By Frances Figart
When one mentions Flat Rock Playhouse in personal or professional circles, people immediately recognize its name and reputation. This theatrical institution hosts more than 98,000 patrons annually and is a significant contributor to the local economy and the arts and culture in our state.
How did it all begin? To understand the history of the Playhouse requires traveling back in time 80 years to a troupe of actors called the Vagabonds.
In the early 1930s, a young man named Robert William Smith left his home in Liverpool, England, to come to America. He traveled to Baltimore, visited Hollywood, then settled in New York. Deciding to make his career in theatre, he changed his name to Robroy Farquhar, deriving this dramatic moniker from the name of a Scottish clan chieftan and his mother’s surname.
“Farquhar launched his career in 1936 by organizing a play-reading group,” says Dennis C. Maulden, Flat Rock Playhouse’s resident scenic designer and historian, whose knowledge of this early history comes from the book Fifty Years With the Vagabonds by Louise Howe Bailey. “By 1937, play readings grew into performances, and the group found themselves working in a number of different theatres in various cities. Since they had no single home, they named themselves the Vagabond Players.”
One winter, while teaching a class in Miami, Florida, Farquhar heard about a place called Flat Rock, North Carolina. A number of people from Miami, Charleston, Savannah and New Orleans vacationed there in the summers, eventually building homes, boarding houses and hotels. Recognizing an opportunity, Farquhar took his troupe to North Carolina to check it out.
“They first performed in The Old Mill Playhouse at Highland Lake and then created the Lake Summit Playhouse,” says Maulden. “Drafted into the army during WWII, Robroy put all plans on hold until his return, when he moved the Vagabond Players to Flat Rock, where a boarding house called Rockworth (now called the Lowndes House) became their home.”
In 1952, the troupe of performers and a newly formed board of directors made an offer to buy an eight-acre lot in the Village of Flat Rock. This new home established the Vagabonds as ‘locals’ and a rented big-top tent became the humble beginning of Flat Rock Playhouse. A platform stage ultimately led to more solid architecture and finally the permanent buildings and property we know today.
“Plenty of people enjoyed going to the performances, of course, but few expressed interest in taking the steps to make it permanent,” Maulden says. “There existed very little reason to anticipate the financial success of an equity theatre in the mountains of North Carolina.”
Nothing, however, deterred Robroy Farquhar, his Vagabonds and their dream. As the beautiful Western North Carolina region continued to grow, so did the Playhouse. In 1961, by Act of the North Carolina General Assembly, Flat Rock Playhouse was officially designated The State Theatre of North Carolina. In 1983, Robin Farquhar assumed his father’s position as theatre head.
“Now our reputation extends far beyond the idea of a play or a season at Flat Rock Playhouse,” says Maulden. “Legions of people who have worked here continue to wield influence on and off Broadway, in national and international tours, in myriad local or regional theatres, in schools and universities, or as producers, administrators and arts supporters.”
The presence of Flat Rock Playhouse in our own backyard affords all of us in WNC—whether students, performers, audience members or vagabonds—an opportunity to immerse ourselves in a professional, creative and generous theatrical environment.
“What began as a few weeks of summer performances is now a nine-month season of plays including Broadway musicals, comedy, drama and theatre for young audiences,” says Dane Whitlock, senior director of Marketing and Development for Flat Rock Playhouse. “Our dual mission of producing the performing arts and providing education in the performing arts includes a professional series; a summer college apprentice and intern program; and Studio 52, providing year-round family series programming for all ages.”
Dennis C. Maulden is writing a book about the history of Flat Rock Playhouse. With publication planned for 2018, The Spirit of the Rock will examine the three producing artistic directors—Robin R. Farquhar, Vincent A. Marini and Lisa K. Bryant—and their philosophies and accomplishments as well as the educational programs, traditions, people and productions representative of each time period.
“I hope the book will offer insight into the people and events that have built such a fine institution in such an unlikely place,” says Maulden. “My intent is that those people who have participated in this history will see themselves and their memories in a context of warmth, tradition and enrichment.”
Flat Rock Playhouse is offering three distinct packages for the 2017 season, each including discounts, VIP parking and choice seating. The lineup of musicals, plays and other performances is nothing short of astounding. For a complete list of performances, schedules and pricing, visit flatrockplayhouse.org.