Destination Walter: The Lost Colony

History lives vividly through a longtime Outer Banks production

by Jason Frye

“I knew I’d be back to direct,” says Ira David Wood III, the esteemed stage and screen actor perhaps best-known, at least around Raleigh, for his 40-plus-year role as Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, which he also directs. On a recent afternoon, however, he’s talking about The Lost Colony, the first and longest-running outdoor drama in the nation. This month, Wood will take his annual leave of the city to return to his coastal post in Manteo, North Carolina – another season directing The Lost Colony. There, he’s building a vivid creative legacy that honors both history and his local theatre roots.

Every summer since 1937 – except for a brief hiatus brought on by the threat of German U-boats during World War II – The Lost Colony has presented audiences with the story of the ill-fated Roanoke Colony, an attempt by British explorers to establish a permanent settlement on the Outer Banks. In 1587, 115 colonists took possession of an abandoned military fort on the north end of Roanoke Island, established farms, and began a life here. War with the Spanish kept resupply from reaching the colony, but finally, in 1590, British ships arrived only to find the settlement deserted. There was no trace of the colonists; no bodies, no signs of a battle, just dismantled homes and fortifications and the word CROATOAN carved into a fence post. They were gone, the entire colony disappeared. Did they move to Croatoan Island – now Hatteras – or someplace inland? Did they meet their end at the hands of hostile natives?

“They probably wound up in more than one place, but we’ll likely never know,” says Bill Coleman, CEO of the Roanoke Island Historical Association. “Paul Green’s script doesn’t attempt to answer the where or why of the colonists’ departure, instead it shows us the lives they lived here.”

‘Tell their story well’

Here is literally here, from the theatre’s point of view (about 200 miles east of Raleigh). Waterside Theatre overlooks Roanoke Sound at the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, only a couple of hundred yards from where the Lost Colonists disappeared, which means the actors are in character walking the same ground as their historic counterparts.

“During my first season with The Lost Colony, our director reminded us that we’re performing on sacred ground. I remind my cast of this. Some of the people we portray are buried beneath us and we owe it to their memory to tell their story well,” says Wood.

The Lost Colony has evolved since it debuted in 1937. It’s evolved since Wood joined the cast for four summers in the late 1960s. Now it’s evolving under his direction.

One of the missions given to Wood when he came on as director was to cut the play. “Paul’s words were sacrosanct when I was in the show,” he says, “but I made surgical cuts, found ways to combine scenes and communicate our story in other ways, and now we’re two hours with an intermission.”

Many of those cuts were guided in spirit by playwright Paul Green, a North Carolina native and longtime Triangle resident. He and Wood grew close after Wood’s stint in the play. They’d have dinner together and they’d visit at Green’s Chapel Hill home to talk about the play, donning baseball gloves and tossing a ball in the backyard while discussing ways to condense, modernize, and develop characters in ways you simply couldn’t in 1937.

The script is only one part of the play, though. A way to develop characters and modernize is through costumes and makeup, lights, stunts, sets, and sound; under Wood, these elements have pushed creative boundaries even further.

“Our production designer, Billy Ivey Long – a show alumnus – he doesn’t make costumes, he makes clothes. You put them on and you’re there, standing differently, speaking differently, becoming a member of the Elizabethan court or one of the colonists,” Wood says.

“McCrae Hardy, our musical director, he’s responding to the sophistication of audiences and using a cinematic approach to music. He’s playing little themes as characters enter and exit the stage; he’s added music under the big battle that builds in tempo and intensity and adds to what the actors are doing.”

Lighting and sound designers Joshua Allen and Michael Rasbury, respectively, make the winter scenes come alive. Wood says under Allen’s lights, the sand on stage turns to snow, and thanks to Rasbury’s clever building of sound, there’s the whistle of a low winter wind. “It’ll make you shiver,” he says with a laugh, “but all of it serves one purpose: to tap into the audience’s imagination.”

The work of a lifetime

The Lost Colony runs six shows a week from May 25 through August 22 in weather that runs from pleasant to buggy to improbably humid and may even include a storm or two. Add to the environmental factors a cast of more than 100 members, countless set pieces to strike and reset, hundreds of musical cues, stunts that include someone being lit on fire, and only 19 days of rehearsal, and you see that Wood, his creative crew, and his cast have their work cut out for them.

“Every season I’ve told my cast they’re all crazy for being here, facing an impossible task they don’t even know is impossible. But that’s why it works,” says Wood.

With Wood at the helm and a swell of energy behind the entire production, The Lost Colony will continue to work, enthralling audiences for another generation, but creative work isn’t just about tonight’s show or next week’s run, it’s about legacy. Wood hopes that audiences come and enjoy the play, but that they go home curious and transformed, touched by the performances and the production, moved by the spectacle, unable to stop talking about it. He hopes that some kid in the audience leaves having made a silent promise to themselves, a promise not unlike the one he made to himself after his final season as a cast member: I’ll play that part one day, direct this play, put my mark on this stage. I’ll be part of The Lost Colony too.

“Farmers know something about legacy that us creatives should take to heart,” says Wood. “They know that when you plant crops, you’re taking from the soil, but unless you put something back – renew that earth, make it rich despite your harvest – it dies. Part of my return to The Lost Colony, and part of the reason I have made a life of theatre here rather than Los Angeles or New York, is just that: I want to give something back, enrich the creative soil in North Carolina.”