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Interview with Tom Briggs, January 28, 2009 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Interview with Tom Briggs, January 28, 2009
January 28, 2009
Interview with Tom Briggs, executive director of the Thalian Association.
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Interviewee:  Briggs, Tom Interviewer:  Jones, Carroll / Boyle, Erin Date of Interview:  1/28/2009 Series:  Arts Length  60 minutes


Jones: Today is January 28, 2009 and I'm Carroll Jones with Erin Boyle with the Randall Library Special Collections Oral History Project and we are in the Helen Hagan room in the library on the UNCW campus. Our special guest today is Tom Briggs, executive director of the Thalian Association and you will see him all over the place including Thalian Hall and the Hannah Block USO and anywhere there are fun people. I heard that from someone. He's the one with the big smile, always happy, and knows no strangers. Now that's quite an introduction.

Briggs: It really is.

Jones: Okay.

Briggs: I don't know who said that but I love them for it.

Jones: I've said part of it but it came from somebody else.

Briggs: That's why I like you Carroll.

Jones: Tom, it's good to see you again, haven't seen you since the lobby of Thalian when we went to see It's a Wonderful Life and you agreed to share your Wilmington history here with us. Let's start. Let's go back to just Tom, how you grew up, where, what brought you here if you're not from here and how you got involved with what you're doing.

Briggs: Well I grew up in Waukesha, Wisconsin which is a suburb of Milwaukee in a middle-class family. My dad was an insurance adjuster. My mom was an office manager for a doctor. I have two younger sisters and I got involved in the theater as a little kid. There was this extraordinary woman in Waukesha who ran a children's theater company that I got involved in when I was about nine or ten I guess and I just fell in love with the theater.

Jones: How old were you?

Briggs: Nine or ten I think.

Jones: Really, okay.

Briggs: When I started with her and really just fell in love with it and never really wanted to do anything else and never really have done anything else.

Jones: That's real early on.

Briggs: Yes, it is. It's amazing this little town of Waukesha.

Jones: Spell that.

Briggs: W-A-U-K-E-S-H-A. Of the kids I was in the children's theater with back in the '60s there are a big handful of us that went on to have careers in the theater.

Jones: Really?

Briggs: Yeah it's amazing. There was a little theatrical star over that town I think.

Jones: Must have been.

Briggs: And a lot of people who've done movies and Broadway and television.

Jones: Were they snowbound and just wanted to get out or what?

Briggs: That's funny. Yeah, we were snowbound about nine months of the year. And so that's how I got involved in the theater. And, as I say, I grew up doing community theater, children's theater, my church group, college productions.

Jones: And high school too?

Briggs: Uh-huh. Well actually by the time I was in high school I had begun performing professionally.

Jones: Really?

Briggs: I started as an actor and a singer and a dancer and by the time I was in high school--

Jones: Excuse me. Did you take dancing lessons, singing lessons, all that or was this just natural?

Briggs: No, I really-- I started just with the training from the children's theater company but as I became a teenager I started taking dance lessons and voice lessons and that sort of thing. But most of my experience was just practical, just doing shows.

Jones: They say that's the best way.

Briggs: It is the best way especially for kids. You have to get on the stage if that's what you want to do. And so I started working professionally as a teenager doing summer stock and commercials and, you know, whatever was available in the Milwaukee, Chicago area. I went to college after high school and by the time I came out of college--

Jones: Where did you go?

Briggs: I went first to the University of Wisconsin and then to the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.

Jones: Oh really?

Briggs: Yeah. And I really by that point become more interested in the other end of things, directing, choreographing, eventually writing and I moved to New York City in the mid-'70s. I was there for 30 years.

Jones: And you survived?

Briggs: And I survived and thrived and I moved onto Wilmington three years ago in February of '06.

Jones: I can't believe that. I thought you had been here for such a long time. I don't know why.

Briggs: No. I'm a fairly newcomer to Wilmington.

Jones: Tell us how you came to Wilmington in '06, how did you come to Wilmington from New York City? I mean other people have.

Briggs: Right. I actually have a great friend who I worked with back in New York, did lots of show with her. Her name is Kay Cameron [ph?]. She has just retired from being the director of music for television and theater at the Kennedy Center in D.C. and she moved down here in the early '90s. And we had done, as I say, lots of--

Jones: Does she live at the beach?

Briggs: She lives in Monkey Junction. As I say, we did lots of shows together in New York. I wrote a Broadway musical that she was the music director of and conductor and we've just been great friends since the mid-'80s or early '80s and she moved down here in the early '90s and I had been down a couple times to visit her as we were working on different projects. So I knew Wilmington a little bit and I love the ocean and the weather and I'm really more of a summer guy than I am a winter guy. I did winter you know my years in Wisconsin and New York City.

Jones: Yes.

Briggs: So at any rate I was hired in 2005 to come down and direct the world premiere of a musical called Pompeii that was being done for Thalian Hall.

Jones: I remember that.

Briggs: It was written by a local lady by the name of Dorothy Popadakos [ph?] but most of the talent and the creative team and the designers and so on came down from New York. So I came down to direct that show and I had actually been thinking for a few years of maybe getting out of the city. I loved living in New York but you know New York City is not a place that's really friendly to elderly people and I wasn't sure if I wanted to be 70 and still taking the subway and carrying my groceries home and all of that.

