by Matt White | Photography by Beth Mann
Odin Withrow, 12, was taking individual music lessons at the Sweet Bee Theater last summer when he saw that tryouts were approaching for the Pittsboro Youth Theater (PYT) production of “Mary Poppins.” He’d never been in a play and, as a homeschooled student, didn’t know the troupe’s performers, many of whom were one another’s schoolmates. But when he asked about auditioning, those he met encouraged him to give it a shot.
“I was really, really nervous when I started out and not wanting to sing, but a couple of kids shared their experiences at the theater,” Odin says. “Everyone here is so nice and so accepting. Even if the next play is not my thing, I still want to come here again.”
He tried out and got the starring role as Bert, the chimney sweep, made famous in the movie version by Dick Van Dyke. Odin was elated. Van Dyke, he says, “has been my favorite since I was a little kid.”
Catherine Hall, 14, and her sister Libby, 12, have always loved to sing, and first joined in PYT productions when the group added musicals. “Theater is like my second thing to music,” says Catherine, a freshman at Northwood High School who studies guitar and piano. “So, they fit together in the musicals.”
Kyle Stinson, a seventh grader at Horton Middle School and a veteran of, by his count, 18 plays and musicals at Sweet Bee, says he got hooked on the stage in late 2015.
“I saw a show, [“Ozma of Oz”], they performed at Woods Charter School,” Kyle says. He’s been in nearly every production since, playing the scheming Rooster in “Annie Jr.,” the reluctant hero Bilbo in “The Hobbit,” the gregarious Sebastian in “The Little Mermaid” and the precocious Mowgli in “The Jungle Book.”
The theater generally produces three or more productions per season, usually both plays and musicals, split by age groups and experience levels. But within each production, the kids agree, the best part is the tight friendships that quickly develop.
“We argue like family,” Catherine says.
“We have drama like family,” Kyle agrees.
“But [when it comes to] the production, the only drama is on the stage,” chimes in Kieran Schmitt, 13.
The theater was co-founded by partners Tammy Matthews and Craig Witter. Tammy directs and runs all production as artistic director, while Craig handles all offstage business – from lighting to audio to building most of the sets – as technical director.
Craig spent more than 20 years in Los Angeles as a video and media producer. Tammy was trained and worked in professional theater companies in Chicago before becoming a teacher in Cary. The two met about a decade ago and took an early date to play disc golf at Rock Ridge Park where they joked about producing Shakespeare’s works in the park’s amphitheater. They never brought the Bard to the stage, but instead founded PYT, holding rehearsals and performances wherever they could, including the Pittsboro Community House, Pittsboro Kiwanis Club and Woods Charter. But in late 2016, just two weeks before opening night of “The Glass Menagerie,” their location fell through.
“I was asking people if they had big living rooms,” Craig says.
As opening night neared, Craig heard an engineering firm was moving out of a narrow, but long, building with high ceilings on East Salisbury Street. The Sweet Bee Theater opened in January 2017 under the title of the Center for the Arts, Pittsboro. Along with the youth theater, whose seasons follow Chatham County Schools’ schedules, the theater also hosts two adult companies. The Chatham Community Players recently produced “Arsenic and Old Lace,” and the Social Justice Theater of the Carolinas, with its high school and college-aged actors, will travel to the Burning Coal Theatre Company in Raleigh and The ArtsCenter in Carrboro this spring to produce “columbinus,” based on the 1999 Columbine High School shootings.
Back at the theater, Catherine, Kyle and the others rehearsing “Mary Poppins” debated their favorite productions, beloved characters and which songs from the movie are also in the production, disagreeing with and talking over one another until someone asks them as a group: “At the heart of Mary Poppins is a particularly vexing word – can anyone spell it?”
Without missing a beat, they all yell together: “s-u-p-e-r-c-a-l-i-f-r-a-g-i-l-i-s-t-i-c-e-x-p-i-a-l-i-d-o-c-i-o-u-s!” CM