After you've had a stage built in the backyard of your home in Verdict Ridge for a friend's wedding, what do you do with the stage?
If you are Grant Ewing, 49, a veteran of television and radio who currently works for Aflac, you decide to "throw a party that people will never forget."
That party, held in 2004, involved a group of neighbors with no theatrical experience lip-synching a few scenes from the musical "Chicago." The cast included accountants, teachers, an airline pilot, bank tellers and managers, a senior vice president for Bank of America, and a scholar with a PhD in chemistry.
Lighting was provided by volunteers standing on a ladder with flashlights, costumes and set were quite simple, and a DJ provided music for dancing after the show. The evening was a huge success, despite the 36-degree weather, and the money collected from the $10 admission charge was donated to charity.
"And that was the end of it," says Ewing, who directed the show. "We thought we were done."
Six years later, productions by the Backyard Players of Verdict Ridge have become an annual tradition, with a new show presented every September and more than $70,000 donated to charity so far. The Verdict Ridge golf and country club community is off N.C. 73, west of N.C. 16 in Denver.
Their production of "Grease" the next year involved most of the story rather than just a few scenes, and spotlights replaced flashlights.
The singing and dialog in every show is lip-synched, so audiences can appreciate the original, professional quality of the show, while watching friends and neighbors on stage.
The Backyard Players produced most of the scenes from "Guys and Dolls" in 2006, and not to be outdone by their own success, they followed it the next year with a complete production of the musical comedy "The Drowsy Chaperone."
Director Grant Ewing adds, "That show was a big hit. It's what put us on the map."
Building on an earlier success, they presented "Chicago" again in 2008, with the addition of a 15-foot by 15-foot movie screen showing scenes from the movie between live scenes on stage. In preparation for the 2009 production of Monty Python's "Spamalot," three members of the cast went to Atlanta to see a professional production of the show.
Their most recent production, "Young Frankenstein," played to sold-out audiences for its two-night run.
While the 25 cast members typically have no theatrical experience, professional backgrounds are often surprising.
The role of the village idiot, while doubling as a horse in the hay scene, was filled by Larry Nativi, 62, a retired chemical engineer who designed munitions and ordinance for the Department of Defense.
"I used to lecture to chemical engineering students and professors at the university," said Nativi, "but this is more of a rush than pointing at the Powerpoint presentation."
Ewing portrayed Igor, Dr. Frankenstein's long-suffering and ever-present hunch-backed assistant, while Frankenstein (the doctor, not his creation), was convincingly played by Lou Sorrento, 48, a local realtor.
Those in the audience who remembered seeing Gene Wilder play Dr. Frankenstein in the movie version were impressed with Sorrento's take on the lead character.
Andrea Trotter, 26, the youngest member of the cast, was quite lovely and sexy as Inga, Frankenstein's lab assistant and ultimately his love interest. Trotter also managed the offstage task of publicity and ticket sales.
The role of the ominous Frau Blucher, whose very name elicited a chorus of neighing horses every time it was mentioned, was filled by Melissa Rishkofski, 48. Although she was practically upstaged by the conspicuous mole on her chin and the severe hairstyle, she was a presence to be reckoned with.
The task of assistant director fell to Sandra Dunn, 42, a real estate broker. Although she would have liked a speaking part as well, she was relegated to the role of cruise director.
"Grant says I can't act, sing or dance - I have two left feet - so he won't let me onstage unless it's in a non-speaking role," Dunn says. "It's a lot of hard work, but the night of the show, it's very magical."
An additional 30 volunteers assist with parking, food preparation, set construction and lighting. Ticket prices for the 200 seats at each of two performances range from $30 to $70, and this year's production yielded a donation of $15,000 to the Sally's Y scholarship fund and Backpacks for Kids. Performances are preceded by dinner, with catered food donated by local restaurants.
"We are still a bunch of neighbors that get together and put on a show," Ewing says. "As for the future, who knows? After every show, I always say 'That's it.' And then by February people start asking me, 'What are we going to be doing this year?' And my response is, 'Let me see.'"