Jones: Not unless you live in a rent controlled building.

Briggs: Or unless you're wealthy then it's a lovely place for elderly people.

Jones: Uh-huh.

Briggs: So I was down here, as I say, doing Pompeii and it was a length of time I had never been here before and I really got to know the town better and I just love the weather and I love the ocean and I love the charm of the town and I met a lot of lovely people and there just happened to be this job opening that I found out about while I was here as executive director of Thalian Association, which is essentially running a community theater company.

Jones: Right.

Briggs: Well I had done that for several years in New York. I was the producing artistic director of an off-off Broadway theater company called St. Burt's Playhouse. I loved doing that. That was back in the '80s. And I thought well maybe I should throw my hat in the ring for this job. Usually jobs of that nature will go to someone local whose work they know and somebody they're familiar with so I didn't really think that much about it. But I had a chance to interview with the board of directors before I left town after Pompeii was over and sure enough they offered me the job. And so then--

Jones: Is this the job that Sam Garner had?

Briggs: It's the job Sam Garner had. He was my predecessor for 20 years.

Jones: Nice guy.

Briggs: Oh, a lovely, lovely man.

Jones: A nice guy.

Briggs: I never knew Sam because he was gone before I got to town but I did meet him. He settled in Phoenix and I have a sister in Phoenix and I went out a couple of years ago.

Jones: His cousin lives here.

Briggs: That's right, Doris Ayres who has become a dear friend of mine and is a great supporter of--

Jones: Yes, she is.

Briggs: --of what we do and of lots of things here in town. At any rate, sure enough they called me in New York and offered me the job and so then I kind of had to decide am I really ready to leave my life in New York City.

Jones: All of a sudden you got it, surprise, surprise.

Briggs: Yeah, exactly.

Jones: Now it's decision time.

Briggs: And I decided I was so I put my condo on the block and loaded everything up and here I am.

Jones: And you haven't looked back?

Briggs: And I haven't looked back. I love it down here.

Jones: Great.

Briggs: It's a great art scene down here, lovely people and the theater scene, lots of terrific theater companies doing really interesting, diverse work. Again, I love the weather, not the last couple of weeks. It's been a little chilly.

Jones: Oh, give it a buy.

Briggs: Well it is January and February so I guess I have to bite the bullet for a couple months. But I'm having a great time down here and I have all of the things I never had in New York, like a house and a backyard and a grill and a dog and a car.

Jones: I was going to say the next thing you need is a dog, but you have one.

Briggs: I got the dog. I've never owned a car in my life until I moved here.

Jones: Yeah, amazing.

Briggs: Yeah, so it's really a whole new way of life and I'm just loving it.

Jones: Yeah, it is.

Briggs: And New York City is an hour and 15 minutes from the airport and so I can go back whenever I want to.

Jones: Mm-hmm, but how's the New York theater scene these days? It's kind of in disarray isn't it?

Briggs: Well it's hurting a little bit because of the economy.

Jones: Sure.

Briggs: As all arts institutions are all over the country, as we are.

Jones: Yeah.

Briggs: Unfortunately in times of economic distress the arts are often one of the first things that people feel they can do without and that funding goes down the tubes for.

Jones: Sure.

Briggs: Which is unfortunate.

Jones: Well there's no more angels around.

Briggs: Well that's right and so we're all dealing with that and so is New York. It goes right from Broadway down to junior high schools who are losing arts funding.

Jones: But you know I heard recently something that makes sense too and it may happen here, I don't know because we're small enough where it could happen that in times of economic distress that people will give up a lot of things. They'll put their cars in the garage more often, whatever, but women will not give up going to the hairdresser and families or men and couples will not give up going to the theater, movies, a theater. It's a time they can lose themselves without thinking about the real world.

Briggs: Well that's absolutely the truth.

Jones: Do you think that's true?

Briggs: And that's--

Jones: And in this town where there are so many opportunities to see--this segment we do on the arts is all inclusive. It's theater work. It's design. It's paint. It's metal work. It's patching, whatever.

Briggs: Right. Well do you know in times of distress people need food for the soul and that's what the arts provide.

Jones: Right.

Briggs: During the great depression the movie business absolutely soared.

Jones: Boomed.

Briggs: And do you know it was really the birth of what's known as the golden age of Hollywood because people did need that escapism to go away for two hours and do, you know, be taken outside of the trials and tribulations of their own life.

Jones: They made great comedy then.

Briggs: Yeah and so that is true. But what we're experiencing also conversely is our subscriptions are down. People are deciding more on the spur of the moment to go to the theater as opposed to committing a year ahead to a subscription package or something like that and it's troubling for arts organizations to lose that kind of support.

Jones: Yeah, sure, uh-huh.

Briggs: But you know this is cyclical and we'll get through it.

Jones: We will.

Briggs: And no society can exist without the arts.

Jones: I don't think that there has been any society, going back to Roman days.

Briggs: That's right.

Jones: I don't care what kind of--whether it's music or plays or painting on tulip leaves, I don't care what it is. It is a sign of our times. People must have it. It's an outlet.

Briggs: Absolutely.

Jones: That's interesting. Your career is almost a straight shot. You were primed for it. You never looked around and wished for anything else.

