Sitting in the darkened balcony of Sanford’s Temple Theatre last Friday evening and watching a lively, sold-out production of the musical “Footloose” on the well-worn stage below, I found myself pondering two questions in between bursts of applause.

Question 1: How did they manage to get all those bright, mostly young cast members so awesomely well rehearsed?

But more to the point, Question 2: Why the heck do we have to drive all the way up to Lee County to see something like this instead of experiencing it in our own beloved Sunrise Theater in Southern Pines?

I’m not begrudging the Temple its success. Built in 1925 as a performance venue for vaudeville acts and such, it seems to have done pretty well ever since, with some ups and downs. It has been especially successful in the past 10 years under the energetic and creative leadership of Peggy Taphorn, who took over as producing artistic director after a 22-year career as an actress, director and choreographer in the theatrical world of New York.

Yes, Sanford’s population of 28,000 is more than twice Southern Pines’ 13,000. But the Sunrise serves all of Moore County, whose population of 88,000 far exceeds Lee’s 58,000. So the math on the potential audience would seem to come out fairly even.

The point: On balance, it just seems to me as if our area should be able to support a more sustained program of quality live theater than it has managed to do in the couple of decades we have lived here. Besides touching on this subject in this column, I hope to explore it more deeply in subsequent ones, with the help of people who know a lot more about it than I do.

Lord knows there have been some valiant efforts in this direction in years and decades past. In fact, my wife, Brenda, and I (she is the real theater person in the family) have been well acquainted with some of the key people involved.

There was Paula Reeder Thompson, who plugged away ably for years with Sandhills Little Theater. Cinny Beggs did some great work with Moore on Stage. Then there were Don and Lisa Bridge’s creative efforts with their Sandbox Players. All, to my knowledge, ended up growing weary of beating their heads against that particular wall and eventually folded their tents and silently stole away. I would hope to hear more from them all about their experiences in that regard and the lessons to be learned therefrom, if they’re willing.

Fundraising appears to be a particular nagging problem in our neck of the woods. Recruiting the kind of youthful actors who were so evident in Temple’s “Footloose” also seems to be a challenge.

Still, lots of good groundwork in that latter department is being laid locally by drama teachers like Adam Faw of Pinecrest (where Rod Harter excelled before his retirement), Judy Osborne of Union Pines, and Kim Brock Fielder-Jones of North Moore.

Then there is the impressive success that Morgan Sills has achieved in recent years with his Judson Theatre productions in Owens Auditorium at Sandhills Community College, though that is a rather different breed of cat.

In short, there appears to be a wealth of creative raw material to draw upon here to put together a successful community theater effort, with more choices eventually being offered at the Sunrise than movies, Blues Crawls and simulcasts of Metropolitan Opera or Bolshoi Ballet productions — though there is certainly nothing wrong with those.

Taphorn’s successes at Temple (you could hardly ignore those “Sold Out Tonight” signs taped to the front doors Friday) could no doubt offer some valuable insights.

Here, perhaps, is one lesson to be learned: Rather than starting out with an esoteric production of, say, “Death of a Salesman” or “Waiting for Godot” or whatever, perhaps it’s better to first go about building an audience with a more widely inviting show like “Footloose.” After all, it involved double-casting of dozens of eager young actors, most of whom are local kids with parents and aunts and uncles and grandparents who are sure to be mobbing the ticket lines. There will be time for the more rarified, intellectually stimulating stuff later.

As I wrote in another recent column, the population of the Southern Pines area just seems especially cosmopolitan and worldly and literate, compared with what one would normally expect (perhaps unfairly) to encounter in your average, prototypical small Southern town. Surely this offers quite a rich vein of ore in these parts to be mined and refined.

The Sunrise board might also be more willing to make time and space available for a show that seemed likely to fill seats.

Enough for now. It’s a complicated subject, I know, involving not only art but also economics and social habits. But much good community theater has been staged by many good people over the years since the Sunrise was rescued nearly two decades ago. I would just like to see the curtain go up on a revival of that tradition.

I mean, if they can do it in Sanford, why can’t we do it here?


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