It’s been 20 years since NarroWay Productions came to Fort Mill and cemented the non-profit as one of the premier establishments for Christian theater in the country.
The performing arts company founded by Rebecca Martin and Yvonne “Birdie” Clark features original script dinner shows and tags itself as “The Broadway of Christian Entertainment.”
With a rotating cast of over 400 actors and singers, shows are performed year-round, with new ones regularly added to the line-up and old favorites sometimes reappearing. The cast also includes Sheba, a camel who has become an iconic member of the theater.
The current headliner “Samson – The Last Judge,” recounts the life of the biblical character most known for his strength – or loss thereof – when his hair was cut. Samson runs through July 30, followed by the Southern style show “The Gospel According to Tennessee” from August through October. Christmas is the most popular time of the year at NarroWay – with “The Real Christmas Story” performances typically selling out months in advance.
For a decade after NarroWay came to Fort Mill, patrons were entertained in an outdoor amphitheater that seated 3,000 people on the long defunct Heritage USA property.
“Sometimes on a beautiful night I can breathe in the air and suddenly be taken back in my thoughts to performing in that old amphitheater,” said co-founder and director Rebecca Martin.
But putting on outdoor shows year-round in South Carolina was not without its challenges.
“When it was beautiful, nothing could be more beautiful. When it was bad outside, it was horrible,” Martin said. “On a hot summer day, the aluminum seats got so hot they could burn a blister on your legs.”
To avoid injuries, cast members used water hoses to cool seats off for guests before shows, creating a “wall of steam,” Martin said.
“In the amphitheater, we watched the clouds much closer than we do now,” said Cast Manager and Executive Assistant Lindsey Phillips, adding that the cast sat on “pins and needles” when the clouds rolled in.
During one particular performance, the sky fell out and the directors discussed whether to cancel the rest of the show.
Then, Phillips remembered, co-founder and composer Yvonne Clark stood up and told the audience the show would go on.
“We knew it was raining, but Jesus didn’t really stay in the tomb and he wouldn’t that night either,” Phillips recalled Clark saying.
“There’s something that just wasn’t right about watching Jesus cry out from the cross and us thinking ourselves too fragile to sit through rain to watch it,” Clark said.
In addition to celebrating two decades in business, this year also marks 10 years at NarroWay’s current location on S.C. 21 Bypass. After a decade at the old amphitheater, the non-profit moved indoors to a state-of-the-art theater with tiered seating for 350 people. The property sits just off of Carowinds Boulevard, in an area once known for poker gaming.
“I remember driving by the section notoriously known for legalized gambling and often referred to as ‘Fort Vegas’ and seeing a ‘For-Rent’ sign up,” Martin said.
When Martin and Clark toured the facility, the two found a run-down warehouse sitting on what they believed to be a prime location. On July 8, 2006, NarroWay opened a new theater as well as a new show – “Not Just Another Love Story.”
“I remember some of our first rehearsals in this theater. The cast danced on sawdust lit by construction lamps,” Cast Manager Lindsey Phillips said.
Martin and Clark have hopes this year of paying off the building’s remaining debt and looking towards the future of NarroWay, which includes a building expansion at some point. The lobby holds just one-third of the patrons the theater seats and also serves as the concessions and gift shop area. They would like to expand the parking lot, lobby and kitchen areas, as well as some other facility needs.
But even as Martin and Clark look toward the future, they are thankful for each step of the journey.
“Everyone thought we were crazy, moving a Christian theater into a less-than-reputable area known for gambling and such,” Clark said. “But isn’t that just like God? Everyone else sees what’s bad, but God sees the potential for good.”
Family ‘hand in hand’
NarroWay’s cast includes actors who were a part of the organization’s very first auditions, to those who have joined this year. The NarroWay cast, which withstands countless grueling rehearsals and performances together, becomes like a family, cast members say.
But what happens off-stage is often even more important than what happens on-stage, said cast member Sherry Assaad.
“When someone is going through a hard time, operation, cancer, death, a prayer chain is formed immediately,” Assaad said, adding that cast members get information out to each other quickly through NarroWay’s cast member Facebook page.
Phillips, the Cast Manager, first became involved with NarroWay when she was 13, and nearly all of her extended family has appeared on the NarroWay stage at one point or another. Phillips met her husband at NarroWay and both of her children played Baby Jesus as infants – and are still part of the cast at ages 6 and 9. Phillips’ father-in-law has played the part of Jesus almost since the beginning, and all of her brothers-in-law and nieces and nephews are involved.
“NarroWay crosses generational lines and gives entire families the opportunity to do something together that makes a difference in eternity,” Phillips said. “So often we are guilty of dissecting the family, each one to their own age appropriate class and activity. But NarroWay shatters that pattern and puts my father-in-law hand in hand with my daughters and their cousins.”
The NarroWay experience binds her family together, Phillips said.
“There are moments when there are four generations of one family on the same stage at the same time accomplishing the same purpose, and that’s hard to find,” she said. “(NarroWay) is more than what I do. It’s really who I am.”
Kelly Lessard: email@example.com, @KellyLessardFMT
For more information or to purchase tickets visit www.narroway.net or call (803) 802-2300.
Top-rated by TripAdvisor
TripAdvisor named NarroWay Productions as the number one thing to do in Fort Mill and has awarded the Christian entertainment company with the Certificate of Excellence for the fourth straight year.
TripAdvisor – the world’s largest travel site – gives the distinction to the top ten percent of businesses in the hospitality industry that receive consistently high reviews.
“The Broadway of Christian Entertainment,” NarroWay is one of an elite few Christian dinner theater groups in the world.
NarroWay director and co-founder Yvonne “Birdie” Clark said she is “thrilled” to know that guests are leaving happy.
“We are honored to receive the Certificate of Excellence for our fourth time,” Clark said. “That’s something we can’t do ourselves. Only our guests make that happen by submitting outstanding reviews.”
In addition to being rated as the number one thing to do in Fort Mill, NarroWay is also listed as one of the top three dinner theater attractions in the state.
For more information, visit narroway.net. Samson: The Last Judge is playing now through July 30. Tickets are available on the website or by calling 803-802-2300.