Briggs: Well it took a few curves and turns through the years. I did a lot of my college work actually what are known as correspondence courses because I was touring a lot. In the late '60s and early '70s there were a number of all singing, all dancing, young people troupes and I got into doing that for several years and toured around the country with Doc Severinsen and Vicki Carr and Ernie Ford and a lot of those, as I say, young people all singing, all dancing groups.

Jones: On a bus?

Briggs: On a bus, on a plane, which was great fun. I mean I was working in Las Vegas in all of these wonderful nightclubs and hotels all over the country and just singing and dancing my heart out. It was a lot of fun. It was a lot of fun to wait to make money. It pretty much paid my way through college. And so I was on the road a lot as a young person which I say was a great experience.

Jones: Sure.

Briggs: But, as I say, after I had kind of done all of that I got more interested in the other end of it and wanted to be the one bossing everybody around.

Jones: Can you name some of the, I want to put it this way first, which did you prefer? You preferred singing, dancing, comedy type thing or had you pretty much put aside being a serious actor?

Briggs: Oh, no I loved it all. I mean I think my favorite thing growing up was doing musicals where you did it all, where you had to act and sing and dance. That was great fun but I really liked my experiences in those singing groups and being a backup singer for all of those people. That was great fun as well. But I think I've always had more of a passion for musical theater. I mean I love doing straight plays and dramatic roles, but it was really more fun to me to be able to do it all. And so I did mostly musicals and when I began directing and choreographing I did almost exclusively musicals. And once you get pigeonholed as a director/choreographer it's hard to get people to hire you to direct straight plays.

Jones: Ah, so-so, uh-huh.

Briggs: And when you do both, when you direct and choreograph it's kind of one stop shopping because you only have to hire one person to do the whole show and so it was very difficult for me to get jobs directing straight plays, although I love doing that. And one of the nice things about having my own little theatrical kingdom down here is I can direct whatever I want to.

Jones: I was just going to say let's talk about the Thalian Association and how you go about it. Who chooses the productions, the plays, or musicals, whichever and they could be both? How do you choose the actors? Take us through a scenario.

Briggs: Well it begins with the play selection and we have a board of directors and from the board we will put together a group of people who will be the play selection committee.

Jones: Now, this is the board of directors for Thalian Associates?

Briggs: That's right, association.

Jones: Association.

Briggs: Right.

Jones: I have to get it right one day.

Briggs: And from the board of directors we will put together maybe five people who will be on the play selection committee and we'll discuss different titles, musicals and straight plays.

Jones: Do they try to mix them up?

Briggs: Yes. I will recommend things that I think might be right for us that would be interesting. Other people will make suggestions as well. We'll read different plays and musicals and then eventually winnow it down to the five productions we decide to do in a given year. And sometimes there is a theme that we wrap it around. For my first season when I was here, which was the '06-'07 season we decided to do a season of firsts because it was my first season.

Jones: Right.

Briggs: So we did all Wilmington premieres, all shows that had never been done in Wilmington.

Jones: I'll be darned.

Briggs: This season our theme is Hooray for Hollywood. It's all shows that are taken from the silver screen.

Jones: Right.

Briggs: The Graduate, Big, the Musical, a musical based on It's a Wonderful Life. We're getting ready to open the romantic comedy Pillow Talk next week.

Jones: Yeah we're going.

Briggs: Which is based on the Rock Hudson, Doris Day movie.

Jones: Because we've got the season tickets.

Briggs: And then in terms of auditioning we have open auditions to anybody in town who would like to come.

Jones: How do you advertise? Do you put it in the paper?

Briggs: Absolutely and online. We have a website. Essentially there are only a couple publications in town to advertise in. One is Encore, which is a Cape Fear entertainment magazine, a weekly that comes out and the Wilmington Star News, which is the newspaper.

Jones: Right.

Briggs: So you put ads in there. You put them online, WQXR or is it WHQR.

Jones: WHQR.

Briggs: WHQR, yes and advertise it that way and then you have people come and audition.

Jones: Then you wait for the crowd.

Briggs: And that's it, exactly. There's a big talent pool in town which is great. I mostly choose the directors and the choreographers, the designers, and the staff for each show. Then we go into rehearsal and put it together.

Jones: Talking about when you were a child those kids who were in that production of Christmas, what was it?

Briggs: A Christmas Story.

Jones: No.

Briggs: No.

Jones: Frank Capra's thing.

Briggs: It's a Wonderful Life.

Jones: It's a Wonderful Life.

Briggs: Right that we just did.

Jones: I don't know why I keep missing on that. Those kids were wonderful those kids there, so you have them at all age.

Briggs: Oh, yes.

Jones: When you do the advertising, I'm not trying to be a snake, this is so people who are watching this a year from now, ten years from now, whatever, understand do you put it in for particular genders or parts or how would people know to bring children?

Briggs: Oh, we'll specifically ask for children.

Jones: You do, okay.

Briggs: As we did for It's a Wonderful Life. There are roles for three kids in that show, George Bailey's--

Jones: Three kids.

Briggs: Right, his two daughters and his son and so we'll specifically say, "We're looking for kids from the ages of 7 through 12."

Jones: Do you do kids separately from the adults?

Briggs: Yes. We usually do.

Jones: I would think you have to.

