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Touring Theatre of North Carolina prepares roadmap for continuing founder’s legacy

GREENSBORO — Brenda Schleunes is the first to admit it: She doesn’t have the energy she once did.

That energy has propelled Greensboro-based Touring Theatre of North Carolina since she founded it in 1982.

Over 37 years, Schleunes has drawn on historical documents, literature and people within its community to create authentic plays for the nonprofit, professional theater company.

Her nearly 50 productions — adaptations, compilations and original works — focus on themes of culture, race, gender, religion and economic status.

She has taken them on tour to 60 North Carolina counties, 16 states and the District of Columbia.

Now 80, Schleunes has spent the last three years handing off administrative duties, while teaching others how to do what she does artistically.

“I wanted the company to continue in the style of its current work,” said Schleunes (pronounced Shloy’-nes). “I just didn’t want to do it all and forever.”

So, she and a Touring Theatre team created a road map for the company and its approach to survive her.

This legacy project costs money to finance.

On Sunday, Touring Theatre will launch its Legacy Fund Project campaign at Jingle Bell Jazz, a holiday fundraising party.

Organizers aim to raise $100,000 over the year-long campaign.

During the year, Touring Theatre will continue presenting its signature theatrical pieces, primarily in the theater at Well-Spring retirement community and the UpStage Cabaret at Triad Stage.

They include the civil rights-themed “The Life and Times of Fannie Lou Hamer,” “Let Your Children Tell” about the Holocaust, “Star Spangled Girls” about women who served during World War II, and “Mad at Miles,” set against the backdrop of Miles Davis and Cicely Tyson’s abusive marriage.

It also will introduce new works, including “Four Women Along Interstate 10,” adapted from a short story collection by Kelly Cherry.

Touring Theatre will return to its tradition of mounting stories and poems for elementary schools with “Fabulous Me, Fantastic You!” created by Schleunes.

In the meantime, Schleunes teaches five other women her process.

“I created a unique kind of theater,” Schleunes said. “For it to continue, I have to teach others how to do it.”

For much of Touring Theatre’s existence, Schleunes has been a one-woman show.

“She used to do it all,” said Kay Thomas, now production coordinator. “She was doing all the calling, all the scheduling, all the grant writing.”

Three years ago, Schleunes handed executive-director duties to Donna Bradby, a longtime figure on the local theater scene who also teaches and handles arts marketing at N.C. A&T.

Thomas now books performances and arranges rehearsals that fit actors’ schedules.

That lets Schleunes focus on her role as artistic director.

Bradby has acted with Touring Theatre since 1985 and served on its board.

She has found no other theater company quite like it, with Schleunes drawing on documents in their original form to create new works. Some theater companies do it, but not consistently.

“Brenda has a passion for making a profound difference in the life of individuals and communities,” Bradby said.

“She chooses to adapt and direct literature that deals with the human condition when it is at its most vulnerable and oppressed state,” Bradby added. “These stories are sometimes difficult to confront. But ultimately her goal is to give these issues a voice and bring dignity and hope to everyone who sees her work.”

Schleunes does not find it difficult to cut back on administrative duties.

“I do not have as much energy as I had 20 or even 10 years ago and am quite content with fewer responsibilities,” she said. “I still advise, and conduct workshops and seminars with future Touring Theatre playwrights and directors.”

Touring Theatre put out a call for women interested in participating in Legacy workshops.

It chose five of different ages and races: Thomas, Vanecia Boone, Camilla Millican and Erin Johnson. A.J. Buffaloe, now a theater student at A&T, joined later.

In the first year, they followed Schleunes’ development of “Family Affairs,” a stage adaptation of stories by Lee Smith, Alice Walker and Eudora Welty.

In 2018, they followed Bradby as she re-conceived, adapted and directed Pearl Cleage’s essays, “Mad at Miles: A Black Woman’s Guide to Truth.”  Bradby originally had produced it in 2008.

The same group also met weekly to discuss Cherry’s “Twelve Women in a Country Called America,” about Southern women of different backgrounds.

That will become “Four Women Along Interstate 10,” four Cherry stories that Thomas, Boone, Millican and Johnson chose and will direct in April at Well-Spring Theatre.

Bradby and the five women will create a workbook on Schleunes’ process.

Schleunes will update older plays with narration referring to today’s issues, incorporating references to bullying in “Let Your Children Tell,” gerrymandering in “The Life and Times of Fannie Lou Hamer” and the #MeToo Movement in “Mad at Miles.”

Touring Theatre’s board and a team of supporters will help to choose a separate group of college students later, to be mentored by the five women.

Over the years, Schleunes and Bradby discovered that student interns were less interested in adapting literature than becoming entrepreneurs who, like Schleunes, start their own theater companies.

“They were more interested in, ‘How did you create your company? How do you market your company? Where did you get your funding?'” Bradby said.

Now 31, Boone grew up in Greensboro, graduated from A&T in theater and received her master’s degree from the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. She has acted with Touring Theatre.

She now teaches at A&T and Bennett College, while staying involved with the theater company she co-founded in Las Vegas.

Boone values Schleunes’ advice about narration, the writer’s and characters’ voices, and how to turn literature into a performance piece.

“She has been doing this for so long, and she’s such a force in the community, I had to take on that opportunity to sit at her feet and soak up her knowledge,” Boone said.

Schleunes has temporarily lost much of her voice.

She is optimistic that December surgery on her vocal cords will improve that.

That doesn’t stop her from directing her play, “The Life and Times of Fannie Lou Hamer.”

The cast begins by singing spirituals and civil rights anthems.

“Sing out,” she tells the cast in a loud whisper.

Schleunes mixes music into each play.

“My stuff is very intellectually and imaginatively tiring,” she said. “Music heightens the emotion, helps create the whole picture and gives the brain a little relief.”

Schleunes wrote the play in 2004 from the footnotes of two Hamer biographies, “so I’d have what actual people said,” she said.

Willa Bost continues to play Hamer, a civil rights activist who endured beatings in her efforts to obtain the right to vote.

But other cast members A.J. Buffaloe, Tyler Madden and Andy Schlosberg are new.

Thanks to support from Lincoln Financial Foundation, Touring Theatre has presented “The Life and Times of Fannie Lou Hamer” for several years in Guilford County Schools. More performances are on the schedule.

The rehearsals let Touring Theatre break in the new cast members and production coordinator Thomas to write down the latest blocking. That tells actors where to move for the proper dramatic and lighting effect. Thomas’ notes will aid future directors and casts.

“Touring shows are like a chicken-wire ball,” said Schleunes, who directs this play. “They get bumped around, and every once in a whole you have to pull them back and make them round again. Because lines get changed, blocking is forgotten.”

Is she writing any new plays?

“I have been working on a difficult piece for two years and will someday finish it,” she said. “There might be another musical in the future — perhaps as a finale to the legacy campaign.  And if a good story catches my attention, I may or may not like the opportunity to stage it.”

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