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Sep 07, 2023

July 31, 2023

Sometimes tragedy leads to joy, loss paves the way for new birth.

Such was the case a quarter of a century ago, on the face of Fancy Gap Mountain, overlooking Cana, Virginia and Mount Airy beyond that. This weekend, a celebration of that new joy, new birth, will begin when the Cherry Orchard Theatre kicks off its 2023 season this weekend with “An Evening of Storytelling, Music, and Poetry” set for Friday, Saturday and Sunday, at 7 p.m. each day.

Frank Levering, founder of the theater and owner of Levering Orchard, home of the theater, said the theater is expanding its schedule this year as part of that celebration, with eight different shows spread over July, August and September.

When he first staged a play at the site, in the summer of 1999, Levering said he had no inclination that effort would grow into such a fixture on the local art scene, one whose reach extends far beyond the mountain and valley below.

“I had pictured it as just a one-off,” he said of that initial weekend’s show, a play he had written which ran over three nights.

That play, and the story of Cherry Orchard Theatre, truthfully goes back much further — more than a century when Levering’s grandparents, settled the land just north of the North Carolina-Virginia border, with the long-range goal of establishing an orchard.

“Ralph and Clara Levering arrived at what’s now the orchard in a wagon, being drawn by a horse,” Levering said recently. “That was in February 1908. They came all the way from Maryville, Tennessee. My grandmother was eight months pregnant with my dad when they got there.”

He said the two took up residence in a small two-room log cabin. A month later, Levering’s father was born, and a year later the two had built what would become the family homestead, where they resided building what would become Levering Orchard.

Eighty-seven years later, Levering said the house burned to the ground.

“We had some college students from Guilford College staying there,” he said. Levering was living in the newer homestead on the grounds, the one his parents had lived in. “One night, at about 9 o’clock, they came running down to my house, told me my house was on fire. I thought they were talking about the house I was in, but when I went outside, I could see there were flames coming out of the roof.”

By the time the fire department arrived and extinguished the blaze, the roof and chimneys had collapsed, the walls had burned down to one-story ruins, and everything else inside was lost.

Not long afterward, he was walking the grounds, looking at the ruins of the home his grandfather had built.

“That’s when I had the idea to do a play about the people who lived in that house” he said. That Levering would turn to drama and the theater as his way of dealing with the tragedy should be no surprise — he spent a number of years in California as a script writer, has penned plays, poems, and authored or co-authored a half dozen books. Writing, particularly for performance art, is one of Levering’s passions.

“It took me a couple of years, as it usually does, to write the play, but I got the play completed in early 1999,” he said. He gathered a few friends and local artists to collaborate with him on producing the story.

“We did this play with the idea of paying tribute to the people who lived in the house, my grandparents, my dad, and everybody. I had pictured it as just a one-off.”

Area residents and visitors put other ideas in his head.

“We wound up doing that play over the course of three weekends in the summer of 1999, over 1,200 people came, which was a shock…That’s when the idea of a summer theater came from, I really had no intention of that, but I realized something wonderful might be happening here.”

He worked with his friend, well-known local storyteller Terri Ingalls, and a few other artists and put together what has become a 25-season odyssey that has led to an untold number of live performances at the orchard.

“It’s got to be over a hundred,” Levering said of the number of productions which have come to life on the outdoor stage there. “Probably well over a hundred. “It’s been at least three or four weekends a year, and often a different show each weekend.”

Those shows generally would have a three-day run, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and occasionally a second weekend. with a different show taking stage the following month, and yet another one the month after.

Some of the shows there have gone on to much larger audiences, to be performed by international stage and television stars. One show, “The Distance Between Us,” debuted at the Cherry Orchard Theatre, and eventually found its way into other stages, where actresses Holly Hunter and Amy Madigan played the two major roles.

Another involved local resident Dan Hornak, whose portrayal of fictional John Wayne tribute artist Jack Thorne debuted at Cherry Orchard but has seen Hornak perform the show in Texas as well as multiple California venues.

Some of the other shows have also taken to the road, with the local actors putting on the shows in Mount Airy, in Charleston, South Carolina, and elsewhere.

But getting big-name actors, or launching a traveling show, isn’t really what Levering is after at Cherry Orchard.

“That doesn’t have to happen,” he said of his measure of success at the theater. “If it happens, that’s great. But if we do it with a local audience, and everyone has a great time, that’s what we’re about…something for our community.”

This year, the community will have far more opportunities to see the shows and productions at Cherry Orchard, with eight different shows set.

In addition to this weekend’s offering, on the season’s schedule include on August 4 – 6 which will be the Celebration of 25 Seasons at Cherry Orchard Theatre and from August 11 – 13 the theater will have a two-play set in one evening featuring “The Dead Speak” and “The View From Clara’s Porch.”

Running August 18 – 20 will be another two-show evening with An Evening with the Browns and a short play “Raw Toads.” On August 25- 27 the stage will feature an evening with actor Robert Dobson.

Cherry Orchard opes the new month with “H5” running from Sept. 1 -3 and then on Sept. 8 – 10: “All We Know of Heaven.” Finally, “The Witches Brew: Tales of Appalachian Witches” will take the stage Sept. 15 – 17.

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