Jones: We usually do. When we did the Wizard of Oz we needed 12 kids to play munchkins and so we auditioned them separately from the adults because the requirements for what the kids are going to do are different. We'll do the same thing. We're doing Big, the Musical in a couple months based on the Tom Hanks' film and we need some kids for that and we'll audition them separately because with kids it's easier to bring them in and teach them a chunk of the music they will have to do in the show, teach them altogether and then hear them one at a time. And with adults they will come in with a prepared piece of music.

Jones: Right to audition.

Briggs: Right, exactly.

Jones: So how do you do it, you put them through their paces or they do whatever they bring with them?

Briggs: Right. They'll come in with a prepared piece of music, hopefully in the style of the show they're auditioning for. If you're doing a Rogers and Hammerstein musical, you don't really want to hear a rock song for the audition. Then once they've sang we will keep them around to dance. And once we've seen them sing and dance if we think they might fit into the show we will have them read from the script for a specific role.

Jones: So you really don't have a company per se of steady, the same people who can take parts like a summer stock or something that travels?

Briggs: No, mostly the actors in Wilmington will do shows for all different theater companies in town. They kind of go where there's an opportunity for them and so that's great. So a lot of the people that are on my shows you can see in the city stage shows or at Guerilla Theater or in Big Dog Productions.

Jones: Right. Where do these people come from, Tom? What brings them to Wilmington, the TV commercials?

Briggs: Well there are a lot of people who migrated to Wilmington when the television and film industry really took off here or people that--

Jones: Or with that new sound stage they might again, who knows?

Briggs: They might again. I mean sadly a lot of the movie and TV business went from Wilmington to New Orleans when they started really having a big presence in film and television and then fortunately, of course, after Katrina a lot of that business has come back to Wilmington. With the new studio being built, I think yet more will come. And there are people who came here to do a television or film project and fell in love with the area and just stayed like the wonderful late Pat Hingle and Linda Lavin and Steve Bakunas and Dennis Hopper to an extent and only stars like those people but just meat and potato actors who came here and just fell in love with it like Peter Jurasik, and there are a lot of those people around.

Jones: Uh-huh, so do they ever work for you?

Briggs: Oh, sure sometimes. One of the things I'm very proud of is to have presented Pat Hingle in his final performance as Maury in Tuesdays with Maury at Thalian Hall.

Jones: Yeah, yeah.

Briggs: And that was the last thing Pat did in his illustrious and amazing career.

Jones: Well he gave to the university or loaned to the university a lot of his mementos and so forth. We had a reception for him up here a couple of years ago. And then before he really got bad, he was in a wheelchair of course there at the end, he brought his grandkids and ins and outs and so forth up. They were all looking through things. He was very pleased to have been associated with a university.

Briggs: Yes, he was. He was very proud of his association here.

Jones: Yeah, definitely.

Briggs: As the university is proud of it too.

Jones: Yes.

Briggs: I was at the reception a couple of years ago for Pat. What was it last year? It wasn't that horrible long ago.

Jones: No, it was several years ago but we did an exhibit.

Briggs: And there was another one last year.

Jones: They did another one exactly.

Briggs: While Bus Stop was running.

Jones: That's it, okay, yeah.

Briggs: And he was just a lovely and gracious, charming, generous man and he will be sorely missed. But also I know a lot of kids, or young people, young adults, who came down to--who moved here to go to school at UNCW and just never left and got involved in the art scene here in town and are still around so that's how a lot of people got here as well. And then there are a lot of natives and people who have lived here for years whose parents moved down here when they were kids and they just like the area and never left.

Jones: Right, right. Well that's interesting. So now we've gotten to the point where your board of directors chooses a selection of productions you're going to do and then you have to look for people to play the parts.

Briggs: Right.

Jones: And that selection must be--does it take a long time?

Briggs: Well, no not really. We customarily will have auditions on two evenings and then callbacks on a third evening and by that point the show is cast. I mean once in a while we might be in the situation where we just didn't find the right person for a specific thing we need and we have to beat the bushes a little bit but usually it's, as I say, three evenings and the show's cast and we're ready to go into rehearsal.

Jones: But you know what you're fortunate because there are some amazing talent down here.

Briggs: There sure is.

Jones: To see the wide range of talent for some of your people, I'm thinking of Catherine Rudiceal [ph?] and her husband.

Briggs: Oh, so wonderful.

Jones: Just the thing that--

Briggs: The first couple of Wilmington, the __________ of Wilmington theater.

Jones: And they have a little on that.

Briggs: Yes, they do. They are extraordinary people. They're both on my board of directors.

Jones: Are they?

Briggs: Uh-huh.

Jones: Is Sherry, Sherry McKay?

Briggs: No, she's not.

Jones: No, she's not okay because I know she's been around here forever.

Briggs: Yes, she has.

Jones: Yeah, well anyway and this is putting this--how far in advance do you work if you're putting together like a schedule?

Briggs: Well we already have selected. It's January of '09 right now. We've already selected our shows for our '09-'10 season so we know what we're doing in May of 2010 and we decided and we knew. We decided that season in November so we do plan ahead.

Jones: I guess well you have to.

Briggs: You have to.

Jones: Sure.

Briggs: I mean you have to reserve the theater. You have to get the rights to the shows. You have to get your season brochures together to go out to all of your patrons to renew your subscribers and to do your membership drive and get new subscribers, so we do plan ahead.

