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Charlotte Theatre Scene Faces Up To Adversity and Diversity in Dual Crisis

Offstage and behind the scenes

Performing arts in Charlotte have been hit hard, perhaps as hard as any industry during the COVID-19 pandemic — halted in place and put on hold with little options for adaptations. Chip Decker, longtime artistic director at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, has taken this sort of punch before. Twice in the past five years he has seen new venues for his company swept out from under his feet.

And now this.

“Seeing the thing you have sacrificed so much for be on the brink of disappearing, despite all of your best efforts, really quite sucks,” Decker observes. “Our business is dependent on lots of people gathering in small spaces — not the best operating model during a pandemic.”

Nor is gathering lots of people in big spaces. Charlotte Ballet’s Sleeping Beauty at Knight Theater and a three-day Women in Jazz fest at Stage Door Theater were among the first events to be canceled in March. Charlotte Symphony’s concert at Belk Theater and the Jewish Playwriting Contest at Shalom Park quickly followed.

Audiences have never seen the sets for Theatre Charlotte’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or Children’s Theatre’s Dragons Love Tacos. Scenery pieces were deserted onstage at their Queens Road and ImaginOn locations, respectively. CPCC Summer Theatre never got off its feet this year, and when we checked in with Blumenthal Performing Arts last month, president Tom Gabbard told us that more than 300 events had already been canceled.

Charlotte Theatre Troupes Face the Music in a Pandemic

Even the tiny Warehouse Performing Arts Center up in Cornelius has seen its storefront operation come to a halt.

“A good portion of our mission and aesthetic was bound up in the intimacy of the venue, the ability for small audiences to engage very closely with the dramatic world immediately before them,” says WPAC president Marla Brown. “We can’t do that. Social distancing at WPAC would mean one audience member watching a monologue.”

Unlike Brown, who suspended efforts to stage live performances, Decker has raged against the dying of the spotlights. Actor’s Theatre lost three productions from its 31st season and now expects to lose all of Season 32. They’ve had to postpone their nuVoices Play Festival and the follow-up to last summer’s Midsummer Nights @ Queens production, presumably a Shakespearean comedy.

An outdoor revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch fell through, compounding Decker’s woes, along with outdoor events planned at Freedom Park and a nearby Dilworth vacant lot at the intersection of Scott Avenue and East Boulevard. Charlotte Symphony was no less elaborate in its planning, seeing a three-week festival of concerts scheduled this month at Queens University, Knight Theater, Belk Theater, and Triple C Brewing Company dribble down the drain.

“It takes months of planning to get a show up, and one 30-second COVID announcement to derail it,” says Decker, “and to the layperson, that can come off as nothing has been done.”

Without any income from tickets and subscriptions to nourish them, hibernation is a more viable strategy at WPAC.

“The ironic ‘good news’ is that no artists made their living at WPAC, so the company is not seriously damaged economically,” Brown reports. “We have always been poor, relying on MacGyver theatre tactics and the wonderful talent pool of Metrolina to make solid shows on a dime. We will be back.”

Big Performing Arts Organizations Fall the Hardest

One size does not fit all when it comes to financial impact. The image of poor ragtag artists doesn’t fit Blumenthal Performing Arts operations, nor do Charlotte Symphony, Opera Carolina, Theatre Charlotte, Children’s Theatre, Charlotte Ballet, or Actor’s Theatre fit the same WPAC storefront template.

All of these companies have salaried employees. All applied — and received — funding from the Small Business Administration’s (SBA) Payroll Protection Program (PPP), totaling upwards of $3 million.

“We received a PPP loan from SBA which covered staff salaries through June,” says Ron Law, who was slated to retire on June 30 but has signed on for another season as Theatre Charlotte’s executive director at the request of the board. “We have used up our cash reserves, but we have been able to generate revenue from an online web-a-thon and other asks. Many of those holding tickets for the two canceled main stage productions made their ticket purchases a donation to TC.”

Charlotte theatre
Charlotte Ballet’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’ was among the first to go, and will be adapted for online. (Photo by Taylor Jones)

Under COVID conditions, Theatre Charlotte has been able to achieve the improbable. Weather permitting, they’ve presented Grand Nights for Singing: The Parking Lot Performances on Friday Nights. Their audiences, capped at 25, are socially distanced, as are their singers.

Audience members bring their own snacks, beverages, and chairs — no reservations — and the suggested donation is $10. Each of the two vocalists gets their own mic, and there are no duets.

So far, thanks to lucrative TV contracts, professional sports leagues have returned with their superstar athletes to empty stadiums and coliseums. Unfortunately, that business model hasn’t worked for Blumenthal Performing Arts’ big three venues — Belk, Ovens, and the Knight. We can expect them to remain shut down until at least December.

