Now in its 80th season, the production of The Lost Colony is a remarkable tale of its own.
First staged in 1937, the play was a part of the nation’s battle against the Great Depression. Waterside Theatre, where the play is still performed, was built with funds from the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC)—a Depression-era program to put young men to work.
The stage that the audience sees today is the same stage that “Skipper” Bell designed and built. It is a huge stage—significantly larger than anything seen on Broadway.
It is also a very challenging stage to work with. All of the sets have to be moved by hand. Tracks were recently tried, but the ubiquitous sand of the Outer Banks quickly gummed them up, and moving the sets reverted to the strong backs of visiting college students.
Paul Green, the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright who penned The Lost Colony, had been to Roanoke Island on a number of occasions and was familiar with the story. The play that he created was designed to be a historic pageant—a story that would encompass great geographic distances, the sweep of history, and an indomitable spirit that could not be quenched even in the most trying of times.
The message of the play was specifically designed for Depression audiences.
Building the stage and producing the play created a number of jobs. During the 1930s the WPA (Works Progress Administration) had numerous departments designed for national improvement, including the Federal Theatre Project. It was through that project that actors were hired and extras, including local residents and some of the CCC workers, got jobs in the play.
There was, however, a lot of concern if anyone would even come. In 1937 the Outer Banks was a lonely, largely deserted outpost on the North Carolina coast. Coming from the north included a trip across a wooden bridge that barely rose above the Albemarle Sound followed by a ferry ride to Roanoke Island.
The journey from the west was considered easier, but that too included two ferry rides.
The roads for both routes were questionable at best—and impassable at times.
But they did come—50,000 that first year, including President Roosevelt. Roosevelt, in fact, was a driving force to bring the production to the stage—most likely playing a behind the scenes role in making sure the funding was appropriated.
Nonetheless, his appearance on August 18, 1937 was an extraordinary feat. Polio had deprived him of the use of his legs, and the long trip to Manteo could not have been easy on him.
He seemed to enjoy the play, and during a speech made that day he ended by extolling the courage needed during the turmoil of the Great Depression. “Fortitude and courage on our part succeed the fortitude and courage of those who planted a colony on this Island . . .” he said.
From its earliest days, The Lost Colony has attracted a remarkable level of talent. Andy Griffith spent five years in Manteo playing various roles, ending with a run as Sir Walter Raleigh. He enjoyed his time on Roanoke Island so much that he purchased land on the north end of the island and built his home there.
Production Designer for the Lost Colony William Ivey Long is another famed alumni, and he may have the deepest roots of anyone. His father, William Ivey Long, Sr., began his career as a graduate assistant in 1937, became the prop master, and then show’s director. Mary, William Sr.’s wife and Long’s mother, played the role of Queen Elizabeth for a number of years.
Long credits Irene Smart Rains, the show’s first costume designer, with many of the techniques he still uses today for his award winning stage productions. Long has won six Tonys as well as a number of other theater awards.