Jones: Tom, do you think Wilmington could stand maybe, the economic picture aside, do you think that Wilmington could stand another theater in town that would be maybe not like a Thalian and maybe not as small as Red Barn or Red Dog or whatever.

Briggs: Right, Red Barn.

Jones: Yeah or to use the USO but isn't there room for--when I talked to Tony Rivenbark he was talking about, "Oh there's going to be a concert hall and we're having another theater that's going to be like the Globe Theater where the audience can interact with the actors and so forth." Well that's a good idea. That's a terrific idea but we have particularly in the summer and spring months we've got a population here now that's retired here that is pretty well heeled. They're a little more sophisticated than some and they might enjoy the opportunity to have a theater going year round and maybe a month off in the summer with all kinds of productions whether it's Shakespeare, of course I know there's Shakespeare on the Green, but Broadway productions or so on. What do you think?

Briggs: We have--

Jones: You're in the business of--you've got to have the scenery and you've got to have the costumes and all that kind of stuff.

Briggs: Right.

Jones: So it's money you're talking about.

Briggs: Right. Right. Now we have five really good theater venues here in town and they're all completely different or six maybe. There's Thalian Hall which is the largest of the lot which is a beautiful, beautiful Italian historic theater built in 1883 that seats about 600 which is just beautiful. Then you have City Stage which seats about 280 I think which is a whole other thing, a thrust stage known for very hip, edgy, contemporary work. You have Guerilla Theater space, the Brown Coat Theater and Pub which seats only about 50, very intimate. You have the Hannah Block Second Street Stage at the USO which seats about 175.

Jones: That many?

Briggs: And is a proscenium stage, very charming, very intimate. And then you have the Studio Theater at Thalian Hall that seats about 70 or 80 I think which is kind of flex plan seating where you can do thrust or you can do in the round or you can do whatever and those venues and then Linda Lavin and Steve Bakunas' theater Red Barn which again is a very intimate venue.

Jones: Only about 50, 60 people right?

Briggs: Right. And so you really have these diverse spaces that really accommodate all of the companies in town, so whether we have a need for yet another theater, I'm not sure, a need. Would it be nice to have another venue? It might be but all the venues that I've just mentioned they're really used a lot of the time but if there were another venue how often would there be a call for that?

Jones: I understand what you're saying.

Briggs: I mean I don't think any of the theater companies in town, Opera House Theater Company, Thalian Association, we use Thalian Hall for our big musicals. Big Dog Productions uses Thalian Studio Theater. They don't do big musicals or on the Second Street stage. City Stage does all their shows in their own venue. Red Barn does all their shows in their own venue. Guerilla Theater does all their shows in their venue which is the Brown Coat Theater and Pub. So of those theater companies and also Willis Richardson which doesn't produce as many productions.

Jones: Well I had forgotten, yeah.

Briggs: But uses Thalian's theater, Studio Theater. I don't know that any of us are of a mind to move our productions to another venue. So that's a good question. Do we need another venue? Would it be used by the existing theater companies in town? I'm not sure. I think everybody's pretty happy with what we have right now and what we have now is kept busy. And so another venue I don't know how busy it would be kept.

Jones: What's happened to the term going on the road? Do shows ever travel?

Briggs: Oh, all the time.

Jones: Really?

Briggs: All the time. Yeah there are dozens and dozens of shows on the road all the time. You look at somewhere like Raleigh that has a big Broadway series that comes through and all different sizes and types of productions from your great big, giant Broadway national tours to smaller things. Tony Rivenbark books in lots of touring attractions to Thalian Hall that are smaller and that will fit into there. Thalian Hall isn't big enough to bring national tours of Broadway musicals but concert acts and young people's programming and that sort of thing he books a lot. But, no, the road is America is very, very busy.

Jones: That's amazing. Well that's good to hear.

Briggs: Yes, it is. It's very good.

Jones: Yeah. When's your busiest time, summer, winter?

Briggs: Well we produce, our season begins in September or October and ends in May and we don't do a season during the summer. We also have a children's theater that does five shows a year at the Hannah Block Second Street Stage at the Community Art Center.

Jones: I understand that.

Briggs: And so we don't produce shows during the summer. We produce from September.

Jones: It gives you a chance to go to the beach.

Briggs: Well it does. It does give me a chance and to gear up for the next season.

Jones: I imagine. I imagine you have to.

Briggs: Yeah, and also we manage the Community Art Center under contract from the City of Wilmington.

Jones: Now is Donna Green your representative from the city?

Briggs: No, Donna Green is a Thalian Association employee.

Jones: She is one of those?

Briggs: She is my major domo and she is the one who books the space at the Art Center for productions and rehearsals and special events and so on. And during the summer we're very busy with a kids' arts camp that lasts six weeks.

Jones: That's true. I know that.

Briggs: And that is very intense and very wonderful and very time consuming. And also the last couple of years we've started doing a co-production between the community theater branch of Thalian Association and the children's theater. The first year we did High School Musical, which of course, most of that cast is young people and then we had adults in the adult roles. Last summer we did West Side Story which again most of the characters are young people and we used adults in the adult roles. And so we've done those productions the last two summers and we'll do that again this summer. So it's not that we don't keep busy during the summer.

Jones: No, I'm sure of that. Have you felt an impact from the tremendous growth over in Brunswick County just across the river as far as coming into Wilmington for productions or not?

