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The Spirit of Spirit Square

More on the past, present and possible future

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Since 1976, when Spirit Square burst forth like a Phoenix from the shell of the old First Baptist Church of Charlotte, the arts complex at North Tryon and Seventh St. has been one colorful, flamboyantly dramatic, singing bird. Nnenna Freelon and the Marsalis Brothers are among the artists who have brought righteous jazz to the renovated sanctuary now known as McGlohon Theatre -- itself named after Charlotte's most beloved jazz great.

Some of the nation's greatest rock, folk, and comedy artists have basked in the same special McGlohon ambiance; Eve Ensler, George Winston, David Grisman and Paula Poundstone during the last 15 months alone.

Opera Carolina takes advantage of the sacred intimate vibes at Yuletide, presenting Amahl and the Night Visitors inside McGlohon's distinctive stained glass. Children's Theatre utilized the space for Scrooge! and other family fare as it transitioned from its former home on Morehead St. to its new ImaginOn fantasy palace. And before they remodeled Booth Playhouse for Sheer Madness, the Blumie tested their cabaret formula at McGlohon with Forever Plaid.

Deeper into the recesses of Spirit Square, Actors Theatre and Charlotte Rep were born. Alan Poindexter and Innovative Theatre came in from the wilds of the long-gone Pterodactyl Club to Uptown respectability at Spirit Square, first upstairs at the Acting Studio and then at the cushier space now known as Duke Power Theatre.

The Light Factory has grown to national prominence in the galleries that face away to College Street, and numerous organizations occupy classroom, exhibit, and office space throughout the rest of the building. An impressive array of cultural kingpins stroll the lobbies, climb the stairs, and ride the elevators: Northwest School of the Arts, Community School of the Arts, Opera Carolina, Blumenthal PAC, The Light Factory, and ArtsTeach.

So there's plenty to celebrate in the unique cultural synergy that Spirit Square has brought to the heart of town over the last 31 years. Who can ever forget the joy and festivity that marked the vibrant facility's 25th anniversary?

Well, uh, actually everybody can be excused for forgetting that. It never happened.

You see, The Spirit Square Center for the Arts and Education Inc. was dissolved back in 1997, shortly after the Angels in America flap died down. Since then, the Blumenthal has managed the space -- with varying degrees of zest for the special excitement this special place can create.

Unlike Judith Allen, his predecessor, current Blumenthal prez Tom Gabbard understands both the daytime and after-dark electricity that Spirit Square is specially outfitted to foster and incubate. There's more programming at McGlohon and Duke now than before, though the buzz of performance hasn't replicated the dizzying intensity that made the lobbies hum in 1989 after Spirit Square reopened with its first facelift.

What the old bird lacked most in recent weeks -- when it seemed possible that she would be slaughtered, cooked, and sold to the highest bidder by City and County government -- was a voice of its own, crying out passionately for life. Fortunately, the fledglings of Spirit Square, young artists who take classes at Northwest and their outraged parents, lifted up their voices to the Board of County Commissioners in a public meeting.

During the whole Spirit Square/baseball/land swap flap, the most heartening development was the reawakening and revitalization of grassroots advocacy on behalf of the arts and arts education. Most lamentable was the unexcused absence of Char-Meck school leaders from the fray.

Knowing how much the displacements of Northwest and Community Schools would cost, why did they allow this rancid situation to fester for nearly nine months? When will their vigorous advocacy on behalf of these earnest, talented students begin?

Even last week, when the BOCC rubberstamped the recommendations contained in the PowerPoint presentation by Bobby Shields, CMS had yet to show up and clear their throats. Meanwhile Charles LaBorde, the NW principal, is still awaiting positive assurance that he can count on the classrooms at Spirit Square through the 2007-'08 academic year.

By extending leases to at least Dec. 31, the BOCC offered considerable solace to The Light Factory, Opera Carolina, and the BareBones Theatre Group, the indie stage company that has encamped at the Duke Power since last April. The deal was not sealed for those troubled teens who tugged at our heartstrings on TV.

Now of course, we have been repeatedly reassured that commissioners never -- never! -- contemplated selling or liquidating the McGlohon. And we've been informed that the Duke is indeed a part of the original First Baptist footprint and thus also earmarked for preservation. More than one of the major players I interviewed put special stress on that point, their very insistence that we need to remember the Duke's protected status betraying a hint of doubt, uncertainty and misgiving.

So here's a rundown, obtained amid a shifting playing field in mid-crisis interviews, of the current players and how things might play out for them in Spirit Square's next evolution and rebirth.

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