In a city like Charlotte, it’s entirely possible that even the most actively engaged performing arts audiences don’t realize that they are in the midst of a life and death battle.
“What could possibly be wrong,” they may wonder. “I see so much theatre and dance! I saw something at the Knight Theater on Tuesday, the Belk on Wednesday, the Booth on Thursday, Charlotte Ballet’s smaller space on Friday. We took our niece to see something at ImaginOn on Saturday and then there was a jazz thing at The Stage Door Theater on Sunday.
“There is so much performance! An embarrassment of riches!”
And in many ways, this is true. Of course, all of those hypothetical performances happened inside of the I-277 loop and, with the exception of ImaginOn and Charlotte Ballet, they were all programmed by the same organization and likely written, designed, directed and performed by people who live in New York City.
It would be hard to fault your average Charlotte theater patron for thinking there weren’t actors or dancers living and making work here.
And the reasons for that are Legion. No, not the brewery. What we’re talking about is a little closer to the collective from the New Testament … you know, the demons? But I digress. We are not here to talk about whether or not there are demonic forces or ancient curses at play in keeping Charlotte’s local performing artists struggling for light and air.
We’re here to talk about one major factor and some possible hope for the future; we’re here to talk about space.
Quick! Name five theaters outside of the I-277 loop. There’s Theatre Charlotte in Myers Park, aka The Barn. There’s The Arts Factory at Johnson C. Smith. There’s … um … OK, there’s … Oh yeah, there’s criminally underused theater-cum-lecture-hall The Van Every at The Mint Museum on Randolph Road. Are there others?
Snug Harbor and (especially) Petra’s have picked up some slack by hosting various performance events but they are really music venues and bars, and anyone who has seen a dance performance at a bar knows they are not spaces designed so the audience can see what actors or dancers are doing. No shade, y’all, just facts.
There are performances at Goodyear Arts sometimes, but it’s certainly not a theater, and the experience can be punishing for artists and audiences (someone please write a grant to cover air conditioning in that place).
A healthy arts ecosystem requires affordable space for people to create and to show their work. When it comes to performance, this becomes doubly important. Theatre and dance are live, time-based arts. They happen right here and right now. You have to have room to move around and you have to have room for the audience. Space.
Without affordable space, the only work that can happen is work that has major funding. Work that has major funding has a lot going for it. It’s usually very nice to look at. It’s usually quite polished and inoffensive. Sometimes it even manages to defy the odds and still have artistic integrity and be emotionally effective. What it is not, oftentimes, is accessible.
Accessibility means a lot of different things but, for the sake of this conversation, it comes down to, “Can I afford to be there?” and “Do I feel like I belong there?” This is true of artists and audiences.
So what is needed to supplement our palaces in Uptown are spaces where artists who are up-and-coming, experimental (i.e. weird), or just plain poor can make work and share it with an audience. And these spaces are lacking in Charlotte, which is a huge problem.
This is where brave souls like Matt Seneca and Sarah Hayes Harkins come in. Seneca is an actor and educator with a long established love for tango, the exquisitely slinky and sharp Argentinian dance form. Harkins, a principal dancer with Charlotte Ballet for more than a decade, is equally invested in the formal rigor of Ballet and increasing accessibility to the art form.
The two met during the pandemic and bonded over their shared love for dance and common passion for making dance available to people who are hungry to move. Harkins tutored Seneca in ballet and he in turn invited her to learn tango.
Out of this came a beautiful artistic partnership that has blossomed into a business partnership as the pair prepare to open The Long Room, an event and performance space located at 1111 Central Avenue, where the east Charlotte corridor intersects with Hawthorne Lane — those borderlands where Belmont meets Plaza Midwood and Elizabeth (think where Green with Envy once stood and where Haylo Healing Arts Lounge still operates today).
What is The Long Room?
Asked about the impulse behind the new venture, operations manager Harkins told Queen City Nerve, “The idea of having our own space for Argentine tango and other types of dance was always there. We talked about a bar/coffee shop, we talked about a studio, we talked about renting the space permanently to another business for revenue, but once the events idea came up it started to stick.”
Founder and owner Seneca added, “Creative people in Charlotte struggle to find space, and we are often at the mercy of those who own space, be it corporate developers who want to see a profit, breweries who need to sell alcohol, churches which are unlikely to host, say, an LGBTQ ecstatic dance party … I wanted to take one big swing in my life and open a space where my value system, one that prioritizes the arts, holds sway.”
Harkins and Seneca are impressive for their creative chops, but what really makes this feel like it might have legs is the fact that there is a business plan in place that provides a fiscal foundation to the project while maintaining a certain level of agility and room for evolution.
By positioning The Long Room’s performance-focused venue as an event space available for weddings, receptions, corporate events, bar mitzvahs or drawing down the moon, Harkins and Seneca will fill two neglected niches in the Plaza-Belmont sector: affordable event space and a potential artistic home for the artists and audiences who are more comfortable in the less stuffy environs outside of the I-277 loop.
Who might those artists be? Harkins was ready to go with a list of local dance companies that she admires and hopes to see active at The Long Room, stating, “The scene here is so underground and grassroots, with everyone working for themselves and risking a lot financially to have performances, not to mention performing in spaces that aren’t really safe, dancing barefoot on cement floors in warehouses or rolling around in dirt at an outdoor space of some kind.
“Groups like Ladyfest CLT, Baran Dance, Moving Poets, and Movement Migration are making waves in dance right here in Charlotte and I would love to be able to provide a space for these groups to flourish.”
Seneca’s thinking about the sort of artists he’d like to see working at The Long Room ran a little further afield, highlighting visual artists like Bill Temples and wunderkind Makayla Binter as well as Nouveau Sud’s Jarrell Wallace and Cathy Youngblood’s a capella vocal ensemble Caritas.
If I may throw in my two cents, I’d love to see performances by Queen City New Play Initiative or Mixed Metaphor Productions in the space — the interesting contours of which lend themselves to imaginative staging.
It’s not called The Long Room for nothing, after all, and in addition to the length of the room, the space features a second-level gallery that looks down on the main floor. I’d love to see what our more imaginative directors and choreographers could do with the surgical theater vibe of something like that.
While the artistic possibilities are intoxicating, Harkins and Seneca remain sober in their assessment of the financial picture.
“We are setting up The Long Room to be friendly to a wide variety of events and social gatherings of all kinds,” said Seneca. “We also hope to infuse the arts into the more conventional events we host by having art available for sale, connecting artists with event hosts, and offering our own dance services.”
“To be fair, we do need a stream of income to get our business model rolling,” added Harkins. “I think balance will evolve over time when we have a better idea of who is most interested in renting the space.”
So what does the future look like for The Long Room? Both Harkins and Seneca imagine a bustling space where a diverse cross section of artists, audiences and citizenry can ply their craft and simply live their lives. They hope that The Long Room will thrive and provide inspiration for other spaces like it. And I hope so, too.
I would love to see The Long Room become not only an event space, not only a performance space, but one of those mythical third spaces — somewhere that people show up to because they know that they will feel comfortable and there’s a good chance they will be delighted and surprised by something.
I hope The Long Room reminds people that, between home and work, there is the city of Charlotte, a place with culture all its own unlike anywhere else in the world precisely because of the people who make their lives here.
The Long Room is scheduled to open in fall 2023.
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