May 13, 2011

‘The Lost Colony is the nation’s oldest outdoor
symphonic drama about the nation’s oldest mystery


Often the night air is sultry and scented as “Lost Colony” theater-goers work their way down the pathway through summer-lush woods. Peeking into the darkness off the path, people might imagine how settlers and Indians hid in the shadows there more than 400 years ago. Some would imagine that the colonists’ ghostly whispers still drift amongst the ancient live oaks leading to Waterside Theatre on Roanoke Island.

Going to the see “The Lost Colony” production is a multi-dimensional experience, and as loyal local regulars can testify, every season is a little different, every show is a little different, every night is different from the one before.

The nation’s longest-running outdoor symphonic drama, a story of human ambition, fortitude, and love told in a meld of song, dance, violence, and laughter, is made all the more compelling because it is rooted in true history that took place --- more or less ---right where the audience sits.  

Not to mention the drama within the drama: Will the weather hold out? Will the new equipment work? Will the audience laugh at the right time? Will the mosquitoes be merciful?

With the 74th season of “The Lost Colony” opening on May 27, the production’s chief executive officer Michael Hardy is determined to remind Outer Bankers that the live entertainment is not just for tourists.  Especially for a resident who hasn’t seen the play in a while, the new season offers a freshened, tightened version of the beloved production.

“I think we have a particularly strong show this year,” Hardy said.

Originated as a vehicle to mark the 350th anniversary of the 1587 Roanoke settlement, “The Lost Colony” began on a shoestring with mostly local actors and stage crew. Over the years, it evolved into a professional production, benefiting from the skills of Broadway performers, directors, choreographers, costumers, and technicians. Movie and TV star Andy Griffith had his first role in the show, and famous performers, such as Lynn Redgrave and Eileen Fulton, have made guest appearances.

A new offering at the site, “waterside sunset picnics,” Hardy said, will hopefully lure more local folks on Hatteras and Ocracoke islands to make the trek to the theater, situated on the edge of Roanoke Sound at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site.
Instead of searching for a place to eat before the show, attendees instead can have a gourmet meal delivered to them at the theater, allowing them to kick back and relax at picnic tables or on their blanket on the lawn. 

Hardy said that, so far, the dinner picnic and show tickets combination has been a hit in online sales. 

This year is also the first time that ticket buyers can purchase $3 refund insurance in case the show is rained out, rather than having to return another night.

Director Robert Richmond will be back for his fourth season, but Hardy said that audiences will notice some changes from last year, including an older Queen Elizabeth I, Gov. White, and Ol’ Tom.

“In general, we have a more mature group of actors in the principal roles than we’ve had before,” he said.  “It’s going to be a more realistic age range.”

There will also be new footlights, he said, that will wash the stage in light or color, providing a dramatic, more theatrical effect.  Directional microphones, hidden with the new lighting, will sharpen sound quality.

Hardy said the long mood-setting walk to the theater on the wooded pathway will be enhanced this year with interactive performances by red wolf and egret puppet  characters. The animals were chosen because of their connection to the Outer Banks and the native population. The production’s dance corps , in Indian costume and makeup for the first scene, is being trained to work with the larger-than-life puppets. A principal actor with clown experience will also participate.

“The notion is to have something that is accessible, it’s fun, it’s artistic,” he said.

Written in 1937 by Pulitzer-winning playwright Paul Green, “The Lost Colony” tells the story of the 117 men, women, and children who sailed in 1587 from England to Roanoke Island.

Opening scenes set in England display joyous dancing and swirling colorful costumes, spiked by an exciting sword fight between heroic John Borden and nasty privateer Simon Fernando.

Once Fernando dumps the colonists at Roanoke instead of the previously-planned Chesapeake, spineless Ananias Dare, married to feisty Eleanor Dare --- who had just given birth to Virginia, the first English child born in the New World --- was killed in a fight with Indians angered by previous brutal English tactics. 

Eleanor and John Borden soon renew their previous attraction, highlighted by the play’s only passionate kiss. Meanwhile, Ol’ Tom, a drunk in England who serves as comic relief, finds true love with Indian maiden Agona, along with the virtues of sobriety.

But, alas, the colony, faced with starvation and hostile attacks, is forced to flee Roanoke.

At the end, accompanied by a rousing chorus of song, the bedraggled colonists march off to an unknown destination, enshrouded by stage-crafted fog to symbolize the mists of time that swallowed all traces of the colony.

The only known clue the real Lost Colony left behind was the word “CROATOAN” carved in a palisade post, and “CRO” carved in a tree. Croatoan, by the way, is modern day Buxton.

History is solid on the origins and participants of the Lost Colony, the last of the 1584-1587 Roanoke Voyages, but no one knows where they went or what their ultimate fate was. Reports by author John Lawson in 1701 of blue-eyed Indians with English surnames living on Hatteras Island was enough evidence to convince some that a least a few fertile colonists found their way to Buxton.

To this day, despite the efforts of numerous archaeologists, historians, genealogists, and academics --- ranging from world-renowned experts to obsessed cranks ---not one speck of any artifact from digs on Roanoke Island, Buxton, Buffalo City, Jamestown and various other locales, have been definitively connected to the Lost Colony.

It’s the nation’s oldest mystery, and everyone loves a mystery.

Maybe that’s half the fun for some Outer Bankers when they see “The Lost Colony. “With a little imagination, they could be the colonists, just a few generations down the line.


Dare County residents will be admitted free on June 1-4 with a donation to the Outer Banks Food Pantry of two food items or paper products. Proof of residency required.  Call 473-2127 for details.

For more information and to purchase tickets, go to

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