the perfect place for some. Our stage isn’t huge, but it’s a good size. The wings are small. We don’t have fancy dressing rooms. … A production can’t take over the theater for weeks — it would stop all other revenue streams, which would be financially irresponsible.”

On the other hand, she added, “We have a beautiful, historic theater. You can sense its personality and charm the minute you walk in the front doors.”

True enough. And now the Sunrise has set out to make the greatest use of that charm by carefully

injecting live shows into the theater’s body in imaginative ways that scarcely interrupt the cinematic blood flow.

First came last fall’s brief production of a radio-play version of the musical holiday favorite “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Both showings sold out.

“It was a 100 percent success, directed by two talented Sunrise house managers,” MaryBeth said. “The nostalgic 1940s radio play fit perfectly on the stage and the personality of the venue, and the rehearsal time never interfered with the movie screen. Everything was back in place in time for the opera or movie or whatever. It was all a test, and it went very well.”

Another brief live production is set for Feb. 16: Mitch Capel’s one-man show “Our Story.”

But the next step, a big and impressive one, will take place this spring. It will be the first on-stage result — and hopefully not the last — of an exciting collaboration between MaryBeth and Peggy Taphorn, of the Temple Theatre in Sanford.

“I began working with Peggy last February,” MaryBeth said. “She selected ‘Steel Magnolias’ as the ideal test production. It requires simple staging, a small cast, and a great Southern story. Peggy has been wonderful — she’s incredibly creative, talented and supportive.”

This production of “Steel Magnolias” is a simplified, stripped-down version of the hit movie starring Sally Field and Dolly Parton. Temple has designed the set so that it can be transported and fit on the Sunrise stage as easily as it fits on the Temple stage.

MaryBeth explained it this way:

“The entire production will be packed up and driven down the road to the Sunrise for three performances — same actors, costumes, set, direction — after it wraps at the Temple. The Sunrise performances are Saturday, April 4, at 2 and 7:30, and Sunday, April 5, at 2. Tickets are $29 and are available now.”

Here again, every possible step is being taken to minimize any disruption of moviegoers’ lives. Since the Sunrise projection screen is way to the front of the stage, work on setting up the space behind it can probably proceed while causing a film shutdown of no more than a day or two.

“The Sunrise has been diligently working to upgrade stage curtains, sound system and lighting for the production,” MaryBeth said. “Curtains and sound are complete — lighting is in process. Although it’s a test, we have high confidence that the Temple and the Sunrise will continue the partnership for future productions.”

The success of this bold collaboration, she said, will depend on “how the community responds to it.” Hopefully, that response will be enthusiastic.

Remember: April 4 and 5. Put it on your calendar.

Steve Bouser is the retired editor and Opinion editor of The Pilot. Contact him at bouser@email.unc.edu.

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