Arts » Theater

20 years on the aisle

The ups and downs of the local theater scene


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What hasn't changed radically while I've covered Charlotte's theater, culture and performing arts scenes over the past 20 years?

Begin with the technology. I can still remember how tech-savvy I thought I was back in 1987, composing my first columns on my Brother memory typewriter. Justified margins, two proportionally spaced "daisy wheel" typefaces, two-tier erasable ink cartridge, and a whopping 16K of memory. All for just a shade over $500.

Memory cards -- not even the first floppy disks -- hadn't yet invaded the freelancer's world, so my columns had to be hand-delivered to Creative Loafing's first office on Cecil Street. While that 16K memory was enough for my typical ArtsPulse column, it wouldn't quite stretch to the size of my recent Spirit Square cover story.

Screen? Print preview? Spell check? E-mail? Google? Way in the future. My first edits were on an LCD strip that could display 16 dot-matrix characters at the same time! Try scrolling through that baby and you might think I was living in the Stone Age. At the end of the Reagan presidency, it was Star Wars technology to me.

Our first office suite on Cecil is another barometer of how much we've changed. Without too much exaggeration, you could call that walk-up adequate for a teensy fly-by-night telemarketing operation. Looking out across Midland Plaza, the skyline had none of the tallest buildings we take for granted today. Eventually, the property was upgraded to a skuzzy blood bank before its current Baxter Street reincarnation.

At warp speed, we zipped into the age of DOS and Xywrite. Our move to the South Boulevard location -- to an office colony on the plat occupied by today's Office Depot -- enabled me to use the Loaf's computers in the wee hours before my Monday morning deadline.

My favorite Loaf location was the one we recently left on Old Pineville Road, within easy walking distance of my Beacon Hill apartment. You simply crossed the railroad tracks at Bourbon Street and you were there. Now that street is gone, and our old 6112 address has a front porch vista that looks out on a vast green mound, awaiting the arrival of light rail. Looks like a damn dam.

Flashing back to the theater scene of 1987 induces similar vertigo. A couple of the places where I took my aisle seat back then, Theatre Charlotte and McGlohon Theatre, are still staples on my beat. Others have been superseded by newer, better facilities, like Pease Auditorium at CPCC, Hodson Hall at Davidson College, and the Rowe theaters at UNC-Charlotte. Still others have drifted out of my orbit -- Little Theatre of Gastonia and Old Courthouse Theatre in Concord -- as theater activity intensified in the Uptown.

Duke Power Playhouse and the Acting Studio were sleek, high-tech wonders when they were unveiled in 1989 when Spirit Square got its nifty facelift. Gone was that cruddy "broom closet" where Charlotte Rep was born, and the center of town boasted small, medium and large theater spaces in a single perpetually buzzing beehive. Sadly, we can't make that boast today.

But late in 1992 -- many mergers ago -- the Performing Arts Center was hatched at the base of the mighty BofA skyscraper. We had the Belk Theater for the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra and Opera Carolina, with N.C. Dance Theatre soon to follow. Overlooking the palatial Founders Hall, we had Booth Playhouse and a resident regional professional theater company.

High culture in the heart of Charlotte! -- and not too long afterwards, our own hideous culture shock.

In hindsight, we might easily reach the conclusion that early 1996, barely three years after the PAC had opened, was too soon to bring AIDS and both halves of Angels in America to the base of our biggest bank building. Yes, technology was hurtling ahead at warp speed, cultural life was burgeoning exponentially across Metrolina.

But minds, attitudes, the general electorate and the city's political leadership weren't keeping pace. It was an ideal recipe for a perfect storm -- and ultimately, for Charlotte Rep, the perfect train wreck.

Along with Children's Theatre and Theatre Charlotte, Rep was one of the three main pillars of the Queen City's theater scene. So they were mandated by the kingly Char-Meck Arts & Science Council even before the advent of Creative Loafing. Yea verily, these three companies were consecrated among the exclusive Charter Member group of cultural organizations graced by the beneficence of ASC funding.

