After 50 years, Christopher Carter reprises his dad’s Lost Colony role
Christopher Carter, who's playing Father Martin this season in The Lost Colony at Roanoke Island's Waterside Theatre, says of that role: "I'm a sucker for serendipity, and when things start lining up, I just go with it."
Exactly 50 years after his father, Joel Carter, played the same character in The Lost Colony, Christopher has assumed the role. And he is savoring the turn of events that has led to his return to the Waterside Theatre stage.
In a Sentinel interview, Carter said he vividly recalls "the great summer" of 1969, the season when his dad portrayed the spiritual leader of the first English colony in the New World.
Turning his offer to do the role into a package deal for his whole family, Joel Carter arranged for his wife Eleanor to be the housing manager at the Morrison Grove apartment complex for the cast and crew. Carter and his older sisters, Cely Anne and Cathy, stayed in the apartment with their parents while performing in the play.
While his sisters played unnamed colonists in the play, Carter had a speaking part as a boy named Thomas Archer. His line was: "Look, Mom, the fish I catched. Manteo showed me where to find him."
Carter and his sisters grew up in Chapel Hill, where their dad was a professor of voice and opera at UNC, and also a busy opera performer.
"We grew up backstage," Carter recalled, "and once in a while he would write a part for me and slide me into the cast." Carter says his dad knew The Lost Colony author Paul Green and had appeared in the premiere production of his play "Sing All A Green Willow" in Chapel Hill. The next thing he knew, the family was packing up to spend the summer on Roanoke Island.
"My dad was always up for adventure and figuring out our next family adventure trip," Carter said.
While the rest of his family only participated in the play for one season, Carter is making his second return trip since then. In 1977, while going to college, he returned to play multiple roles, including "banner carrier" and "the guy who got stabbed and died every night on the side stage.”
Carter's theater career has included designing and performing with many of the Triangle's theater companies and working as the technical designer and resident designer for the Arts Center in Carrboro. For the last 10 years, he has performed with Paperhand Puppet Intervention, which mounts outdoor puppet extravaganzas featuring colossal papier-mache puppets.
The sequence of events that led him to return this season to The Lost Colony happened quickly and spontaneously. This past April, Carter and his wife Deborah came to the Outer Banks and had lunch with Carter's college friend Gail Hutchison, another Lost Colony alumna who serves as a victim's advocate with the Dare County Sheriff's Office.
After lunch, Carter pointed to his annual winter beard, which he had decided not to shave off this spring, and joked: "Look at this beard. I could play Father Martin!" With an astonished look, Hutchison replied: "My God! They're still looking for a Father Martin!"
Following up on this news - and a very late casting need for a major Lost Colony character - an audition was set up for that afternoon. The next day, Carter got a call and an offer to play Father Martin.
Making arrangements to move to Manteo for the next four months, Carter took long-time friends William Ivey Long and his brother Robert up on their offer to let him stay in their cabin. He has enjoyed its rustic setting and the opportunity to spend quality time in the woods, often accompanied by a large population of box turtles.
It only occurred to him later that it was exactly 50 years since his father's performances as Father Martin. One unforeseen development, Carter said, is a curious renewal of relationship with his father. Carter said he has recently had several dreams in which he's met and spoken with his dad, who passed away in 2000.
"We've had very pleasant communications in the dream world," he said, adding that it’s been a thrill to follow in his father’s footsteps. Every night during the 1969 season, he had watched his dad collapse at the very end of the show as Father Martin falls to his knees and must be helped up to join in the final march to the colonists' new destination. Director Ira David Wood has called it "one of the most dramatic moments in American theater."
Carter said one memorable change from his previous experience with the production is Father Martin's participation in the big battle: "I'm a combatant in the battle and I charge the Indians and their flaming torches with my cross, shouting, 'No! We are brothers!'" He noted that this action takes place in the exact spot where he was killed in battle in the 1977 season.
Noting the six-performances-a-week schedule and the challenge of crawling every night into his Father Martin costume, which he describes as a warm "black wool sack," Carter said it is an honor to be working with "such a serious company" and performing with its distinguished cast and crew. Later this summer, his sisters will join him, and he said, “They're looking forward to seeing me play Dad's role."
“To be back in the show is so satisfying," he reflected. "I'm not just smelling the meal. I get to eat it."