The Institute of Outdoor Drama teaches communities how to attract more visitors by dramatizing local history.

In 1992, it was curtains for Cry of the Wild Ram, an outdoor historical drama written by UNC alumnus Frank Brink. For 26 years the residents of Kodiak Island, Alaska, had volunteered their time and effort to produce the drama in celebration of Alaska’s Russian heritage. But declining attendance and volunteer fatigue had stopped production.

Now UNC-CH’s Institute of Outdoor Drama is helping Kodiak residents resurrect the drama, not only to celebrate their heritage but also to draw more tourists to the island. The institute, a research and advisory agency in the College of Arts and Sciences, is giving the Kodiak community suggestions about how to make the drama more professional and more appealing to a wide audience. The institute is in the midst of conducting a feasibility study, in which Scott Parker, director of the institute, travels to the community with other consultants to give suggestions for amphitheater design, draft a budget for the drama’s first five years, and assess the amphitheater site for parking conditions and proximity to roads and hotels. Such studies take three to four months, and the institute conducts about five per year for dramas all over the country.

The revised version of Cry of the Wild Ram will probably include professional actors as well as volunteers. This and other changes suggested by the Institute will cost more initially, but organizers hope that a more sophisticated, professional drama will draw enough visitors to make up for the expense. When Cry of the Wild Ram was in operation, 2,000 to 3,000 visitors from outside Kodiak attended each season. The Kodiak organizers hope to raise attendance to 5,000 to 10,000 visitors per season within five years.

Outdoor historical dramas have a special appeal for tourists, Parker says, because they are plays about significant historical events, performed on the site where the events occured. “People go to see these dramas to walk on the hallowed ground,” he says, “as if they’re taking a pilgrimage to see the event dramatized and made real and alive to them.”

The increased tourism has a major impact on the local and state economy, Parker says. In 1994, North Carolina’s 12 outdoor dramas brought in more than $2 million in ticket sales. Using data gathered from outdoor dramas and from the North Carolina Division of Travel and Tourism, the institute estimates that tourists attending these dramas in 1994 spent an additional $17 million on expenses such as lodging, food, and retail purchases. The institute estimates that each dollar a tourist spends is turned over 3.5 times within the community, so every $1,000 spent by tourists is worth $3,500 to residents of the area. Using this multiplier formula, the institute estimates that in 1994, the $19 million spent by outdoor drama audience members on tickets and other tourist items, combined with the operating budgets of the theaters and sales taxes generated, had an economic impact on the state of nearly $75 million. The institute also works with businesses, chambers of commerce, and visitors’ groups to help them market outdoor dramas in their community. This past summer, institute staff persuaded an outdoor advertising company to display around North Carolina 20 complimentary highway billboards promoting North Carolina outdoor drama. They also persuaded more than 30 North Carolina newspapers such as the Asheville Citizen Times and the Winston-Salem Journal to donate advertising space. Governor Jim Hunt recognized the institute’s efforts by awarding the institute one of 15 Governor’s Business Awards for 1994.

The institute was established in 1963, but the university’s involvement in outdoor drama began in 1937 when faculty member Paul Green wrote the first outdoor historical drama, The Lost Colony, for the citizens of Roanoke Island, N.C. At first, the drama depended on UNC-CH drama faculty and students for production assistance and for much of its cast. After the success of The Lost Colony, now America’s longest-running outdoor drama, other communities began asking UNC-CH’s Department of Dramatic Art for help. Governor Terry Sanford established the institute to field these requests.

With The Lost Colony, Green created a new form of theater called “symphonic outdoor drama,” which combines acting, music, dance, poetry, and spectacle. Providing spectacle is one reason the dramas are performed outdoors, Parker says. “The stages will be 100 or 200 feet across, and some even include what we call water stages or a small lake so that we can sail ships in and out and have major battle scenes and fires.”