While either visiting the mountains of Banner Elk or residing in the area, quality entertainment around Lees-McRae College has been a staple for more than four decades.

Founded in 1979, FORUM at Lees-McRae College brings stimulating cultural programs to a single location where patrons have experienced the best in speakers, vocalists, big band music chamber ensembles, pianists, dance and drama that the region has to offer.

FORUM is a joint effort of Lees-McRae College and community residents who value and enjoy high-quality performances throughout the summer at 7 p.m. on Monday nights for eight weeks, running from mid-June through early August at Broyhill Theatre of Hayes Auditorium.

As is the case with many productions, programs and schedules for the summer of 2020, the worldwide coronavirus pandemic forced organizers to cancel its 2020 slate of performances. However, FORUM is more than ready to return in the summer of 2021 with an astounding array of talented programs that promise to be one of the best seasons to date.

“We had to postpone every scheduled show for this summer, but only one of the performances dropped out for next summer due to disbanding, so we’ve already booked seven shows and we recently rounded the season out with an eighth show, so we were able to have the same schedule planned for this summer for 2021,” Joan Rhyne, FORUM President, said.

FORUM ensures only top-notch performers by way of a selection process as a result of personal contact between area residents and national talent agents. Recommendations are made to the program selection committee, which makes the final selections. Each year the committee considers dozens of candidates, reviews performers and reduces the number of candidates to 16. The 16 finalists are then presented to a board, of which eight are chosen to take the LMC stage.

Board members that comprise FORUM originate from a number of local areas, including representatives Banner Elk, Linville Land Harbor, Mountain Glen, Hound Ears, Beech Mountain, Linville Ridge, Elk River and Sugar Mountain.

“The big thing about our shows is that it is only $150 for eight total shows,” Rhyne added. “It’s important because a lot of people can’t afford $40 per show, but they can afford this, because it amounts to only $17 to $18 per show.”

FORUM offers patrons the opportunity to partner with the organization in ensuring that the program is appropriately funded and that the best and brightest performers will be available to bring to LMC. One specific group of recognized donors are the Centurions.

“The idea of the Centurions was brought on by some of our supporters because they didn’t want to come in early and find a seat. We didn’t have reserved seating, and the $150 annual cost for shows are for non-reservable seats,” Rhyne explained. “A lot of people who could afford the seating reached out and said, ‘Hey, we are willing to pay to support the program, and they suggested an amount of $450, which provides those individuals with reserved seating as well as a guaranteed parking space.”

Because of its appeal, FORUM events are a hot ticket throughout the summer, and tickets have disappeared quickly from the box office to the tune of sellouts the past two years. Patrons are ardent supporters, as they are often in line at the front door for the program more than an hour prior to the event, according to Rhyne, a testament to FORUM’s longevity and success. Rhyne stressed that, although FORUM is extremely well attended, opportunities for the public to attend are still readily available for shows throughout the season’s run.

“When we haven’t completely sold out we do have openings, because there are times that some of those with reserved seats may not attend at the time, particularly in the early portion of the schedule in mid-June, so we make those seats available as guest tickets, allowing those wanting to attend to purchase tickets at the last minute for $35,” Rhyne said. The opportunity for walk-up ticket purchases often affords first-time visitors to FORUM to experience firsthand the beauty and splendor of various arts.

FORUM also places an emphasis on giving back to the Lees-McRae Community, committing to a program each year to provide means of assisting with various projects through the years. FORUM support has helped to provide for a number of enhancements, including, but not limited to: annual convocation speakers, annual student-selected programs, Baldwin concert grand piano, a fan system for Williams Gymnasium, student scholarships, upgrades to the Hayes Auditorium parking lot, annual upgrades to the Hayes Auditorium facilities, including dressing room, sound board and restroom renovations, a bench dedicated in honor of FORUM founder Jean Williams, an air conditioner for MacDonald Dining Hall, and Lauritsen Technical Theatre and Design Studio, just to name a few.

“One of the main goals of the FORUM is to give back to Lees-McRae in some way, because that helps not only the school, but the people who live around the area,” Rhyne said. “We’ve found that people really love coming to Lees-McRae for theatre in the summer because there’s so much to offer and people find quality entertainment a short drive away in Banner Elk. After the season ends, we come together as a board and we ask the college what they really need, and that includes the theatre, and we get a list with projects and the amounts. We then vote on something every year that we can do to assist Lees-McRae.”

Despite the adversity brought on by the recent worldwide pandemic, FORUM looks forward to returning to the stage to allow patrons a chance to escape the hustle and bustle of real-world worries and concerns and immerse themselves in the fantastic talents of some of the world’s greatest entertainers.

“Many of our patrons have been supporting us for years, so once we found out we were going to have to cancel our first three shows in June, I sent out email and letters informing them and explaining the cancellations and refund policy. We then learned the symphony we had scheduled from Kingsport (Tenn.) would not be available due to the musicians having to sit in such close proximity to one another due to the COVID-19 situation,” Rhyne said. “President Lee King with Lees-McRae worked with myself and Janet Speer and wrote some beautiful letters which we passed along to our patrons. I’ve been sending letters throughout the spring to our supporters because we feel like they’re part of our family. To myself and our board, our supporters are family, and they know that when they come and are greeted to our shows. They know that we care for them a great deal.”

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