The Final Curtain
Celebrating the final FOCI production by writer-director Elaine Diaz with a look back at what the magic of theater has accomplished on Callawassie Island.
After six years of original shows and cut-up casts raising a ruckus while they raised funds on behalf of Friends of Callawassie, Elaine Diaz is hanging up her top hat. She’s seen people come together, personalities grow, and contributions make a community difference all while the applause of impact and memories is still ringing in ears all across the island.
The love of theater has always been in Diaz’ veins even in settings you wouldn’t expect. “I took classes in the drama department and got hooked – I’ve always been sort of a Broadway babe,” she quips, “so later when I was working for a gas company teaching demonstrations to salesmen on how to sell to women and it was dry and boring, I decided it would work better if I wrote a script. I had the marketing men dress in drag and come to the store as if they were shopping for a gas oven or dryer and I was pitching it to them. For what was normally a dry 7am breakfast meeting, it was such a big hit seeing it in skit form, that I started doing that kind of thing for the marketing department to add a little humor to otherwise boring meetings. We did this thing called the Gassing Game which was a musical comedy where we pitched to builders in 35 shows a year. It was all hokey, but it had a purpose.”
That’s the brand of theatrics and showmanship Diaz brought to the island so many years later, shooting for a campy, go-big-or-go-home, people-first production that wasn’t trying to be polished, it was embracing its personal identity as “hokey, but with purpose.”
When Diaz begins to talk about that purpose, she calls it by name remembering personalities through the years and the fires that came to light for them. “There was this timid, quiet guy, Dave, and each day, his voice got stronger and stronger, until it became this powerful guy we were going for, and I love seeing that transformation happening. Trying to convince people they can do something – that it’s not themselves they’re playing, and they can open up and take the risk. That’s the joy, when we finally get what we want, and they can feel good about what they’ve done.”
There was another story Diaz told about someone finding their voice literally when she cast him in a musical role without knowing if he can sing. “Can Digger sing?” she asked his wife, “She told me I don’t know, so I asked him, and said I don’t know – we gave it a shot, and can you believe this, he can sing!” It’s a story where someone had the music in him and didn’t even know it – never discovered it – until he got involved with the FOCI theater productions under Diaz’ direction.
There were others who commented on the group’s overall ability to make new community connections, eliminating the boundaries of potential cliques. “I had a number of people come to me and tell me ‘I would have never met these people if I hadn’t done this show because I don’t run in their circles,’ like golfers know golfers or tennis, tennis. There are people I know who still have wonderful friendships to this day and met doing a show.”
“All of these things,” Diaz says, “are what I set out to do more than theater. Raising money for FOCI, bringing people together, seeing great things come out of them that can follow them into their life.” These goals are part of why Diaz didn’t cast for talent. In fact, they never held auditions. Casting was by assigned roles so the process could remain people-oriented, and character driven, there would be no hurt feelings, and different people can get involved each time.
The run of shows all began with a Greek Mythology mashup called MythBehaving and ended this year with Somewhere Out There which net, “record ticket sales, generating over $17,000 in revenue for worthy local charities” according to the organization. But perhaps the funniest inspiration came earlier in a show whose seed was germinated while Diaz was with her family at “the worst opera I’d ever seen,” where she started writing a spoof version of that opera’s plot on the back of her playbill during the show.
“I love dialogue and playwriting, I always have, and doing this for others at Callawassie energized me. I love putting something together knowing people are going to ‘take it from the page to the stage’ and it’s going to mean something to them or the audience. It’s been a pleasure meeting people through these productions and to experience the joy it’s brought to me and others.”
Cary the torch(song).
The hope in the afterglow of a great run is that someone from among those “others” rises up to pull people together for some sort of theater group or drama club, in a community where club life reigns supreme. Diaz even has other plays she’s written that haven’t been seen yet that could be of use should someone pick up the baton from where it’s been gently lovingly laid center stage.
A Bunch of Amateurs
Diaz pointed out on several turns that the goal here was never professional theatre, but people and community. “We’re not pros and we were okay with being amateurish – that’s the beauty of doing something in a place like this. You’re not taking this on the road; this show is for the people living here, residents are laughing with the people they know ‘in another life, they see them up there and that sparks added appreciation.”
Interestingly, the root of the word amateur isn’t “low quality” as the word has come to mean in contemporary English. Amateur has its Latin roots in the word “love.” The original definition from 1784 was “one who has a taste for some art, study, or pursuit, but does not practice it,” from French amateur “one who loves, lover,” Italian amatore, or past participle Latin amare “to love.” Nothing captures Diaz’ heart or mission more in a legacy that has been left well accomplished – loving theater and dialogue from the beginning as a creative approach to a goal, loving the idea of people finding the best version of themselves when given room on a stage and the encouragement to shine, and loving that all of this can become a literal support, financially, to all the charities and other beneficiaries of the Friends of Callawassie Island over the years.
“You do it for the applause, as they say in the theater, but that means you do it to bring joy and provide an escape for the audience to take them somewhere. That’s why we started this final show with the song Pure Imagination from Willy Wonka, where the lyrics invite the audience to ‘Come with me and you’ll be In a world of pure imagination.’ We’re warning them they’re going to see some ridiculous things but suspend your disbelief and enjoy the trip into your imagination.”
That song also goes on to say, “If you want to view paradise, simply look around and view it.”
It could have easily been talking about Callawassie Island – and not just the literal beauty of the island, but the beauty on the faces of friends who found each other, and more of themselves, “play”ing around in a memorable season of FOCI fundraising shows.
This flight of imagination may have landed, but with the right pilot and crew, could get off the ground again. While we pay homage and gratitude to Elaine Diaz for a trip-the-light-fantastic run of shows, the torchlight has been left burning and waiting for the next unexpected entertainer to step up and help a new set of neighbors and friends, find their light together, downstage center.