Arts » Feature

Bless Them, Every One

Year ends on a note of anxiety


It hasn't been a bad year for the performing arts in Charlotte. Our opera, symphony, theater and dance companies all delivered handsomely. WDAV celebrated its 25th anniversary as Metrolina's classical music voice with a live broadcast of the upsized Chamber Music at St. Pete's concert earlier this month. The PAC capped its 10th anniversary celebration by hosting The Lion King and announcing the zillionth reprise of Les Miz. Charlotte Shout brought us the American concert debut of the OperaBabes!

Yet there's anxiety -- and lingering animosity -- as the year ends. If you cherry-picked your weekend entertainment from your favorite tabloid calendar listings, you might not have noticed the struggles and the tensions. But season subscribers who support local companies with their checkbooks and local artists who create the product with their talents have been closer to the turmoil. Both groups probably feel rather rudely jerked around.

Discontent -- and lurid headlines -- have centered on the melodramas at Charlotte Symphony and Charlotte Repertory Theatre. Heraldry for a Symphony season is by far the most elaborate in town. Months before the season begins, Classics, Pops and Lollipops subscribers receive the same dates and descriptions of Symphony concerts in a resplendent brochure with their options to renew.

Somehow, communication between Symphony management and musicians wasn't as chummy or effusive. As the last hours of the musicians' contract drew near at the end of August, delivery of management's new employment package lagged far behind the gorgeous four-color brochures. If musicians were thus shortchanged on courtesy, they inexplicably lacked the acumen to discover that the upcoming season would be four full weeks shorter than 2002-03.

So the collision between Symphony and their musicians occurred days before the season was slated to begin -- instead of months. As the musicians' strike dragged on, with no word from their spokesman or negotiator about the strikers' demands, three concerts on the Classics series went down the tubes. Season openers in the Lollipops and Mostly Mozart series were also tossed aside. So far, only the ballyhooed James Galway concert has been rescheduled.

The tribulations of Rep subscribers have escalated throughout the year. Theatergoers who had bought tickets for Jar the Floor before September 2002 were told in mid-season that the Broadway-bound Miracle Worker, starring Hilary Swank, would replace it -- not at all a horrific development. Then after cutting a week from the run, Swank pulled out of two more performances to attend the Oscars and a Hollywood premiere, crowding and jostling the faithful again and again.

And as you may recall, Rep's Miracle was whipped before it reached Broadway.

Jar was shelved until October. But once again, it didn't keep well, and Rep subscribers were assailed with renewed force. Folks who had the misfortune to reserve tickets for the final week of Jar were compelled to change their plans. That week of performances and the final week of all remaining shows on the Rep subscription were jettisoned. Hamlet, an ambitious co-production with Syracuse Stage, was eliminated altogether, no replacement announced to subscribers for over two months.

Now we know. Instead of Shakespeare's mighty tragedy requiring more than a dozen able actors, Rep's faithful will be treated to Michael Frayn's Copenhagen, a witty stimulating drama that requires just three actors -- and zero scenery. A year ago, the next attractions parading onto the Booth Playhouse stage were being auditioned and rehearsed on Broadway. After Rep's panic attack and the inevitable result, producing artistic director Michael Bush's prompt resignation, the next Rep attraction will have been auditioned and rehearsed at Belmont Abbey College, a retreaded production that ran in nearby Belmont back in October.

Symphony's squabbling will end without any of their key players leaving Charlotte. Still, seven weeks after the musicmaking resumed, there has been no word from management about how fractured subscriptions will be mended. Having already inconvenienced their supporters, they really should be making reparations with a greater sense of urgency.

Urgency may well be running riot up in NoDa at Rep's new HQ, but it is doubtful whether it will do much good for awhile. The big name parade that included Swank, Penny Fuller, Andre De Shields, Gretha Boston, Jim Wann, Suzzanne Douglas and Emily Skinner has been halted in its tracks. Prospective co-producers, upon learning how Syracuse Stage was burnt by Rep's pullout, will be extremely wary about partnering with Rep's irrational board.

Ironically, local actors have also gotten the shaft. They figured to make their greatest inroads on Rep's dramatis personae since the dawn of the Bush Era when the cast for Hamlet was announced. For now, those who would have participated will remain out in the cold.

Rep's timetable calls for a new permanent artistic director to be named by the end of the current season -- after interim artistic director Terry Loughlin and the company's skittish board of trustees announce the lineup for 2004-05. So patient Rep subscribers will be obliged to wait until 2005-06 for artistic direction and product to be in sync.

Emphatically, survivors of Rep's shakeup assure me that the "04-05 season will be delivered exactly as announced. They're reaching out to Copenhagen ticketholders -- with individually signed letters -- and offering a free drink in the Booth Playhouse lobby to reward their forbearance. It remains to be seen, however, how those assurances and blandishments will play to Rep subscribers at renewal time. What about prospective black theatergoers -- and black performers -- repeatedly buffeted by all those dislocations and the ultimate curtailment of Jar the Floor?

Two of Charlotte's most esteemed performing arts groups set the pace for 2003 in disregarding existing subscribers and, in Rep's case, dropping the ball in efforts to cultivate new audience. Rep's current scramble to re-establish stability and goodwill should serve as a warning and an example.

As a new year begins, subscribers to Symphony and Rep deserve more than a blessing, a toast and a free beverage in their glasses. So do the artists who sustain the excellence of our music, theater and dance. Artists and subscribers both deserve commitments that can be counted on. Those commitments should provide for the cultivation of a sophisticated Charlotte arts audience while according overdue recognition and support to Charlotte artists that is proportionate with their talents. Progress on both these objectives is imperative for the continuing enrichment of the experience of living here.

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