Growing up in Flat Rock Playhouse
By Katharine S. Izard
Kat Izard and Maria Katsadoras in Pinocchio. Photos provided by Missy Schenck.
WARNING! Strange effects may occur if you decide to raise your child in a retirement-aged community. Side effects may include 1) child preferring dinner parties over house parties, 2) child “grooving to the oldies” instead of the top hits and 3) child learning how to say “yes ma’am,” “no ma’am,” “yes sir” and “no sir” without being told, reminded or prompted because everyone is their elder and should be respected.
Flat Rock wasn’t the most “kid-friendly” place. There was no late-night hang-out spot (because everything closed by 8 p.m.); there wasn’t a park at the time, and most of the church community was above the age of 65. However, there was one location that brought children of all ages together. A place that inspired and encouraged creativity. A place that drew people in not only from Flat Rock but also Asheville, Hendersonville, Greenville, etc. This place is the great Flat Rock Playhouse, the official “State Theatre” of North Carolina. As a budding performer, someone who couldn’t get enough of theater, I loved spending most of my days within the rehearsal halls of the Playhouse. There, my true self could be released and shine. Unlike school, the Flat Rock Playhouse gave me a community of like-minded creatives and showed me how I could use all my gifts.
I started at the Playhouse in the summer of 2000. Back then the program for children was called The Theatre for Young People, affectionately known as TYP. It was run by Betsy Bisson, a creative genius and wizard with aspiring young actors. My mother had the foresight to sign me up for a summer acting class. I’m sure she knew more than I did that this theater would become my home for the next seven years.
After a year I was invited to join The Company of TYP, an invitation-only acting program. Betsy cultivated young aspiring thespians and taught them every aspect of theater. When I say every, I mean EVERY aspect. We met once a week on Saturday mornings for three hours. Not only were we required to read a play a month (and write about it); we were also taught the basics of singing, dancing and theater techniques, all to make us better performers. We were even given opportunities to participate in state programs for writing and directing.
Teacher extraordinaire Betsy Bisson (center) surrounded by Playhouse performers.
On top of that Betsy believed every performer should know the ins and outs of a full production. So we were given private lessons on set design by the great Dennis Maulden, dance lessons by Lisa Bryant (the current artistic director), and instruction in photography by Scott Treadway — and we were expected to help build and strike (the theater word for “take down”) every mainstage production even if we were not in the show. Betsy and Flat Rock Playhouse gave me and my fellow thespians an opportunity most students wouldn’t have gained until college. They created programs that helped young theater people truly understand and immerse themselves in every opportunity of the theater.
In high school I auditioned for The Conservatory program. At this point The Theatre for Young People had become the YouTheatre at Flat Rock Playhouse. The name had changed, but the dedication to theater education was just as vigorous. To get into Betsy’s Conservatory you not only had to audition but you also had to take an exam on the many layers of theater (production, design, acting techniques) that lasted at a minimum of three hours. I cared more about acing this exam than I did the SATs, and years later when I was taking a comprehensive exam in theater arts for my college major, I was grateful for the copious notes I had taken under Betsy’s tutelage!
The Conservatory program met twice a week and whatever we had done in The Company, we doubled! We also got the added bonuses of directing opportunities as well as the necessity of completing summer projects to stay in the program. All of this might sound a bit intense, but to those of us who were lucky enough to participate in it, it was a dream come true! We all were in love with the theater, and Flat Rock Playhouse pushed us to really work at our dream. We got to see our aspiration from all angles and learned how to be great stewards of the theater.
The reading of plays; the classes on costume design, lighting and makeup; figuring out the difference between the Laban technique and the Meisner technique — all were a theater kid’s joy, but ask any theater nerd and they’ll always tell you the best part of the theater is the PERFORMANCE! In the YouTheatre we knew we’d have several small shows throughout the year, but two shows were always a guarantee: the YouTheatre Production and the Spring Festival. Once a year the YouTheatre got to put on a big mainstage production. More often than not it started off Flat Rock Playhouse’s season. The wonderful part about these productions is the fact that they were the real deal, never a makeshift show pieced together but a full-on professional production.
Left, Kat and Gabriella Tigh in The Velveteen Rabbit. Right, Gabrielle, Effie Bowen and Kat at the Spring Festival.
With Betsy at the helm, we put on some incredible shows: Jungle Book, Alice in Wonderland, and Pinocchio to name a few. These productions were backed by the full staff of Flat Rock Playhouse, so we had professional costumes, lighting and sets. For one production (Alice in Wonderland) we even had a former TYP student who is now a professional choreographer on Broadway, Chase Brock, choreograph our show. These productions were big and incredible. It gave us a chance to be a part of a mainstage production and feel what it was like to live and breathe theater.
The Spring Festival was always a blast! It happened in the spring (of course) and was a weekend of performances from all the YouTheatre classes. From the young ballet dance classes to the high school musical classes to us in the Company and Conservatory, it was a great weekend filled with smiles and laughter, and for my friends and me it was always our favorite weekend of the year.
Flat Rock Playhouse YouTheatre has changed in many ways since I was a student. For one, it is now called Studio 52; they have their own building (something my contemporaries and I are jealous of), and the range of classes is even broader (something I didn’t imagine possible). Although the legendary Betsy Bisson has moved on to South Carolina Children’s Theatre in Greenville, S.C., there are still some of my favorites and fellow students now at the helm: Lisa Byrant, Matthew Glover as artistic associate and Olivia Palmer as development associate.
Flat Rock Playhouse may have changed throughout the years, but the dedication and integrity to fostering thespians certainly has not. The Playhouse is a pillar of our small community and its saving grace in many ways. Though growing up in a retirement-aged community wasn’t always ideal for a child (I often clash with my peers on what is “good” music), it is because of Flat Rock Playhouse I wouldn’t have wished for another childhood home. Growing up with it was a gift.
The Flat Rock Playhouse is opening its 2022 season on April 28 with Catch Me If You Can. After a COVID hiatus, it is exciting once again to go to a Playhouse production in person. Individual and season tickets are available at flatrockplayhouse.org. For a bit of history on Flat Rock Playhouse, read Missy Schenck’s August 2021 Mercury article on The Lowndes House located on the playhouse property. https://www.charlestonmercury.com/single-post/diamond-in-the-desert-and-the-lowndes-house
Katharine (Kat) St. Clair Izard was born in Charleston and is the daughter of Mercury contributor Missy Izard Schenck of Flat Rock and Bru Izard of Charleston. She is a graduate in theater and English from Sewanee: The University of the South and will begin graduate school this summer at Middlebury Bread Loaf School of English in Vermont. After spending several years in Chicago with Second City and Improv Olympics (IO) writing and performing, Kat is excited to begin this next chapter.