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Perry Tannenbaum Looks Back on His Love/Hate Affair With Charlotte Theater

Thirty Years a Critic

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Like many people, I felt like I had a personal relationship with Perry Tannenbaum long before I met him. Shorty after I moved to Charlotte in 1998, I started dabbling on the fringes of the city's robust theater scene. One of the first names I heard mentioned, passed around by producers, directors and actors like a magic incantation or a curse word, was Tannenbaum's. You couldn't dip a toe in the QC's theatrical currents without reading or discussing the opinions of Creative Loafing's longstanding theater critic.

At a show, we'd peep through the curtain before it was raised and say with hushed anticipation, "Perry's in the audience!" That tone often turned on a dime from excitement to dread. "Oh fuck, Perry's in the audience!"

Local production of 'True West' promo photo spoofs what some in the theater world felt about some of Perry's assessments: from left to right, actors Tom Ollis, George Cole, Tannenbaum, James Yost and Hugh Loomis.
  • Local production of 'True West' promo photo spoofs what some in the theater world felt about some of Perry's assessments: from left to right, actors Tom Ollis, George Cole, Tannenbaum, James Yost and Hugh Loomis.

I may be an outlier, but as a sometime actor, I don't have an axe to grind with Perry. I was usually adequate so he frequently ignored me, but he never trashed my performances. On occasion I received Perry's praise. Combing through CL's archives, I found this snippet in a review of Warehouse Theater's October 2002 production of Snapshot: "a mystical body-painted kook, (is) nicely acted — and hilariously danced — by Moran."

Of course, I've had differences with CL's eccentric, sometimes acerbic critic. When it comes to experimental shows and companies, Perry prefers the endearingly threadbare shock-and-awe of James Cartee's (now shuttered) Citizens of the Universe (COTU) to XOXO's poetic alternative realities. I'm on the opposite side of that guerilla theater fence, butt why quibble? Love him, hate him, revere his opinions or try to dismiss them, but what Perry wrote — and continues to write — contributes to the lifeblood of Charlotte theater.

Creative Loafing: I had no idea that in a previous life you studied writing under (the poet and author) James Dickey. What can you tell us about that?

Tannenbaum: This was right at the height of his notoriety when the film of his novel Deliverance, which he actually appeared in, was competing against The Godfather for the Academy Award. When he lost, it was not a happy time for him -- although everybody knew that the writing was on the wall. It was an exciting time to be in his class, and to be listening to how he approached literature and poetry. I think his very lively approach to criticism had a lot of influence on the way that I write about theater, as opposed to being very sober, cautious and prudent. Dickey was enthusiastic about what he wrote and very passionate about what he didn't like, but he didn't have any animus against playwrights and poets. He was in their corner because he was a poet himself.

Since I performed in theater, I felt very much the same way. While I was at the University of South Carolina, I appeared in musicals like Brigadoon, and I played one of the leads in a Sherlock Holmes drama called The Crucifer of Blood. It was a lot of fun. First and foremost, you want to be writing for the reader, [but] I felt like I knew what theater was about from the inside when I started to write about it on the outside.

Tannenbaum, in 1984, getting made up to star as Alistair Ross in Crucifer of Blood.
  • Tannenbaum, in 1984, getting made up to star as Alistair Ross in Crucifer of Blood.

Let's talk about the early days of Loafing. You're on page 8 of the very first issue, covering a production at Spirit Square of As Is, a show about AIDS. That was pretty edgy out of the gate. Was that the idea?

It was definitely part of my portfolio to give a lot of emphasis to the fringe scene in Charlotte. But I covered the mainstream too — Theater Charlotte, Children's Theater and Charlotte Repertory Theater productions. Charlotte Rep had just changed their name. They started off as ACE [Actors Contemporary Ensemble] when Steve Umberger founded it. The big difference then was that they hadn't started producing any plays during the regular season. It was all during the summer. Charlotte Shakespeare was in the same boat. They primarily produced in the summer, and Central Piedmont always was — and has remained mostly — in the summer.

Who was doing stuff year-round in 1987?

