Recent news that a map in the British Museum offers a tantalizing clue to the location of “The Lost Colony” was a boon for historians, but it may be less welcome for producers of the drama about the 1587 English settlement on Roanoke Island.
That’s because the settlers’ unknown fate is the key attraction in the nation’s longest-running historical outdoor drama, which has opened in Manteo for its 75th anniversary season. The mystery of what happened to more than 100 men, women and children, missing when English ships returned in 1590, has captivated audiences since 1937 and has helped cement North Carolina as the capital of outdoor drama.
At “The Lost Colony,” audience members heading to the Waterside Theatre walk through the area where the missing colonists actually lived. Yet, even with a possible solution pending, the summers-only production has many aspects to keep audiences coming.
More than 100 actors, singers, dancers and technicians stage vivid recreations of Queen Elizabeth I’s court, the Plymouth docks from which the settlers sailed, New World Indian villages and the colony’s isolated encampment. Children are engaged by the tribal ceremonies and battles, while adults respond to the story of Virginia Dare, the first child born to English parents in the New World, and to the settlers’ enduring hardships. The production’s dramatic climax, in which the starving settlers leave in search of food and to avoid the arriving Spanish, is a moving moment for all.
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Ira David Wood III, artistic director of Raleigh’s Theatre in the Park and an actor in “The Lost Colony” for four seasons, considers that finale one of American theater’s finest moments.
Despite the ongoing pull “The Lost Colony” exerts, it has experienced attendance fluctuations over the last 20 years, as have most of North Carolina’s nine other historical outdoor dramas.
Michael C. Hardy, director of the N.C.-based Institute of Outdoor Drama, acknowledges that electronic distractions of TV and computers have had an effect. Unpredictable weather and events like last year’s wildfires also can keep people away, and newer Outer Banks area attractions play a major role in siphoning off tourists.
Still, most long-running outdoor dramas survive because of what Hardy terms “the legacy effect.” When Hardy was general manager of “The Lost Colony” last year, he spoke to a number of people who had seen the production as children and who now wanted their own children to have the experience.
Another way “The Lost Colony” and other outdoor dramas maintain their longevity is with changes to script and production style. “The Lost Colony” has seen its share of revisions and re-thinkings.
To that end, Tony Award-winning designer William Ivey Long, who’s responsible for the overall production design. of “The Lost Colony,” has used period portraits of Queen Elizabeth I to create her costumes as well as those of her courtiers. He also studied the drawings that John White made while on Roanoke Island in 1585 to create the Indian costumes. New choreographer Jimmie Lee Brooks is working to bring back more of the ritualistic nature of the Indian dances for more authentic-looking movements.
Director Robert C. Richmond, back for a fifth season, has put an Elizabethan stamp on the show, drawing on his extensive staging of Shakespeare. He also is adding back a character from the Pulitzer Prize-winner Paul Green’s original script that has been absent since the earliest days. The character is only identified as “A Young Man at Court,” but through the dialog, it is readily apparent that the character is William Shakespeare.
Such changes will continue over the years, a process Hardy calls appropriate.
“When shows get stuck in a rut and don’t change at all, that’s when interest starts to dwindle,” he said. “I think the ‘Lost Colony’ has done an exceptional job of avoiding that trap.”