A Digital Pivot for Charlotte Ballet

In the meantime, performing arts around the globe have migrated online. Charlotte Ballet was among the first to adapt. Within two weeks of canceling the March 13 premiere of their “fairy-tailored” Sleeping Beauty at the last minute, Ballet dipped into their digital vaults and streamed Dispersal, their first free digital production.

The flick depicted more than merely a rehash of the choreographies presented at Innovative Works 2019, when Charlotte Ballet collaborated with the Mint Museum, the Studio Drift duo, and choreographer Christopher Stuart. Intercut with the Innovative performance videos was behind-the-scenes footage that transformed the evening into a documentary, reaching an audience of more than 13,000.

Enter Zoom for a brand-new collaboration. Charlotte Ballet artistic director Hope Muir couldn’t help noticing that the web was becoming oversaturated with dance.

“We took a step back to regroup and to explore other means of engagement,” Muir reveals, “and I worked with choreographer Helen Pickett to discuss our options and resulted in an opportunity for five of our dancers. Charlotte Ballet joins artists from Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and Dance Theater of Harlem for Part III of a trilogy Helen developed titled Home Studies, which is entirely choreographed and rehearsed via Zoom.” (Airing on Sept. 3 on Charlotte Ballet’s Facebook page.)

No less audacious, Muir has sidelined Nutcracker, Ballet’s traditional Yuletide cash cow, for the 2020-21 season. Fingers crossed, she’s replacing the beloved Russian ballet at Belk Theater this December with another Tchaikovsky masterwork, the previously abandoned Sleeping Beauty: A Fairy-Tailored Classic.

Other Adaptations Arise in the Virtual World

The reawakened Sleeping Beauty is the first live event to be planted on the 2020-21 calendar, but Theatre Charlotte has hatched — or is it hedged? — some hybrids. After purchasing video equipment, the Queens Road barn can now pivot to streaming.

Twelve Angry Men, originally scheduled for October, has been ditched because Theatre Charlotte couldn’t obtain streaming rights. Instead, the company will showcase A.R. Gurney’s What I Did Last Summer for three nights in September and Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly, Last Summer for three dates in October. Both productions will feature socially distanced casts performing on the same Cat on a Hot Tin Roof set that has been waiting for action on Theatre Charlotte’s stage since March.

These shows will be ticketed, streamed behind a paywall. Law hopes that audiences will be able to attend the traditional holiday production of A Christmas Carol on Queens Road. But he isn’t taking chances. He had Chris Timmons shorten his own adaptation to 90 minutes so that it can be performed without intermission, utilizing a small cast and a narrator.

“If we can perform it live in [Theatre Charlotte] by that time, we will,” Law declares. “We will also put it on video and stream it for those who don’t feel safe coming to the theatre or can’t be accommodated due to limited seating capacity.”

Three Bone Theatre has a four-person leadership team, the same number as Theatre Charlotte’s full-time staff — except Three Bone executive director Becky Schultz serves on a volunteer basis. Because of their non-traditional staffing, the company wasn’t eligible to apply for PPP funding. Because they don’t control their own space, they can’t rehearse or perform as freely as Theatre Charlotte, Children’s Theatre, and Charlotte Ballet.

Theatre Charlotte’s unfinished ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ set has sat empty since March. (Photo by Tim Parati/Theatre Charlotte)

“When we do go back into production, we are facing smaller house sizes and artists and patrons who are concerned about safety. We will need to prioritize shows with smaller casts and production costs, limiting the stories we can tell,” Schultz confides. “It’s impossible to say when audiences will return to pre-COVID levels but we expect it will take a long time. We have lost the forward momentum that we’ve spent the last eight years developing, and dipping into our reserves delays our ability to finally add staff.”

It’s been over six months since Three Bone’s last production shut down. Revenue from their last two shows, Dada Woof Papa Hot scheduled for May and This Is Modern Art for July, was largely lost, representing 40% of their 2019-20 season. During the shutdown, Three Bone staffers have dealt with loss of jobs, taking on the rigors of homeschooling, experiencing the stresses of quarantine, and watching family members battle the virus.

A New Racial Reckoning Arises

Like other performing arts companies across Charlotte — we sent out questionnaires to 17 of them — Schultz and her Three Bone team are heeding the crosswinds of social unrest sweeping across the country. The Black Lives Matter reckoning is spilling onto our streets amid the pandemic, troubling consciences and challenging longstanding norms.

In their planning of how to come back from COVID, arts leaders agree that it’s not just about making the smart business decisions necessary to cope with new realities; it’s about being better. Schultz admits that Three Bone is re-evaluating 2020-21 programming.

“We believe that Black lives matter and Black theatre matters,” Schultz states, “and we have a responsibility to ensure that we are deliberately supporting that with our programming, both on stage and behind the scenes. We are taking this opportunity to further educate ourselves as individuals and as an organization. We are listening to BIPOC [Black and Indigenous People of Color] artists, engaging in difficult conversations and reflecting on how we can do more to be an anti-racist company.”