All other Charlotte theater groups -- Charlotte Shakespeare, innovative Theatre, Off-Tryon -- could go fuck themselves, relegated to the fringe. As a result of this suppressive, asphyxiating atmosphere of corporate tight-fistedness and myopia, numerous groups that existed at the dawn of the Loaf Era are now extinct. Others that rose up during our time have suffocated.

So it was the fact that Rep actually bore the seal of the ASC's approval -- and the largesse of annual six-figure basic operating grants -- that made Rep's collapse so shocking.

The flame-out itself was pretty spectacular. As recently as 2003, we had Hilary Swank at the Booth headlining a revival of The Miracle Worker -- with dreams of the Rep's name on Broadway playbills dancing in board members' heads. Next stop, a Regional Tony Award!

Less than two years later, Rep's hubristic board threw themselves on their swords and posted their closing notice.

To their credit, the ASC has learned some things from the many catastrophes that have befallen the city's theater companies. Groups outside the sacred charter circle now receive a modicum of funding. ASC has begun training a new generation of board members who serve the artistic vision of arts organizations rather than imposing one of their own. They've broken out of their self-imposed isolation within the Versailles luxuriance of their Carillon Building HQ, opening their ears to performing artists around town in informal talk back meetings.

Yet the recent Spirit Square flap has underscored some hard truths and exposed festering wounds. There are still some basics that Charlotte has yet to get right if they wish to incubate a thriving arts scene and move anywhere close to the forefront of American theater.

• Corporations and philanthropists need to support artists and nurture artworks with the same zeal they channel into erecting new buildings or performance spaces and stamping their names on them. Hey, there has been a Bank of America Chamber Music Series at Spoleto Festival USA for years -- and an equally potent Wachovia Jazz lineup. Why can't Charlotte get some of that love?

• Arts leaders need to be more proactive in educating city/county politicians. At worst, elected officials and appointees are stupid, bigoted boors. At best, they're trapped in benign ignorance. Prospective donors and board members also require enlightenment and careful grooming.

• Two vigorous funding streams need to be painstakingly developed in Charlotte: the collective ASC stream that distributes funding authoritatively to companies that artistically merit it, and a direct private stream of corporations and individual arts consumers who express their approval by contributing time, equipment, rehearsal space and money. Right now, merit does not rate highest among ASC's criteria, and that private streambed in Charlotte is nearly bone-dry.

• Keep the religious fanatics out of the equation.

• The grassroots support that mobilized on behalf of young artists and the seminal arts groups that inhabit Spirit Square must coalesce instead of disbanding, becoming an increasingly powerful advocacy group that will work for enlightened arts policy in Charlotte rather than the McCrory-style cluelessness that has made our town an enduring target of derision.

Taking a long view, we need to recognize our fundamental strengths and weaknesses as a cradle of flourishing arts activity. Otherwise, our strengths won't help us make progress in obliterating our weaknesses.

Charlotte abounds in innovative programming for young people that will spark interest and proficiency in the arts. ImaginOn and Northwest School of the Arts nurture theater, Symphony's fine LolliPops series and numerous CMS programs foster music, and Charlotte Youth Ballet and NCDT's DancePlace are among a plethora of organizations that cultivate young dancers. All around us, as Peter McCoppin recently reminded me, there's a goldmine of choral art and activity at hundreds of churches.

But once our young actors, designers, dancers, singers and musicians are properly equipped, what prevents these artists from emigrating en masse to "real cities" where they can pursue professional careers and enrich the cultural life of their communities? Obviously, we need to establish professional companies in all the arts, beginning with theater, and upgrade the working conditions of all.

For the past 20 years, we've agitated on behalf of an arts scene we believe our readers want and deserve -- and an enlightened political climate that will make it possible. More than once, we've suffered disappointment and defeat.

Still I'd like to think our presence in Charlotte has brought us nearer to the light. The Loaf is not as ragtag and outré today precisely because arts and culture have a more secure foothold here in 2007 than they had in 1987 -- or 1997. That's for sure.

Four generations of keyboards have passed through my hands since I typed my first reviews of As Is and Tartuffe. No matter how different the technology and the landscape have become, the fight remains the same.

Pass the ammo, my good readers.

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