Theater was everything to Bo Thorp.
It is fair to say that it was her life.
A community treasure and champion of the arts, she was the founding artistic director of Cape Fear Regional Theatre and guided the institution for more than 60 years.
“There is no telling how many children found their voice, how many careers started at the theater, how many friendships were formed when you think about it. She really is the mother of arts in Fayetteville,” said Mary Kate Burke, the current artistic director of Cape Fear Regional Theatre. “And she has nurtured so many people in ways, developing them as humans who make great citizens who live in Fayetteville through her works in the arts."
Olga “Bo” Thorp died Friday from a series of heart complications,
She was 89 and had been in declining health for about six weeks.
“I’m so sad. There really aren't any words to describe Bo Thorp. She was a force,” said Suzanne Pennink, a friend of Thorp since the early 1980s. “When she wanted to do something, you just had to go along with it. We both came from an Italian family. I knew Bo and Herbert (her late husband) when I first got married to Meno, which was 1981. They were at our wedding. They were our neighbors.
“And we had a friendship for literally over 40 years,” Pennink said. “And most of it wasn’t to do with the theater. We were neighbors and friends, and she was just a very wonderful person to have as a friend.”
Thorp worked with others to create and nurture the professional stage productions presented at Cape Fear Regional Theatre. She directed more than 200 shows at the theater, according to Burke.
“Bo was trained at Chapel Hill, and her husband got a job at a law firm in Fayetteville,” Burke said. “There wasn't a theater, but Herbert, her husband, promised to make her one. And so Bo, with a group of about six to eight very dedicated people, kind of created what was then called the Little Theatre. Over the years, the Little Theatre has grown to the Cape Fear Regional Theatre. It has impacted millions of people.
“I don't know what arts and culture in Fayetteville would look like without Bo's tenacity," Burke added. "She pushed that theater along with other people. She really led that theater and always found a way to make it work.”
Her son Holden Thorp said his mother also loved gardening.
"The yard here at Skye Drive was kind of her tapestry," Holden said of the family home. “It is beautiful.”
“She was certainly a motivating force for my brother and me," Holden Thorp said, referring to his brother, Clay. “She set a high standard for productivity. Even in her last days, particularly after she was hospitalized for a heart attack, she said, 'Well, this isn't good. I'm not being productive.’
“I don't know what she would have done if she had had children who didn't want to be productive,” said Holden Thorp, a former chancellor and professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Drawn to the stage
The daughter of Italian-Austrian immigrants, Thorp had been devoted to theater since her childhood in Columbia, South Carolina.
“I think that she appreciated her roots and where she came from and the struggles she had,” Pennink said. “Her parents died early on. She was just an independent person from that to start with.”
According to online accounts, stage plays offered her a sense of family and kinship that she carried with her to UNC. There, she continued to appear on stage and work behind the scenes of theatrical productions on campus, including with the Carolina Playmakers
In 1960, she and Herbert, an attorney, moved to Fayetteville. Thorp soon realized that the community was sorely lacking a cultural scene.
She co-founded the theater company that evolved into Cape Fear Regional Theatre and emerged as a leader in Fayetteville’s cultural community.
It all began with a two-show season featuring the Dickens classic “A Christmas Carol” at Alexander Graham Junior High School and the courtroom drama “The Night of January 16th” performed at the Fayetteville courthouse, according to Cape Fear Regional Theatre’s website.
“This small group of enthusiasts, under the leadership of former Playmaker Bo Thorp, formed the Fayetteville Little Theatre. With the community’s support, funds were raised to renovate the building (to) incorporate two adjacent buildings. On the advice of state Sens. Tony Rand and Lura Tally and others, the theater changed its name to Cape Fear Regional Theatre.”
Patti Thorp, who is married to Holden Thorp, said she was raised by her mother-in-law.
“She is an amazing woman,” she said.
Holden Thorp asked in a Facebook post for anyone who knew his mother to share memories and thoughts of her, Patti Thorp said.
“We got hundreds and hundreds of emails with sobbing stories about how one person changed their entire projection of life,” Patti Thorp said. “Heartfelt stories of what she and her love meant to these people. How they are carrying on lessons she taught them, including hard work, discipline, getting ready for opening night. Those types of lessons that the theater can teach anybody.
“She helped so many people find their missions and causes.”
Libby Seymour worked on “many shows” with Thorp either as director or fellow actor.
Those shows included “Anything Goes,” “Tarheel Voices,” “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” and a series of “Smoke on the Mountain” musicals presented on a stage at Campbellton Landing along the Cape Fear River.
“She certainly expected the best out of you,” Seymour recalled. “She was a great actress and a director, and she certainly brought the theater a long ways. She was definitely a treasure. She had a real passion for theater and for bringing it to the hometown. She was instrumental in helping us transfer to a new person, Mary Kate.”
The funeral service is scheduled for 2 p.m. Wednesday at St. John's Episcopal Church, 302 Green St. A reception will be held afterward at the theater at 1209 Hay St.
The family is asking people who want to honor her memory to make donations to the theater.
In 2003, Bo Thorp was presented with the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, an honor granted by the state of North Carolina to those who have shown extraordinary public service.
“She extended her heart to the community so much, it just wore out at the end,” Patti Thorp said. “She loved Fayetteville. She loved everything about the city. She knew the importance of the role of theater and her (involvement with the arts) to the city.”
Michael Futch covers Fayetteville and education for CityView. He can be reached at email@example.com.