A Durham mainstay for experimental theater will close its doors June 10.
Manbites Dog Theater was founded in 1987, but it found its permanent home at 703 Foster St. 10 years later. Over 31 years, the theater has pushed the boundaries of the stage, from putting on a puppet show to a production with 70 short scenes. The company has produced more than 175 shows.
The founders of Manbites Dog, Jeff Storer and Ed Hunt, first came up with the idea for the theater after seeing a production of Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart," which focused on the AIDS epidemic, in New York City.
“We were so moved by the production that we started to think about how much theater, really, really good theater, did not make it to where we were living,” Storer said.
Storer said Manbites Dog sought to produce theater that they did not already see in Durham. They looked for plays that experimented with storytelling, used the voices of new playwrights or addressed political themes or social justice. “The Normal Heart” became the theater’s third production, leading to a community discussion of the AIDS epidemic at a time when no one was talking about the disease.
Although Storer and Hunt first thought they would only do one season, local newspapers sent critics to cover the Manbites Dog shows, prompting a conversation about new works and new playwrights.
Storer said he never imagined he would spend his career in Durham, but he came to value the theater’s relationship with the community.
“Somewhere along the way we made a conscious decision that we were going to stay here and have a conversation with the public,” Storer said.
The name Manbites Dog Theater comes from an old journalism saying — “If a dog bites a man, who cares. But if a man bites a dog, that’s news.” Storer and Hunt wanted to use a memorable name that also alluded to the newsworthy theater they produced. Even the use of “theater” instead of “theatre” is a nod to its accessibility.
Jaybird O’Berski, associate artistic director for Manbites Dog, has been involved with the company as an actor and director for 26 years. His personal theater company, Little Green Pig, has been performing at Manbites Dog for 13 years.
“Manbites Dog is one of the reasons I moved to the Triangle,” O’Berski said.
He said the theater’s area premieres of provocative, unique work and focus on sexual and racial diversity drew him to the theater. Manbites Dog was doing work that no other theater was doing.
Get The Dirt
Subscribe to our weekly email about what's trending at Duke
O’Berski said Manbites Dog also tackled more complex productions, favoring intellectual content over simplistic, moralistic themes seen in the shows of many other theaters.
“Manbites Dog really started the tradition that’s strong in Durham of challenging work,” O’Berski said.
The theater’s final show is “Wakey, Wakey,” directed by Manbites Dog artistic director Jeff Storer. The play, written by Will Eno, opened off-Broadway Feb. 7, 2017. “Wakey, Wakey” marks Eno’s fourth play to be performed at Manbites Dog.
“It’s about how to say goodbye,” Storer said.
The theater announced the sale of the building to Modern Energy for $1.1 million in Dec. 2017. Modern Energy is an energy company investing in technology for more efficient energy use. Manbites Dog rented back the building to finish its 31st season.
A portion of the money from the sale will pay off current debts, but the rest of the funds will be put into a Triangle Community Foundation agency fund. The money will go to theater companies in the area in earlier stages of development.
“We hope to continue to have that strong influence on the community by virtue of the artists that we champion and the people that we’re able to give money to,” Storer said.
O’Berski expects it could be easier to get subsidized by money through this fund than through a state or city arts council.
The Durham arts scene has grown tremendously since Manbites Dog opened. The Durham Performing Arts Center opened in 2008, drawing in touring Broadway shows and top performers from across the country. Downtown Durham is full of art galleries and creative arts spaces. According to a June 17 Durham Herald Sun article, nonprofit Durham arts organizations spent $104.6 million and audiences spent $49.5 million in fiscal 2015.
O’Berski believes many areas of the arts, from theater to music to dance, have benefited from the pioneering work of Manbites Dog Theater in producing challenging shows.
Although Storer and Hunt did not realize what they were doing in the moment, their work did give other groups the courage to produce unknown playwrights and interesting theater.
“I think that we did influence the area, and we influenced the area by bringing in new voices that might not have otherwise gotten here,” Storer said.
Storer said Manbites Dog also served as an inspiration in succeeding for over three decades, emboldening other groups to embark on their own projects.
While Durham is home to numerous other theatrical venues, no one space could occupy the place of Manbites Dog.
“There’s nothing as established,” O’Berski said. “It’s going to take a while to rebuild from the loss of a name that’s been trusted for decades.”
Storer said other groups, like O’Berski’s personal company, Little Green Pig, have continued the tradition of producing challenging works. Spaces on Duke’s campus and The Fruit performance space in downtown Durham can provide venues for these types of productions.
Storer also hopes the agency fund will encourage other groups to create more theater spaces in Durham.
For O’Berski, Storer and Hunt have left a lasting impact on Durham and its art scene.
“It’s two guys who made a lot of sacrifices and worked incredibly hard to put Durham culturally on the map,” O’Berski said.