A train horn blares in the distance disturbing the peaceful, wooded area near McAlpine Creek. A gentle, chilly breeze blows the leaves onto the ground and rain droplets mist the air. Maybe the sun will come out. Fall has arrived and with it comes the time of year to frequent the arts. Today I’m seeing a play, but this production isn’t inside an auditorium — it’s at a barn.
Or a barn-turned-venue, I should clarify.
When the figurative curtain rises on Shepherd Shakespeare’s production of Twelfth Night at the Barn at MoRa, we see a six-man ensemble playing the parts of 12 characters. It’s a funny, raucous display that gets the audience involved.
As Feste, a fool played by Scott Tynes-Miller, delivers his monologue, a baby in the audience babbles its approval, to which Tynes-Miller replies, “I know, right?” without missing a beat. He later convinces the audience to chant with him to get one of the onstage characters taken away.
Each actor in the play thrives at this signature brand of immersive comedy, making it a fun adventure for the entire family. For Chester Shepherd, co-founder of Shepherd Shakespeare, this was always the goal.
“We’re trying to present something here that is for the whole family, that is true to Shakespeare and that we’re not dumbing it down at all, but presenting it in a way that the energy and the comedy — that children can enjoy as well,” he said.
This is one of the biggest differences between Shepherd Shakespeare and Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte (ATC), with which many of the actors onstage have a history.
Known for its edgier displays, ATC could not often be described as family-friendly, but it doesn’t deter from how important and exciting their productions are.
Because of their past with ATC, Jeremy DeCarlos, Leslie Giles and Tynes-Miller jumped at the chance to work with Chester Shepherd in his latest production.
“History was made,” said DeCarlos when speaking about auditioning for Twelfth Night.
Shepherd co-founded Shepherd Shakespeare with his wife, Katy, in the spring, and Twelfth Night is the company’s first full-scale production. It runs through Oct. 30. Both co-founders had worked with ATC many times in the past and had hoped to continue working with them for years to come.
“It was the desire of our hearts to continue to work at Actor’s Theatre while doing our own thing because Actor’s Theatre is just family to us,” he said.
Unfortunately, that will no longer be possible.
On Sept. 19, ATC announced it will cease operations at the end of its fall production of Evil Dead: The Musical, citing the ramifications of the pandemic and dismal ticket sales since resuming productions as reasons for the closure.
Then Hurricane Ian delayed the start of its final production. Originally scheduled to debut Evil Dead on Sept. 29, the company was forced to push the opening night back to Oct. 5 due to concerns about the weather.
Absorbing the loss
News of the closure was received with varying degrees of disappointment. “It’s kind of like a loss in the family in a way,” said Tynes-Miller.
As with DeCarlos, Giles, and Shepherd, Tynes-Miller anticipated working with Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte in the future. Collectively, the group of performers agreed on one word to describe the sudden announcement of ATC’s closure: tragic.
“I would’ve auditioned in a heartbeat,” Giles said.
Tynes-Miller echoed these sentiments.
The eagerness to work with Actor’s Theatre stemmed from a number of things, including the company’s lurid way of storytelling and the content of those stories.
“I was very proud in the sense that the shows that Actor’s Theatre produced were very timely and relevant to the community in Charlotte,” said DeCarlos, who has had what he calls a “soft 18-year residency” with ATC.
“Things that we’ve been experiencing here — things like gentrification, things like class and mobility, race and equity — you could always count on Actor’s Theatre to have at least one production that season that addressed something that was right on the tip of the community’s tongue.”
Both Tynes-Miller and DeCarlos expressed their concerns that a lot of important stories may go untold in the wake of the company’s closing.
In a statement from ATC executive director Laura Rice announcing the closure on Sept. 19, she emphasized that she hopes to see other local folks in the theatre scene fill the vacuum in storytelling that will be left by the company’s closure.
“For decades, we’ve been able to showcase Charlotte’s wide range of local talent, while providing a home for working artists to tell contemporary stories and entertain residents,” wrote Rice, who took over after longtime executive director Chip Decker stepped down in July.
“I hope ATC’s journey has made the path easier for another theatre company to fill the void we are leaving behind. As the Charlotte theatre and arts community is growing every day, I have no doubts that other companies will continue to flourish in our absence.”
The trick for any company that hopes to fill that void is to learn to navigate the landscape in a post-pandemic world. Like many other companies and organizations, Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte suffered heavily during the pandemic, but they weren’t alone. Theatre companies across the state suffered.
“When the pandemic hit, I saw six projects evaporate from my schedule overnight,” said DeCarlos. “And that was the rest of my year.”
All in the group agreed that, though audiences have returned to some extent, the levels of reception aren’t what they were pre-pandemic. However, there’s still hope that they can get there again … eventually.
In the meantime, these actors told Queen City Nerve they will continue to work with Shepherd Shakespeare and other local companies whenever possible.
“I think what I also love about Shepherd Shakespeare is that you get that same feeling of the care [that ATC had] for actors,” Giles said. “Above all else, making sure the actors are taken care of, have what they need, and that in turn makes the actors give 100%.”
The relationships DeCarlos, Giles and Tynes-Miller had formed with ATC afforded them access to auditions and roles that they will now have to work hard to replace.
While the inception of Shepherd Shakespeare may help, it is still a new company and will take time to reach the heights of ATC, which was founded in 1989 and at the time of September’s announcement was in the midst of its 34th season.
In the interim, the three actors anticipate rebuilding what will be lost.
“It’s going to have to be a period of learning how to re-navigate the theatre community and kind of just keeping posted on what the rest of the community is doing,” DeCarlos said. “Getting into those auditions, reworking new connections — so it’s kind of back to the audition room, basically.”
Forever memories from Actor’s Theatre
Among the many things each actor will take with them from their days working with ATC are the memories and lessons they learned. They each had fond memories from working with ATC, most of which consisted of building long-lasting and impactful relationships.
For Giles, ATC reunited her with her old college classmate and colleague, DeCarlos.
“[We] went to college together and being able to share the stage with probably my favorite actor that I got to share the stage with in college was a joy and continues to be a joy,” she said. Giles also met her boyfriend while working with ATC.
Tynes-Miller didn’t meet his wife, Three Bone Theatre co-founder Robin Tynes-Miller, through ATC, but he got to perform with her.
“We were fortunate to be cast in the same show at Actor’s Theatre one time and we got to play characters very different from ourselves in many different ways, and not a couple, and so it was just a fun little portion of our relationship,” he said.
When recalling his fondest memory, DeCarlos whistled and said he had a lot, but one stands out.
“We weren’t producing anything but we had this wonderful company, castwide party, like this Fourth of July party. I’ll never forget being on the roof of Actor’s Theatre, watching the fireworks with my dog in my arms,” he said.
One thing they all agreed on was that working with ATC was like working with family. The theatre community is tight-knit and the void that will be left by ATC will be palpable.
Scott Tynes-Miller believes another company will rise to fill that void and, hopefully, audiences will return to support the communities.
“But how long that takes is anybody’s guess,” DeCarlos added.
The rain has cleared, but the wind has picked up, driving down the temperature. The sun never came out. People are packing up the set, grabbing their belongings and going on with their lives. Another train horn blares in the distance, chugging on toward a destination that we can’t yet see.
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