It’s 1987 and in an abandoned shoe store in desolate downtown Durham, two men endeavor to set up a theater that would showcase performances that push past the conventional boundaries of typical shows.
Jeff Storer, professor of theater studies, and Edward Hunt took a plunge when they co-founded Manbites Dog Theater in the empty storefront in an area with little to attract an audience. Under the premise that it would serve as haven for performances favoring the bizarre, Hunt, the current associate artistic director and managing director of Manbites Dog, and Storer, the current artistic director, put on Seventy Scenes of Halloween that December.
Seventy Scenes of Halloween is a show with a title that pretty much speaks for itself—comprised of 70 short scenes, the longest being five minutes, the performance shows the tattered marriage of Jeff and Joan as they wait for trick-or-treaters. Unconventional by virtue of the play’s ability to seamlessly tie in overt violence with riotous comedic relief, the four actors performed three shows in that store before the owner jacked up the rent, a result of seeing a potential profit from the size of the crowds.
Manbites Dog then crafted theater space anywhere they could find. From conference rooms, a bar on Broad Street and the Durham Art Council, performances would continue to pop up throughout Durham regardless of lacking its own facility. For a while, Manbites Dog existed in a strip mall on Roxboro Road before moving to its permanent location on 703 Foster Street. Now, Manbites Dog will celebrate its 25th anniversary by performing Seventy Scenes of Halloween, the first show ever put on by the theater.
“We feel blessed every day that we are a company that’s still alive,” Storer said. “It surprises us every day because it’s hard to raise funds....It was a huge challenge eventually buying our own building and presenting anything we want to present there.”
Despite challenges that may have arisen along the way, audience members were touched by Manbites Dogs from the get-go.
Adam Sobsey, the current director for Seventy Scenes of Halloween, originally watched the show in the shoe store as a 17-year old. As an aspiring actor, he was accustomed to performing in class theater productions, such as Romeo and Juliet and The Crucible. Seeing Seventy Scenes of Halloween exposed him to a new form of theater that he would continue to study in college and, eventually, write himself.
“I came out of the theater after I saw [the show] and felt that the sense of what the rules were in theater had been completely transformed, and that’s what inspired me to start writing plays,” he said. “I remember being so excited coming out of the theater and seeing how the play really takes conventional theatrical models, uses them briefly and basically just explodes them.”
The recent adaptation of Seventy Scenes of Halloween, however, is extremely different from the original show in ‘87, he said. The show is designed so that the scenes can be played out of order; as a result, the current production will be in a completely different order than the original show. Also, having a permanent space allows the producers to take advantage of set design, lighting and even incorporate magic tricks.
Manbites Dog attempts to accomplish three goals with its performance selection, Storer said. The theater will only put on shows that fall into one of three typesets—magical realism, powerfully political and shows that challenge the audience’s perception on the form of theater.
Junior Jacob Tobia, who performed in Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them, said the theater excels at showing politically relevant and socially conscious issues.
“I came out to my parents four years before doing this show and it was the first time they saw me kiss a boy,” he said. “That epitomizes what Manbites does.”
And as long as the theater continues to get the community support it has received since its first performance in an abandoned storefront, Storer said it will only continue to keep pushing the envelope with different forms of theater.
“The truth of the matter is we didn’t know if we’d make it past the first play, let alone know if we’d be in existence 25 years later,” he said. “We are doing new stuff all of the time and that is the definition of who we are. We may do things that may seem at odds with one another but that’s the reason we’ve stayed alive.”
Seventy Scenes of Halloween runs at Manbites Dog Theater from November 29-December 15.