by Settle Monroe
photograph by Elizabeth Galecke
Anne Bullard, chairman of the board of directors at Burning Coal Theatre Company, has always been an avid supporter of the performing arts. Although her onstage career was limited to a brief stint of middle school stardom, the retired copyeditor has maintained a deep appreciation for and commitment to local arts. It’s what brought she and her husband Matt Bullard to their first Burning Coal show, Tartuffe, in 2002.
It made an impact. Bullard says she was immediately taken by the quality and thought-provoking nature of the performance, which was unlike anything she had ever experienced. Bullard found herself pondering the play for weeks afterward. She soon bought season tickets and became part of the theater’s behind-the-scenes efforts.
Anne quickly made a difference, says artistic director Jerome Davis. “In order for a theater to adequately serve its community, it has to understand that community, its history, its needs,” he says. “Anne has been like a historian, a tour guide, and a wonderful host as we have worked to understand this community more thoroughly.”
Born and raised in Durham, Bullard has lived in North Carolina all of her life. She put down roots in Raleigh after moving here in 1983, through her work originally as a political reporter for four North Carolina newspapers (Wilmington Star News, The Dispatch, The Lenoir News-Topic, and Hendersonville Times-News). Deep ties to the area not only help fuel her interest in Burning Coal, they also contribute to the theater’s historical and educational outreach programs. “Burning Coal is more than just a theater,” Bullard says. “We have always been dedicated to building connection and community.”
Founded in 1997 as a traveling company, Burning Coal moved in 2008 to the auditorium of the Murphey School on Polk Street, which was Raleigh’s first public school to be desegregated in September 1960.
This year, as the company turns 20, Burning Coal says it continues its mission to deliver quality acting, compelling stories, and relevant themes that aim to build bridges and foster community. Productions range from familiar titles like To Kill a Mockingbird and Twelfth Night to new productions by local playwrights. 1960, written by former Piedmont Poet Laureate Ian Finley and directed by Burning Coal’s artistic director, Jerome Davis, explored the Raleigh city school board’s vote to desegregate Raleigh public schools. The play was performed in the auditorium of the very school where that desegregation began.
The company puts a big emphasis on education. It holds an annual KidsWrite! contest, open to aspiring middle school and high school playwrights, and puts on traveling school performances and camps and classes throughout the year. Lobby lectures following performances provide additional historical and cultural context for the plays, and “Talk Backs” allow audience members to discuss subjects and themes presented in the theater.
Bullard believes it’s as important for Burning Coal to spark community conversations as it is to present excellent productions. “Especially in these divisive times, we need arts and theater,” she says. “Theater offers space for people to come together to share an experience … This is how community and connections form.”
This month, Burning Coal celebrates its 20th anniversary with a party they’re calling a “Knockout Gala” on March 18. The gala’s name refers to the company’s corresponding production of The Royale, which tells the story of Jack Johnson, who became the first African American world heavyweight boxing champion in 1908.
Other plays in the 2017 – 2018 series include Peter Pan, Dark Side (based on Pink Floyd’s music), The Normal Heart (about the AIDS crisis) and Amadeus.