Karon Semones Ferguson and her husband Marlow are the co-owners of Star City Playhouse, a community theatre that recently relocated from Roanoke to downtown Vinton. She produces the plays, designs the sets, and supervises costuming, to name a few of the many hats she wears. She is also a noted playwright and instructor. He serves as director of their productions and as an actor.
Star City Playhouse has been in existence under its current name since 2005, although it got its start in 1994 when the theatre opened in Elizabeth, N.J. They operated as the Elizabeth Playhouse for over a decade before moving the theater to Roanoke. The Fergusons have over 50 years of combined experience working in and around theater. They have been responsible for 106 productions in that time.
Karon Ferguson is originally from Roanoke. She grew up in the Breckinridge area off Williamson Road and graduated from William Fleming. She became a homemaker after high school and didn’t attend Hollins University until she was in her 30s.
However, her interest in writing has been almost lifelong. She remembers being enamored of writing by age 8. She says she wrote stories for everyone. She came from a large family of brothers and sisters and “always had a big imagination, a wild imagination” for writing.
Once her daughter was grown, Ferguson attended a conference on writing where she met author Gurney Norman, who praised her work and suggested she enroll in the writing program at Hollins. She studied there from 1986 until 1991 and graduated with degrees in Theatre and in English with an emphasis in Creative Writing and Playwrighting.
She first saw Marlow at work at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. on a school trip to see “Arsenic and Old Lace” in his role as a cop moonlighting as a playwright.
They formally met when he was invited to direct her play, “Postage Due,” at Hollins. He said that when they met he was “dazzled” by both her talent and her personality.
They corresponded for a year or so. She went to New York with the purpose of interning with “The Muppet Show.” He owned an apartment building in New York. She stayed in one of the apartments.
Ferguson said she had never been away from a view of the mountains. In one of the most romantic gestures of all time, he (as a surprise) had an artist paint a vista of the mountains in Roanoke on the back wall of a building across from her apartment window– four stories high. She said that sealed the deal and they were married.
When she first enrolled at Hollins, Ferguson planned to become an English professor and write short stories and novels. She took a theatre class from a professor for the Moscow Art Theatre who told her she must write plays.
In the years since, she has written four comedies: two one-act plays, including “Bridal Party,” about a day in the life of a bridal shop that sells used gowns; four adaptations; and a drama, “InMost Hearts,” about “how God speaks to us, told through the story of two neighbors who should share their grief and losses from Vietnam, but can’t bridge the gap of culture.”
Ferguson said she always has ideas whirling in her mind; she hopes she “can live long enough to write them all.” She doesn’t write every day, but she can write anywhere and for eight hours straight.
“Writing is an absolute joy,” says Ferguson. “To hear people laugh at what you have written is very satisfying.”
The Fergusons supported themselves and their theaters over the years “through real estate.” By renovating a space where they then lived, leased to tenants, and housed a theater, their theatre companies were supported by rental income from apartments.
They first renovated an 1851 schoolhouse in New Jersey into the Elizabeth Playhouse, what she describes as a huge undertaking, and one of three construction projects they have completed over the years. (The theater in Vinton doesn’t include ownership of the building or rental units, but they have completed extensive renovations.)
The Elizabeth Playhouse was about 23,000 square feet. They lived and worked there for about 10 years until 9/11, which they witnessed from their home. “A very sad time,” said Ferguson. They returned to Roanoke to be closer to family.
They went on to establish the Star City Playhouse in a warehouse on Williamson Road, again doing massive renovations and renting apartments to support the theatre. They were considering a move to Marion, Va., which is becoming an up-and-coming theatre community, when the space in Vinton, owned by attorney Bruce Mayer, became available in late 2016.
Their first production in Vinton was “Shakespeare in Love” with readings from the sonnets and romantic scenes from several of Shakespeare’s best loved plays over the Valentine’s Day weekend. That was followed by the full production in March of “The Belle of Amherst,” a one-woman performance based on the life of eccentric poet Emily Dickinson.
Ferguson defines her role as producer as being the “mother hen,” a go-between for the actors and the director. She strives to keep everyone calm, to supervise, to hold hands, to smooth things over as necessary.
As an aside, Ferguson says one of her favorite plays is “Grave Concerns,” a comedy in which actors transform a funeral into a musical “celebrating the death of director.” She said the only time she and Marlow argue is over productions.
While writing is her “main love,” Ferguson says costuming a play is second. She gets to “dress life-size dolls.” She does extensive research on costumes for each production. The playhouse has a huge collection of costumes they have accumulated over the years and cover almost every period.
Ferguson also creates an atmosphere and sets the mood for each production by selecting music from the period as prelude and intermission entertainment.
Once the theatre is settled in, Ferguson plans to resurrect another love and serve as “playwright in residence” as she did in New Jersey, teaching theatre classes. She has two in mind: “Shakespeare’s Daughters” for young female playwrights and “Page to Stage” which will instruct writers on how playwrighting actually works, on how to adapt a short story or novel into a play, and how to set up a production. She has written a textbook on the topic.
Ferguson said there is a huge difference in writing short stories, “where the characters live in your head” and plays, “where the characters are right in front of you.”
Star City Playhouse has a resident company of about 30 actors, but also auditions actors for productions. “The Nerd,” which opens on May 12, has one actor from the company, but the other six characters were selected through auditions. They would like to attract more actors, create more diversity in their resident company, and inspire actors who might not have the opportunity to study in New York.
Their theatre has a non-profit status with the goal of serving the community– with “affordable art at good prices.” They describe the playhouse as a “labor of love.”
“For almost 25 years, this little playhouse has served every community where it’s been located,” say the Fergusons. “Affordable art, professional training, and the support of renovations to old buildings– Broadway’s best at yesterday’s prices.”