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Husband and wife team Tommy and Jo Ellen Nowell, along with son Matt, all heavily involved with the Henderson Rec Players and McGregor Hall Performing Arts Center, appeared on WIZS Town Talk Wednesday at 11 a.m.
The Nowells spoke about the Henderson Rec Players’ recent decision to cancel its 2020 summer season – the first break since its conception in 1972 – while also remembering the good times of the past and looking ahead to the future.
Jo Ellen, director of the Henderson Rec Players for 19 years, explained that canceling this year’s season was actually a perfect storm that included issues with obtaining performance rights and paying required royalties, along with complications from the coronavirus pandemic.
“Several of the rental houses in New York were going through a merger when we attempted to get rights to the productions in the winter. We were told they were tied up with the merger and requests were on the backburner,” said Jo Ellen. “When the virus struck, rental houses were busy with cancelations and transfers and requests continued to be on the backburner.”
Between issues with obtaining rights and restrictions on physically congregating for auditions, rehearsals and performances thanks to COVID-19, Jo Ellen lamented, “put all these things together and that’s why we had to make the decision to postpone.”
Since planning began for the 2020 season in the winter of 2019, and requests for production rights had already been made, Jo Ellen is hopeful that the Henderson Rec Players are now ahead of the game for the 2021 summer season.
Discussing the history of the Rec Players, Tommy, the former technical director and still an integral part of each production, said he has been involved with the group for 48 years. In talking “Henderson Rec Players All-Stars,” Tommy said he had to start with Chuck Grubbs, then the head of the Vance County Recreation and Parks Department, and Dwight Pearce, a now-retired local English and drama teacher and former mayor of Norlina.
“Chuck had the concept that recreation is more than a bat and a ball; recreation includes theatre and the arts,” said Tommy. “He and Dwight put their heads together and came up with the concept of the Rec Players.”
For all but the last few years, Rec Players’ performances were held in the E.M. Rollins Elementary School auditorium. That changed when McGregor Hall opened its doors with a state-of-the-art, 1,000-seat theatre in 2016.
The Henderson Rec Players, previously under the jurisdiction of the City and County via the Henderson-Vance Recreation and Parks Department, was incorporated as part of McGregor Hall last year. Matt Nowell, technical director for McGregor Hall, explained that it was “always part of the plan” for the Rec Players to eventually fall under the umbrella of the performing arts center.
Jo Ellen said this change has allowed for more space and an even greater inclusivity for all those interested in theatre. “We are inclusive is so many ways and are one of the few programs open to all ages. It’s great for children to see other children, teenagers and adults all working together and learning from each other. We work with all cultures and all abilities. We do not turn anybody away, ever.”
The Nowells are proud of the fact that many involved in the Rec Players have made theatre or the arts their profession. “So many of the people who have worked with the Henderson Rec Players in the past have gone on from this area to have professional careers. One of the best examples is Bobby Funk who is now a drama professor at East Tennessee State University. Another alumnus is the technical director of the Miami City Ballet,” Jo Ellen said.
With a lengthy hiatus looming, Tommy said he hopes people will reflect on what local theatre has meant to the community.
“I’m hoping people will take this time to realize what they are missing by not having us. There’s an old adage: ‘How can I miss you if you won’t go away?’ Perhaps people will realize that this is a pretty unique thing we have going on here, and the support of the community is absolutely essential.”
The Nowells are humbled by the response they have received from the community since their cancellation announcement and have been touched by those who have reached out in support and gratitude for their time with the group.
“The Henderson Rec Players is a family,” Tommy said. “In a 40 to 50 year period of time, people come in and people go out, but you’re always part of the family.”
Matt echoed that sentiment, “Our mission has always been to entertain the community, but it has also been to provide a place for people who may not feel that they have a place anywhere else.”
To hear the interview with the Nowells in its entirety, go to WIZS.com and click on Town Talk.