Press release from Mars Hill University, shared Nov 6:
MARS HILL — The state of North Carolina’s most prestigious award for significant achievement and service has been presented to James W. Thomas, the founding artistic director of the Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre in Mars Hill. The award was given on Oct. 5 as a part of the 40th anniversary celebration of the formal opening of Mars Hill University’s Owen Theatre and also the 40th anniversary of the premiere of C. Robert Jones’s musical, Rivals, which Thomas directed in its original production.
In presenting the award on behalf of Gov. Pat McCrory to a large and appreciative audience in Owen Theatre, Jones, himself a long-time colleague, called Thomas a visionary. In his 38 years as a professor at the university (1962-2000), Thomas oversaw, in the 1960s, the building of a theater arts major as then-Mars Hill College transitioned into senior college status. He saw the possibilities of turning the old Mars Hill Baptist Church building, located on campus, into a theater, and his signature achievement was the vision he and a small group of dedicated enthusiasts had for a professional theater in Mars Hill. That dream became the Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre, better known as SART , and its first season was in 1975.
In the 39 years of SART’s existence, 60 of the more than 200 productions have been fully-staged original plays, a record hard to match in any other theater in the country. From the beginning, Thomas felt SART should always produce at least one new work. A number of those plays have since been published and have found their way to productions in other theaters nationally, elevating SART as one of the South’s most respected theater organizations.
The weekend-long celebration honoring Thomas and Jones was planned by current theater arts faculty member and former chair Neil St. Clair. The original cast from the premiere production of Rivals (along with original pianist Dewitt Tipton, choral director Julie Fortney and choreographer Jill Prior), returned to Mars Hill and gave a concert reading of the show that had “christened” Owen Theatre in 1973. The pre-rehearsal dinner for cast and community featured a retrospective of music from several of Jones’s musicals, presented by the University SHOWSTOPPERS.
Among other Mars Hillians who have received the Order of the Long Leaf Pine are historians Harley Jolley and Evelyn Underwood and religious leader Sue Fitzgerald.