Small, Eastern Shore town uses Shakespeare, spunk to rebuild
EXMORE, Va. (AP) — Town manager Robert Duer stood on the edge of Exmore’s town park, a little nervous. Would enough people show up tonight?
A traveling theater troupe was assembling an impressive, towering set among the park’s tallest trees. Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” was about to start in this Eastern Shore nook, an area known more for its feral cat infestation and poverty than culture.
But Duer believes that The Bard and other encouraging ripples along Main Street will change that.
Duer started to relax as he watched more people unpack folding chairs and card tables, open coolers of wine, water crackers and cheese trays. Duer knows everybody in these parts.
“But I’m seeing a lot of people I don’t know,” he said.
Just then, Exmore native Peggy Charnock tapped Duer on the arm. “Robert, I think what you’ve done to Exmore is wonderful.” She and a friend then looked for spots in front of the stage.
For a town looking for a Renaissance, what was there to lose in trying out Shakespeare?
Duer doesn’t care for MacBeths or “For Art Thous,” but he loves his town. He grew up here, and his family prospered from growing and selling produce. Duer left, got two college degrees and returned to do his part.
The idea of using Elizabethan literature to shake dust off a rural town could be a plot of a stage comedy.
“I’m a redneck farm boy,” Duer said the day of the performance. “But it’s worth a shot.
Duer is fortunate in that he’s working with a town full of believers, too.
Exmore, a little more than an hour northeast of Norfolk, is the largest enclave in Northampton County. Population? About 1,400.
Exmore was once one of the busiest railroad hubs on the Shore. Food and seafood processing plants, factories and department stores crowded into its less than 3-square-mile boundaries. But the Shore’s current main line, Route 13, was built right outside of Exmore’s heart and gave young people and businesses a speedier route to leave.
When Duer became town manager in 2013, the town barely had enough money to pay its bills.
Nips and tucks were made, and Duer and the council started producing budgets with surpluses.
The town is still convalescing. Exmore’s poverty rate is one of the state’s highest at around 40 percent. Virginia’s is 11 percent.
The times have been somber for families who for decades relied on agricultural and factory work. Generational poverty remains one of the area’s biggest issues, Duer said.
Then last year he got a call from Kyler Taustin with Brown Box Theatre Project in Maryland. Taustin, the theater co-founder and director, grew up in a small town on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
Taustin started the professional acting company to go places that lack the money and venues for the arts, which Taustin believes are vital for communities to thrive.
His company is a turn-key. It brings in everything it needs in trailers, sets up, packs up and leaves. Town people only need to show up and enjoy.
Exmore opened its central park last year. It was the perfect time to debut Shakespeare, Taustin thought.
“I grew up two hours away,” Taustin said. “I’m very aware of the cultural void.”
Last year’s performance crowded the park with more than 300 people.
Duer wanted to bring them back.
Shakespeare appeared as other actors were jumping onstage. Businesses were setting up shop along the long-dormant Main Street.
This past summer, a jewelry store, gift shop, beauty salon and restaurant each opened. All were women-owned, and all were locals returning or choosing to build along the street they traveled as kids.
In June, New Ravenna, a custom tile company with clients including Tom Hanks and Madonna, announced a $1 million expansion. It will create 31 more jobs, mostly in manufacturing. Exmore has been its home for 27 years.
The town celebrates when a new business opens — fellow business owners post and advertise for the others on social media. Another shop, J & M Collectibles, opens this month, and several owners are hosting “Small Business Saturday” the weekend after Thanksgiving.
Ron Matthews grew up in a military family and bounced all along the East Coast, including the Eastern Shore. He can trace his Shore roots back to the 1600s.
His wife is from Accomack County, Northampton’s neighbor.
They’ve lived in big cities and he made a living as a CPA and health care consultant, but he and his family moved back to the Shore a decade ago. He bought and renovated an old gas station in Exmore for his office.
Matthews came back for simple reasons: He loves the hush and saltwater of the area and wants to invest in it now that he has the means to.
Exmore isn’t a tourist destination, but it is a logical stop for people traveling from the north to Virginia Beach and the Outer Banks. It can offer good food and shopping for those wanting to stretch their legs and enjoy a more leisurely adventure.
“The Shore is never going to be a Virginia Beach,” Matthews said. “And a lot of people don’t want it to be. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have the opportunities of places like Virginia Beach.”
Matthews has his hands in several community and economic development groups on the Shore, and he and a partner have created the Eastern Shore Idea Exchange in downtown Exmore.
It will be a space for wannabe business owners to work with like-minded people. The building will include a “makers space” with tools, drill presses and 3D printers so people can train. Matthews wants to bring to Exmore some of the back-shop work he’s outsourced to India. People could be trained to handle phone calls and patient services.
What if young people could receive more specialized technical training, perhaps learning from experts at New Ravenna? What about all of the possibilities in robotics, using drones for businesses, and giving young people reasons to stay on the Shore?
“Do I want to make money? Yes, I do,” Matthews said. “But we want the rest of the county to boom.”
Duer was sitting, arms crossed, on a bench laughing at the sly jokes rolling off the stage as the comedy “As You Like It” got underway. The farm boy was enjoying Shakespeare after all.
Night had fallen. Exmore’s town park looked enchanted from the umbrella of stars overhead and the set’s spray of stage lights.
Trucks loaded with farm equipment rumbled by on Main Street. Children played on the slides and swings to the stage’s left as their parents lounged on blankets, sipping craft beer. A cat’s shriek sounded from the dark woods behind the park, but it was quickly lost in a monologue by the Duke on stage:
“Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in every thing.”
Information from: The Virginian-Pilot, http://pilotonline.com