HHS Senior Play is on Newly-Named Orr Stage - TribPapers
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HHS Senior Play is on Newly-Named Orr Stage

HHS principal Bobby Wilkins volunteers to be the auctioneer, in an Oklahoma scene. Mr. Wilkins always has such a cameo role in senior plays. Photo by Pete Zamplas.

Hendersonville – The Hendersonville High School (HHS) senior play — the classic musical Oklahoma — opens tonight/Thursday, April 28 on the school stage that is newly named after its dynamic and long-standing HHS drama and English instructor: Tom Orr.

Tom E. Orr Stage is now its name. That is a compromise the school board reached two weeks ago — in the face of strong HHS alumni support, to name the entire remodeled auditorium after Orr who died at age 81 on Jan. 3, 2020 after a brief illness.

Tom Orr oversees a rehearsal, while directing an historical play. Photo by Pete Zamplas.
Tom Orr oversees a rehearsal, while directing an historical play. Photo by Pete Zamplas.

Orr’s Legacies

Thomas Edward Orr, a 1957 HHS grad and UNC-CH alumnus, taught at HHS for 32 years starting in 1962. He regularly directed senior plays. He was WNC regional teacher of the year in 1975 and 1986. Not only that, but he charted a Thespian troupe at HHS, and was N.C. Thespian Director for ten years. Furthermore, he was part of the HHS teaching team that brought together music, dance and theater during the 1980s. That was “boundary breaking,” according to his stated Public Instruction honor.

He later helped develop Flat Rock Playhouse’s Vagabond School of Drama curriculum, and its school outreach.

He was an ultra-active volunteer, once retired. Orr was the school board chairman in 1994 through 1996. In addition, he led the Henderson County Education Foundation (HCEF) in 2002-2004, also launching its Hall of Fame. He chaired the Historic Courthouse Centennial Committee in 2005 while also being a driving force to get the courthouse renovated and rededicated in 2008, placing its historic museum inside. What’s more, as the museum’s program director, he developed historic exhibits.

Orr was a civic catalyst. He was furious when the courthouse dome and Lady Justice statue were initially painted an odd greenish tint instead of pure gold. “It looks like dog crap!,” he told me. He single-handedly got the landmark repainted – into truer gold.

His half-dozen riveting historical plays were performed in the early 2000s upstairs in that very courthouse. Most recently, he started the Local History Initiative and Walk of Fame, honoring community leaders featuring historic slide shows.

’Exceptional’

HHS’s principal, Bobby Wilkins, told the Tribune he opposes naming an entire HHS facility after someone, as it shuns other deserving honorees. Other English-drama instructors at HHS include HCEF Hall of Famers Chicora Calhoun Westmoreland (in 1946 till 1975), and Christine McCorkle Croft (1955 till 1977). Croft taught Orr and other “blobs of humanity.” She was putting on HHS plays before Orr did.

Current HHS drama instructor, Todd Weakley, enters the faculty’s upper pantheon, after 20 years.

Wilkins, a 1975 HHS grad, said “we loved” Orr and “it’s fine to name something after him in their (auditorium). I suggested the stage, back wall or seats.”

Schools Supt. John Bryant chose the stage, and the school board obliged him. Dr. Bryant called Orr “exceptional” as an educational and civic leader, who “taught and served with absolute grace.” He said, “every moment someone’s ‘on the boards’ – as they say in the theater – we will be honoring and recognizing his contributions and service.”

Hendersonville Bearcat seniors square dance in the “The Farmer and the Cowman” number of the musical Oklahoma, on the Tom E. Orr Stage. Photo by Pete Zamplas.
Hendersonville Bearcat seniors square dance in the “The Farmer and the Cowman” number of the musical Oklahoma, on the Tom E. Orr Stage. Photo by Pete Zamplas.

Renovated Theater

The Orr Stage’s naming coincides this month with the reemergence of the gallant auditorium, with six tall Greek Revival columns. Earle Stillwell designed it and the adjoining 1926 Stillwell classroom building. Both are under renovation which began in 2021, with students shifted into the new main building.

The auditorium has new seats. Last week, olden bricks were put into insets of the exterior wall. The auditorium is ready for usage, Wilkins assured.

Performing before a live audience is a welcome departure from 2021, when due to the pandemic, the senior play was filmed with student actors wearing sanitary masks.

In Oklahoma, rehearsals last week, the Tribune saw the ensemble cast of more than 50 seniors catch on to square dancing and synchronicity. The cast extends beyond theater students. Big quarterback Gavin Gosnell said he enjoyed dancing, and flopping in a fight scene.

‘Excelsior!’

Weakley directs Oklahoma, with the help from choreographer Laura Roper, among others. Weakley is a fireball throw-back to Tom Orr — with perfectionism and energetic, animated, high-toned enthusiasm. Both of them constructively critiqued students to bring out their best – as sports coaches are accustomed to doing.

Both also praised. Orr often unleashed a Latin phrase to recognize excellence — “Excelsior!”

Orr’s former students praised him with online eulogies. Ray Bennett of the Class of 1969 cited Orr’s “excellent instruction, demanding of excellence, quality of leadership, and warm friendship.”

Alyson Reim Friedman said Orr was “always encouraging” about her professional acting. At HHS, she starred as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. Orr had a brilliant vocabulary. She recalled he “referred to me fondly as his ‘impudent hussy’” – as Eliza.

Orr was proud of technical resourcefulness. He noted that for The Diary of Anne Frank in 1964, seniors made a light board using “home dimmers.”

Orr put on his original plays about Henderson County historical events and its people: from early pioneers to those who gave their lives in world wars. He once stated he was drawn to “both history and theater — the factual world, and the fictive world of imagination and fancy.” He “utilized new technology.” He put on sparkling multimedia productions with a slide show of historic imagery projected behind its performers.

Student Honors

Looking beyond HHS, all four traditional Henderson County public high schools earned honors in the 2021 NCTC High School Play Festival regional competition, November 5th and 6th. Each troupe had 45 minutes to set up, perform, and clear the stage. Groups received feedback from professional directors and fellow Thespians.

HHS, under Weakley’s guidance, won the Theatre Arts Award for excellence in stage pictures and a spirit award, for The Blue Hour. Marie Danos earned an Excellence in Acting award. Auden Pelz received the Barbizon for excellence in Design & Production for stage management and also design of lighting, posters and T-shirts. Alexis Rubianes won a Barbizon for sound design.

West Henderson is led by drama teacher Kelly Cooper. For Puffs, the Falcons took home Excellence in Ensemble Acting, honorable mention as the most Distinguished Play, and a spirit honor. Additional Barbizons went to Rainy Fizer for lighting design, and to Summer Hyden for sound design. Karsyn Andress won one for narration.

East Henderson put on Becoming Family: an Original Southern Comedy About Putting the Fun in Funeral. It earned honors for props and spirit. Rutzel Montiel and Garret Metcalf each earned acting awards. Instructor Clay Gaitskill directed.

North Henderson also obtained a spirit honor for Zoinks! Emma Osteen, Charleston Reagan and Lola Fisher earned acting plaques. Sydney Bailey is the Knights’ drama instructor.

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