Briggs: Boy that's hard to say. I can't say that we have--

Jones: Because there's two huge residential areas there.

Briggs: Right.

Jones: That, gathering from the prices of their homes and just taking a look at the tax rolls, that they're certainly in a position to afford season tickets.

Briggs: Right, right. I can't say that we've seen a big bump and, of course, as I say, Carroll, I'm just in the midst now of my third season here.

Jones: I understand that.

Briggs: But even looking back at our production history, our subscription history, I can't tell you that I've seen a big bump in our subscriptions or our attendance in general that could be attributed to the growth in Brunswick County. I think we've always had a certain amount of attendance from that area but I can't see that it's really--

Jones: Makes a big difference?

Briggs: Has made a big difference to us.

Jones: Just wondering.

Briggs: Yeah it's a good question.

Jones: You would hope it would really.

Briggs: Yes, you would hope. You would hope.

Jones: Yeah.

Briggs: Then again there's a lot going on out in Brunswick County as well.

Jones: Well anyway Erin heard me say this earlier today but I heard someone not terribly long ago describe Wilmington, the City of Wilmington, we were talking about growth for the three counties, Pender, New Hanover, Brunswick and that New Hanover practically has no space left to build on or to grow. Pender does. New Hanover certainly does and they are. And I heard someone say that they felt that in the future, I don't know when that is, tomorrow?

Briggs: Right.

Jones: Ten years from now that Brunswick would be the place where you live and maybe shop for groceries or Wal-Mart or whatever. Wilmington would be the jewel in the middle of the three counties where you went to play, where you went to the theater, where you dined, where you had the downtown walk along the river where the boats could pull up, et cetera, et cetera, and I thought that was kind of an interesting observation.

Briggs: Well, as I say, I haven't been here that long but it strikes me as that's kind of what Wilmington is right now. I think people do come from those counties to the charming downtown area with the river walk and lovely restaurants and the small intimate art galleries and the theater companies.

Jones: The Chamber of Commerce really ought to talk to you.

Briggs: I mean it seems to me that that does happen now and, of course, in the summer we get a big tourist trade in this town of people from everywhere who come to enjoy Wilmington. So I don't doubt that that dynamic may increase in the coming years but I think to an extent that's the way it is now.

Jones: Well, Tom, let me ask you something. I was going to ask you this. I decided not to but I'm going to go ahead and do it anyway. You seem so happy and satisfied here that asking you to make a suggestion or have you any thoughts on what you wish would happen here or could happen here over the next few years as an improvement or something in theater, in the arts? It doesn't seem to be that--you're very happy with the status quo or in the progression it is, slow as it is or not so slow as it is.

Briggs: Well, I didn't quite know what to expect when I moved down here.

Jones: Well you've obviously just fallen in love with it.

Briggs: Well I have. Wilmington is a very small market.

Jones: Yeah.

Briggs: In comparison to the places I'm used to working.

Jones: Right.

Briggs: Not only New York City but places like Dallas and Chicago and places I've worked in during my career.

Jones: Well those are big cities.

Briggs: And so coming to what is a very small market I wasn't quite sure what to expect and I guess I wasn't prepared for how rich the theater scene is here in Wilmington that there are so many theater companies, so many wonderful, talented people really involved in theater and so on. I wish there was more support for all of that from the city, from the county, from corporations here in town. I'm not going to name names but there are some big corporations with deep pockets in this town who should be supporting the arts in this town and not just theater but the symphony and the music scene and the art scene in a way that they are not doing and that's a little disheartening to me. I mean this certainly precedes the economic collapse that we're suffering through right now.

Jones: Yeah, I understand what you're saying.

Briggs: And I would like to see these corporations and it's no secret that there is no scarcity of wealthy people in this neighborhood.

Jones: That's true.

Briggs: And those people need to step up to the dough dish and get involved with local arts organizations and help finance them because we do not get by on ticket sales and, of course, we can't raise our ticket prices every year but certainly all of the services we need are raised every year. The theater rental is raised. What it costs for lumber and materials to do shows is raised. We don't have a lot of scene building facilities in town. There is really one game in town and that is Terry Collins' scenic shop called Scenic Asylum. If you need sets built that's pretty much where you go or you do it yourself.

Jones: Oh, my gosh.

Briggs: Of course Thalian Association, like most of the companies in town, we don't have a space that we can build sets in.

Jones: What do you do with them afterwards? Are they housed someplace?

Briggs: Well, no.

Jones: Or broken down?

Briggs: Nine times out of ten we go to Scenic Asylum which is this shop run by this very wonderful, talented, generous man named Terry Collins and he will build the set for us in his shop or he will rent us what we need that he already has if we need platforms, staircases, this and that. And he will bring it. He'll set it all up and when the show is over he'll take it all down and take it away and he does this for a most reasonable price.

Jones: Good.

Briggs: But, of course, he needs to pay his people and nothing's getting cheaper.

Jones: This is trickled down economics.

Briggs: That's absolutely right. When I first arrived there was an extraordinary woman by the name of Peggy Farrell who had an amazing--

Jones: Oh, yes, Peggy, dear Peggy.

Briggs: Amazing costume collection here in town.

Jones: She still has some of those.

Briggs: She had done tons of movies and television and won Emmy Awards and everything and wouldn't you know--and she was on our board of directors as well. The moment I got to town she decided to retire and sell her entire collection.

