There’s a mystery about, and it’s not Colonel Mustard in the ballroom with the candlestick, it’s NC State’s TheatreFest, and the theme is Agatha Christie.
TheatreFest, put on annually by University Theatre, is a three-show event this year, all centered on classic crime novelist and playwright Agatha Christie. The first is a theater adaptation of Christie’s murder mystery novel, “The Hollow.” The second show is “Something’s Afoot,” a musical satire that pokes fun at murder mystery stories and features English music hall-styled songs from the 1930s. The third is a reading of Christie’s works, featuring British high tea and a backstage tour, titled “Tea with Agatha.” Unfortunately, “Tea with Agatha” is already sold out, but for those wishing to attend “The Hollow” or “Something’s Afoot,” both shows still have tickets available and they can be viewed in the same week.
“We are a staff that is dedicated to production as our main goal,” said John McIlwee, director of University Theatre. “Doing one show in the summer time would be OK. It would be normal. But why not do something unusual? Why not do three?”
McIlwee said that because of Thompson Hall’s renovations in 2009, University Theatre can now run multiple different shows in the same night. “The Hollow” began running June 2 and will continue to run Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m., and every Sunday at 2 p.m. until June 26. “Something’s Afoot” begins Thursday, June 9 at 7:30 p.m. and will run Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m., and every Sunday at 2:00 p.m. until June 26.
“We put those shows in June so that we would have July to recoup and prepare for the first production when students return,” McIlwee said. “Our auditions are held the first two days of school so we have a lot we have to get ready for.”
Rehearsals for the shows began on May 1. McIlwee said that the turnaround for a TheatreFest production can be quick but that the students involved with the productions are usually freer to work with spring classes being over. University Theatre also has other alternatives when it comes to filling a cast.
“There aren't a lot of students available during the summer, so we opened it up to professional actors who came in and worked with our really good students members of the group, cast and crew,” McIlwee said. “They get to work with much, much more experienced performers, and that has proven to be a very healthy relationship.”
McIlwee said that approximately one-fourth of the actors for the productions are students and three-fourths are professional theater actors or experienced locals. The stage crew is made entirely from students.
“I worked it last year, and I loved it,” said Allison Stilwell, a senior studying middle grades English. “I learned so much about professional theater, and can now have connections all around Raleigh of actors and stage managers who enjoyed working with me.”
McIlwee said that it is not uncommon for students who participate in TheatreFest to go on to find “professional jobs” with other venues and theaters in Raleigh thanks to contacts made during the summer productions.
“We hire all our students, cast and crew, and provide them a small stipend for doing the summer shows,” McIlwee said. “We don’t do this during the school year because it is all students season but we try and make the summer a little more professional, a little more slick, a little more what they might get if they go somewhere else.”
McIlwee said that the Agatha Christie theme was an easy choice for this year’s theme.
“All you have to do is throw ‘Agatha Christie’ up and you sell out,” McIlwee said. “It is the most popular type of program that we have ever done. Any time we do Agatha Christie, there’s standing room only.”
McIlwee said that University Theatre ran three Agatha Christie plays in one summer after TheatreFest after the production had been on a two-year hiatus for renovations. Despite fears over lost momentum, TheatreFest sold out that year, which McIlwee credits to the power of Christie.
“This year we decided that we wanted to include a musical,” McIlwee said. “One of our directors liked this really fun musical called ‘Something’s Afoot,’ and it was a musical satire of Agatha Christie’s ‘Ten Little Indians.’ So we thought, ‘Let's do that,’ and it turned into a theme.”