Theater of the American South enjoyed its most successful season this year, but the festival celebrating Southern theater and culture now faces an uncertain future. Founding director Gary Cole has announced that he has been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and must step down as the festival's mentor and organizer.
Cole's departure, while understandable given the seriousness of Parkinson's, is a devastating blow to the festival and to Wilson. Cole had taken TOAS from a far-fetched idea to a well-recognized reality in a few short years. He picked Wilson, with its Edna Boykin Cultural Center and its history of support for theater and the arts, as the home for his new festival. It could have gone to any town in the South. Wilson's assets and its proximity to Cole's home in the Triangle made Wilson a good choice, and local residents have embraced the festival with pride and joy.
Keeping the festival on its upward slope without Cole's constant nurturing will be a difficult proposition, but Wilson must step up to keep the festival going. Corporate sponsorships will continue to be needed, as will ticket buyers. Public support, in the form of excitement and year-round vibe, will also be needed. The Arts Council of Wilson will naturally be a centerpiece of this effort, but the Arts Council cannot do it all. Barton College's successful theater program and the Wilson Playhouse troupe should lend a hand to bolster TOAS.
Theater of the American South, which brought hundreds of out-of-town patrons to Wilson this year, is just one of several good things happening in downtown Wilson. The Wilson Whirligig Park project is under way with Vollis Simpson's old whirligigs being refurbished and readied for installation in a downtown park. Once completed, the park will be a unique (in the true sense of the word — one of a kind) tourist attraction that will make Wilson stand out. Preservation of Wilson is beginning to take off, finding buyers from across the country for several deteriorated or abandoned houses in older neighborhoods. These new residents are fixing up houses and adding to Wilson's diversity and culture.
Together, these trends point to a brighter future for Wilson, but Theater of the American South is a key component that must not be allowed to wither.