Jones: Well she did and not only that but she's camera shy.

Briggs: Oh she's such a darling. I just love Peggy.

Jones: And she has not been well and she goes to Arizona all the time.

Briggs: Right she has a daughter out there.

Jones: I know.

Briggs: So that was very unfortunate for every theater and company in town because we all relied on renting from Peggy's collection.

Jones: I know it.

Briggs: Especially for period pieces and now that's all gone so finding costumes especially for period shows is no easy thing either.

Jones: I thought there were some remnants of that in a warehouse here owned by somebody. I don't know why.

Briggs: Well I mean all of the theater companies in town have some kind of a costume collection but certainly nothing as diverse and as dense as what Peggy's was.

Jones: I know it.

Briggs: You could go for 1890s. You could go for 1940s. You could go for-- you know-- I mean we have some costumes but again we don't have a big space for that kind of thing. We rent storage space to keep our costumes and what props we have in.

Jones: Yeah and they have to be kept in dry, climate control.

Briggs: Absolutely, climate controlled and all of that.

Jones: Yeah, light controlled right.

Briggs: Right. Opera House has a nice limited again costume collection, a little more than we have, but we all relied heavily on Peggy. And so when she retired, which she has every right to do, she's worked like a horse all her life, that was a little bit disturbing to all of the theater companies in town to lose that resource.

Jones: I'm sure it was. I'm sure it was.

Briggs: Because it was wonderful. So now we all rent a lot of clothes from costume houses all over the country and some of us have very talented people who can build costumes for us. But again if you're doing a big show with a cast of 35, you don't really have the time and the resources to have people build all the costumes so that was a little disturbing then. The timing was such that I got here and all the costumes went away. I didn't take it personally, Peggy, but she is a darling. She's going to be doing a show for us in spring in fact.

Jones: Have you ever done any writing?

Briggs: I have. I've written a couple Broadway shows.

Jones: You mentioned that come to think of it.

Briggs: I've written a couple shows that didn't get to Broadway that toured. In fact, just this past October the Eisenhower Theater at the Kennedy Center had been closed for about 18 months for a big renovation and they reopened it with concept versions of three Broadway musicals and they commissioned me to write the concert adaptations.

Jones: Oh, really?

Briggs: Bye Bye Birdie and Girl Talk and Side Show and so I wrote those and, as I say, those were done in October. Last year or was it, yeah I guess in 2007, I wrote a stage adaptation of the movie Irving Berlin's Easter Parade. That was done in Minneapolis and I think is going to have some kind of a future.

Jones: So you're contacts all over the country know you're here and they can just--

Briggs: Well you live long enough.

Jones: Well since you were a little kid you've been tippy-toeing and tapping and such.

Briggs: Yeah. I wrote an adaptation, a musical adaptation of Cinderella that toured for a couple of years starring the wonderful late Eartha Kitt who just passed away last year over the holidays. I was so heartbroken.

Jones: Somehow I can't picture Eartha Kitt as Cinderella.

Briggs: She was so--she played the Fairy Godmother and I had never met or worked with Eartha and when I found out that she had been cast I was horrified because I thought, "Well the first thing she'll do is throw me out of the project and bring some big hotsy-totsy writer in" but she was so wonderful to work with and so darling. I really thought, "This is one tough cookie" and she's just going to eat everybody alive and she was not that way at all.

Jones: She was a pussycat huh?

Briggs: Just an angel. I mean if anyone ever had a right to be a diva it would be Eartha Kitt and I've worked with some younger actresses of a certain note who have really been divas with no right to be. And then you have somebody like Eartha Kitt who is so professional, so lovely it was just a great experience.

Jones: You just mentioned something. Rate, if you will, if you don't mind without naming names necessarily, the young actors now in Hollywood throwing tantrums, bearing their all, and multiple divorces, children without--just let it all hang out and I don't know what they do besides have the paparazzi follow them around but are they worth their salt? I mean do they really work?

Briggs: Well luckily I don't work in pictures so I don't know anything about that scene other than what I see on television and read in magazines.

Jones: Well as a professional.

Briggs: And how much of that can you really trust?

Jones: Well that's true.

Briggs: They say believe half of what you see and nothing of what you read and so I don't know what those people are up to. I think we are kind of in an age where there are people who are famous.

Jones: But they're giving a bad name to--

Briggs: Just for being famous who haven't really done anything extraordinary or accomplished anything specifically but are famous for being part of famous families or getting into trouble or whatever. But that isn't really so interesting to me. There's so much wonderful talent out there.

Jones: Well, my point was that doesn't seem to be talent is the whole thing. It doesn't.

Briggs: Well there are a lot of people without talent too but they're not the people that are fun to follow. The fun people to follow are those who are doing extraordinary things whether they're young or old. You look at somebody like Kate Winslet who has really come into her own and people are calling perhaps the best screen actress of her generation. You have people like Kate Blanchett who runs a theater company in Australia and is getting ready to do A Streetcar Named Desire down there, is doing the lead in [inaudible] at her theater company, also does movies, also does television. You have the old guard like Vanessa Redgrave and Meryl Streep and Ian McKellan and those people who have always done theater and movies and television and go back and forth with ease between all of the genres and those people. Those are the careers that are a lot more fun to follow and watch. The people who you look forward to going to see they're a lot of actors that I don't especially look forward to going to a movie or to the theater to see them.

