The Thalian Association: Community at Heart

Written by Lisa Meadows | Photography by Mark Steelman

In 1941, Mary Ingram founded the United Service Organization (USO) in response to President Franklin Roosevelt’s desire to provide morale and recreational services to the U.S. military. A mission began across the United States to entertain the troops and strengthen the communities around them. Fast forward seventy-seven years, there seems no-better location for TACT (Thalian Association Community Theater) offices than the former USO building at the corner of 2nd and Orange Street. Now known as the Hannah Block Historic/ USO Community Arts Center (HBHUSO/Community Center), like the building’s predecessor, TACT, is on a continual mission to strengthen its community with the arts as its tool.

TACT was set upon its course in 1788 when planter James Innes left his estate as a legacy to start a free school.  Among the school’s goals, supporting education and the arts was at the forefront and in response to Innes’s wishes, prominent Wilmingtonians formed the Thalian Association Community Theater to produce theatrical productions to provide income for the school.

In 2007, North Carolina Legislature named the Thalian Association Community Theatre the Official Community Theater of North Carolina.  At the formal ceremony in Wilmington, Secretary of State Elaine Marshall made clear that the title was not a distinction given lightly.

In the decade since being distinguished, TACT has continued to broaden its community outreach. To understand the current trajectory, Susan Habas describes it as a wheel with a strong central hub and many spokes that support the rim (the community). At the center are Habas and two other full-time employees: Chandler Davis, Artistic Director, and Samantha Herrick, Community Arts Center Director. Additionally, TACT is fortunate in having the talents of five part-time employees, a committed volunteer board of directors and legions of amazing volunteers.

The various spokes that comprise TACT’s program are performances, Orange Street Artfest, community outreach and education, managing the Hannah Block Historical-USO/Community Center, and Fundraising. It goes without saying each department encompasses much more.

The most visible spoke is the musical productions. Five main stage musicals are showcased at Thalian Hall yearly. In addition, TACT is known for its youth theatre productions, as with the adult program, there are five fully realized productions a year. The TACT youth theater productions are performed on the historic USO 2nd Street Stage at the Hannah Block center. Auditions are open to children ages 7-18 and Davis is quick to note, Wilmington is fortunate in having some very talented and hardworking young people who put on amazing shows.  

Around the Youth Theatre is where TACT does a lot of its community outreach. With each youth musical production, they do two special school performances at one of Wilmington’s Title 1 schools: A.H. Snipes Elementary, Sunset Park Elementary and Freeman School of Engineering. This year they have also added a sensory-friendly performance for NHCS Elementary, Middle and High School students. In addition, they offer a Theatre 4 Change Program, which teaches classes every week at the Community Boys & Girls Club and the Brigade Boys & Girls Club and offers classes in the arts to Girls Leadership of Wilmington. Throughout the year TACT conducts theatre art education classes that are affordable to area children and have funds available for scholarships. Through these various programs alone they have engaged more children with the performing arts and encouraged them to come audition. When the prospect of auditioning seemed too daunting TACT created an auditioning boot camp for all interested children.

As the city of Wilmington grows, so does TACT’s area of outreach. Committed to bringing the theatre to the entire community means keeping ticket prices low for the Main Stage and Youth Theater productions. To put on a Thalian Hall main stage musical production cost $50,000on average and Youth Theater productions cost $10,000. With adult tickets, $32 and $16 for youth (Thalian Hall shows) and $14 (Youth Theatre shows) shows that sell-out do little more than break even. As is often the case with non-profits it takes a lot of fundraising to not only keep the mission going but to keep it growing. TACT has been fortunate in receiving grants from various entities such as Corning, Landfall Foundation, Dan Cameron Family Foundation and the Wilmington East Rotary as well as many sponsorships and donations. However, to keep the community mission flourishing TACT still relies on several fundraisers yearly. In February, TACT joined forces with She ROCKS (Research Ovarian Cancer Knowledge Support) for two nights with Divine Divas II.  However, the two biggest TACT fundraisers are still to come.

After successfully teaming with the Battleship North Carolina last year to put on a production of the military-themed play Mr. Roberts on the ship’s fantail, this year TACT will again be using the fantail as a stage. This year’s production is the Naval courtroom drama Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, based on the Pulitzer Prize novel by Herman Wouk. Unlike the light-hearted Mr. Roberts, Caine Mutiny Court-Martial is a suspenseful courtroom drama and like a jury at trial, the audience only knows what various witnesses tell of the events on the Caine. The play will be performed for ten shows on the USS North Carolina June 29th-July 15th  (Friday, Saturday, and Sunday) with a special July 4th production that includes an amazing view of Downtown Wilmington’s Firework display. Regular show prices range from $30 adults, $25 seniors, $15 children and retired/active duty military. July 4th tickets are $50 adults and $25 children. If it rains, the show will go on below deck in the Wardroom. Tickets can be purchased at www.thalian.org.

Additionally, by a generous gift from Viking Cruises and AAA Travel Oleander Office, TACT will be raffling off a Viking Cruise worth $7,228. The winner will have their choice of a Luxury Rhine or Danube Cruise. Only 2,000 raffle tickets are available for $20 a piece or 6 for $100. The winning ticket will be pulled at the Drawing Cocktail Party, August 30th at the Hannah Block Historic USO/Community Center, but you don’t have to be present to win. Second place will win 10 tickets to 2018-2019 TACT Main Stage Productions. Raffle tickets can be purchased at www.thalian.org or at AAA Travel Oleander Office.

When asked about her  “awe” moments working for TACT, Susan Habas said, “Every time I see the happy face of a child after a show, enjoying the performance of our friends and family members in a local production, hosting an art exhibit or serving coffee and donuts at the HBHUSO/Community Center, our amazing July 4th production, those are the incredible moments. TACT needs the community and the community needs TACT, they can’t thrive without each other.”