Janeta Jackson as Billie Holiday in ‘Lady Day at Emerson’s Grill.’ (Photo by Fenix Fotography)

Black theatre has been part of Actor’s Theatre programming for every season since 2008-09, most recently with Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill — with Crowns on tap for their upcoming season — yet Decker is among the arts leaders of Charlotte unanimously proclaiming that they are rededicating themselves to BLM.

“ATC is working hard on recognizing and dismantling our own systemic racist culture,” Decker responds, “and we are in full support of the Black Lives Matter movement and having room at the table for BIPOC.”

A Past To Be Proud Of

Nor is Actor’s Theatre an exception. Inclusive programming is admirably pervasive across the spectrum of Charlotte’s performing arts scene. Opera Carolina was close to presenting I Dream for a second time — in a newly revised version — when the pandemic hit. Charlotte Ballet has a long history of showcasing African-American dancers onstage and forging sturdy relationships with Black choreographers behind the scenes.

Up in Cornelius, WPAC was in mid-rehearsal of Lynn Nottage’s award-winning Sweat when COVID shut things down. Ron McClelland was directing a diverse cast that included Shar Marlin, Brian Daye, and Dominic Weaver. That show might pivot to a streaming format when the production team meets to decide.

Theatre Charlotte, with Ain’t Misbehavin’ in February 2019 and Dreamgirls missing-in-action back in May, certainly hasn’t been caught off-guard by pleas for Black programming. CPCC Theatre has presented multiple dramas by August Wilson, their Summer Theatre offered Beehive in 2019, and the college recently announced the onboarding of a new chief diversity officer.

The cast of Ain’t Misbehavin’ (from left): Nonye Obichere, Tyler Smith, Keston Steele, Marvin King and Dani Burke (Photo courtesy of Theatre Charlotte)

Aside from the Johnson C. Smith theatre department and the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture, there are two Black theatre companies based in Charlotte: On Q Performing Arts and Brand New Sheriff. Charlotte has hosted — and won — the National Poetry Slam, we have an annual jazz festival closely aligned with Jazz @ Lincoln Center, and we were the first American city to host the Breakin’ Convention.

Up in Winston-Salem, the National Black Theatre Festival has convened for a week in odd-numbered years since 1989, most recently in 2019 when they hosted more than 40 African-American celebs, 30-odd Black theatre productions from across the nation, and the American Theatre Critics Association.

So Charlotte and North Carolina have nothing to hang their heads about if you’re making comparisons about Black culture and programming.

Racial Disparity at the Leadership Levels

Dig beneath Charlotte’s shiny surfaces, however, and you do notice the structural, systemic problems that are drawing fire. Sixteen of the 17 questionnaires we sent out — to companies who had already found a spot on our 2020 calendars before COVID — were earmarked for Caucasians.

No arts organization in the Metrolina region presents a more diverse array of educational and onstage programming — or serves a more diverse audience — than Children’s Theatre of Charlotte. When they halted the hip-hop run of Grimmz Fairy Tales and shelved Dragons Love Tacos, staff at ImaginOn did not leave the students enrolled in their 20-week School of Theatre training program in the lurch.

Adroitly, they pivoted, so that two onstage plays and two musicals were moved to virtual format. Summer camps began online, not skipping a beat, morphing to a hybrid program — your choice of online or in-person — when guidelines from Centers for Disease Control, state, and federal officials could be met.

Collaborating with 37 children’s theaters across the country, Children’s posted a new adaptation of A Kids Book About Racism as a virtual performance early this month, and they’re continuing work on their commission of Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba as part of The Kindness Project.

Yet executive director Adam Burke is among the good guys who are still doing some soul-searching.

“This is an incredibly important moment in the world, but also here in Charlotte, both socially and culturally,” Burke asserts. “Black Lives Matter is at the center of this moment. It is our responsibility to be checking to ensure that we are doing this in a way that is equitable and inclusive. What I, and Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, can do is work to acknowledge and eliminate unconscious bias through active education as well as examination of current practices and policies, and that is what we are doing.”

Systemically, the most obvious places to be on the lookout for change is on the roster of performing arts vacancies around town. Burke reports that his director of advancement position has been vacant since November and that managing director Linda Reynolds is retiring at the end of this month.

Law isn’t the only leader who needs to be replaced once he’s allowed to retire — CPCC’s Tom Hollis ended his long tenure as department chair on Aug. 1.

Our performing arts companies can address adversity and diversity at the same time, but we can help with our interest, encouragement, and support. We can also check the behavior of ourselves and those around us.
Decker probably says it best: “Tell your crazy uncle to put on his damn mask!”

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