Jones: Well since you're really kind of a theater person and across the board, musical comedy, et cetera, and you write and all that sort of thing, I thought perhaps there might be a pecking order and these people aren't maybe as talented as the ones you deal with who really work at their craft.

Briggs: Well that's really a matter of opinion isn't it?

Jones: I guess so.

Briggs: Yeah. I mean I have friends whose opinion I respect greatly who will say to me, "Oh I think so and so is so wonderful." And I'm like, "I just don't really get that actor."

Jones: There you go. There you go.

Briggs: But I love so and so and they'll be like, "She's always kind of the same to me and she is kind of boring." So it's really just so subjective.

Jones: Do you ever do drama?

Briggs: Yeah. I mean one of my favorite things I've done in Wilmington was I directed a production of Arthur Miller's All My Sons just about a year ago at this time, an extraordinary play, the play that really put Arthur Miller on the map that he wrote right before Death of a Salesman, an extraordinary drama and, if I do say so, it was a wonderful production. I just had a handful of the very best actors in town. In fact, they just did a revival of it on Broadway. It's starring Katie Holmes, speaking of Hollywood people who go to Broadway and John Lithgow and Diane Wiest and Patrick Wilson, a lot of great theater actors as well. It was very timely because it dealt with war profiteering during World War II and the responsibility that we take as a society for the young people we send to fight in foreign wars and so on. So it was a very timely play that I've always loved and never had the opportunity to do and that was just a great experience and I love doing drama. But I also love comedy. I love musicals. I love all of it.

Jones: What would you like to do that you haven't done if it's a particular piece or would you like to just anything?

Briggs: Oh, it would be great fun to do a very ambitious like play cycle, something we do in repertoire, repertory. I've often thought of taking two of the shows from Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Trilogy, Broadway Bound and Brighton Beach Memoirs which have many of the same characters in both plays and share a common set and doing both plays at the same time with the same cast and rotating, doing one, one night, and one the next and then like on a Saturday do one at a matinee and the other in the evening or doing something like the Grapes of Wrath which is a very epic play in a couple different parts. Something like the Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, which you would do in two different parts with the same cast on different nights, something really challenging because we have the actors in this town to step up to the plate for something really challenging and really interesting. It would be extraordinary. You know, Willis Richardson players, which is our African American theater company here in town, they do all Afro-centric plays. They do not have a lot of financial support. They do only usually one show a year on a real tight budget. I mean the fact that we have a black theater company at all I think is astounding.

Jones: Oh, I didn't know that.

Briggs: And they're always struggling to come up with money and so on. They shouldn't have to be. They should get more support. But it would be extraordinary for them to do something like the entire ten play August Wilson cycle. August Wilson is an extraordinary American playwright who just passed away last year wrote a cycle of ten plays on the African American experience, one set in the '10s, the '20s, the '30s, all the way through every decade of the 20th Century and it would be an amazing project.

Jones: It would be amazing.

Briggs: Like for a year you're going to do all ten of the August Wilson and a lot of them have characters that cross from one play to another. They're all set, most of them, other than one I think is set in Pittsburgh. That would be an extraordinary project.

Jones: It would. Well I'm glad that you're here and I'm glad you're so alive and it shows which is good and with people like you always thinking, always looking for something different, I'm sure there's not going to be any blackouts or dull times in Wilmington and I certainly hope not because I will tell you this. The plays that are being done now, this set that you've done for this winter and scheduled has been I think something for everybody. If you don't like this one, give your tickets away and go to the next one.

Briggs: Right. Well that's part of choosing a season too. I should have hit on that earlier. You want balance. You want comedy versus drama. You want musical versus straight plays. You want fluffy, just hilarious, fun comedy sometimes and you also want some thought provoking.

Jones: Well you got one coming up.

Briggs: That's right. But you don't want a steady diet of one thing, always heavy, always light, always contemporary, always period. So you try to get a nice mix in there so there is something for everybody as you say.

Jones: Tom, are we ever going to see you on the stage again?

Briggs: Well, what a question!

Jones: It just happens to--

Briggs: I don't know. I wonder if something might come along that I'd think that'd be fun.

Jones: Oh, my goodness.

Briggs: Let's not rule out anything shall we?

Jones: Let's just look for Tom like that.

Briggs: All of you directors out there.

Jones: Oh, yeah.

Briggs: Huh?

Jones: Oh, yeah.

Briggs: When you need an older gentleman.

Jones: I don't know why he keeps talking like he's got a foot in the grave. That's ridiculous. I don't think men get interesting until they're in their 40s at least.

Briggs: Aren't you nice? I agree with you 100 percent.

Jones: It's the truth. It's the truth. Anyway, Tom, I'm so glad you came.

Briggs: Thank you for having me, Carroll. This is a wonderful project you're doing. I really admire it.

Jones: Well I think that it's something that this part of it I think is fun because you can center on history just so much but there's a different side of life and we're trying to present everything.

Briggs: And you know what's fun, in 25 years people will look back and we'll be the ones who have made the history.

Jones: I know it.

Briggs: Today will be history at some point.

Jones: See that's what we're banking on.

Briggs: That's exciting isn't it?

Jones: Yeah.

Briggs: It kind of keeps you going.

Jones: Okay, about ready? I thank you so much.

Briggs: Thank you.

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