It was mostly Children's Theater, Theater Charlotte and this element of the fringe theaters that were around then, like Saturday Night Leftovers. They did shows in what Steve Umberger used to call a broom closet at Spirit Square that was called Performance Place. When they renovated Spirit Square in 1990, you had the space you have now with all the technical amenities, which were so state-of-the-art back then. On the second floor, where there is a dance studio now, there was an additional performance space. It was like a black box theater. Actors Theater started there. Innovative Theater, a group that [actor] Alan Poindexter started after he got out of college, performed up there as well. I was in an Innovative Theater show up there called Kvetch in 1993.

Where was the Creative Loafing office in 1987, and how many people were on staff?

The first year the editor was Suzanne Gulley. The office was in an old blood bank. It was in a little strip mall close to where the Melting Pot is now. I think the building is still there. The staff was maybe three people. You walked upstairs to the second floor and Suzanne was sitting in an inner sanctum. Just outside the door were [longtime CL Editor] John Grooms, and maybe three other people doing advertising. I was freelancing then. I've never actually been on the staff. I always freelanced for Creative Loafing. I was teaching at the time in various community colleges around the area -- CPCC, Gaston College -- and I had a regular gig at a business college that (former Charlotte Hornets owner) George Shinn started. I was also at UNC Charlotte doing contract work. I was making the rounds with those different colleges, and cobbling together a living. At night I would do my Creative Loafing stuff.

You've always covered theater for CL, but in 1988 you started covering sports, and doing stories about the Hornets. How did you get into the loop with the Hornets?

Sports writer Tannenbaum was onto the Hornets in CL's early days.
  • Sports writer Tannenbaum was onto the Hornets in CL's early days.

I'm a big sports fan. I was living out on Tyvola Road. The coliseum was going up about two miles from my apartment, and I wanted in on it. So I conned the Hornets into letting me attend and photograph the first four or five home games of the year. I got to sit under the basket with my camera and shoot professional basketball players and write about it. I got into the locker room to interview Charles Barkley and Danny Ainge -- he was an ace interview. And of course there was Muggsy Bogues and Dick Harter. I was interested in him because Dick Harter had been the basketball coach at the University of Oregon when I was attending there. [I] got to see the game, and before and after the game I got to see how well the press were treated. We got chow before and after the game. It was fabulous. Who wouldn't want a gig like that?

Can you remember your first really big theater scoop where you thought this is a big story, it's not being told, and you were in the unique position to tell it?

In my Charlotte Shakespeare: Wanted Dead or Alive? cover story of 1991, I sounded the alarm over the impending death of the Charlotte Shakespeare Company due to the non-support of the Arts & Science Council, while The Charlotte Observer was burying its head in the sand and hyping something called Honky Tonk Angels. One thing came to me right out of the gate: I didn't think anybody was aware of the caliber of the talent that was in Charlotte, and how good the locally produced shows were. It was like the whole town was asleep on it. Of course, that's not entirely different from what it's been like all along, and what it is like today. I felt I needed to write about that. That was the subject of the first theater cover I did.

Tannenbaum interviews members of the theater community in his Talkbacks sessions.
  • Tannenbaum interviews members of the theater community in his Talkbacks sessions.

One of the biggest stories during your tenure as critic was the controversy surrounding the full frontal nudity of a male character in Charlotte Rep's 1996 production of Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize winning Angels in America. Even The New York Times covered it, writing that, "Lawyers for [Charlotte] warned that the police and District Attorney Peter S. Gilchrist 3d would enforce the indecent exposure law if they received a complaint about the play." On top of that, then-Mayor Pat McCrory said, "The Pulitzer Prize does not give you license to break the law," conveniently forgetting the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Angels in America became a big thing mostly because the pre-publicity was managed to fan the flames of the play's notoriety while supposedly educating the city about [the show]. Creative Loafing got onto the story a year ahead of time because we knew it was going to be a breakout role for Alan Poindexter. We knew the whole city, which had been sleeping on him, would be awakened suddenly to his immense talent.

We had no idea there would be a huge controversy about it. There was a whole mess of things going on. Granted, Blumenthal was in an uncomfortable position as the presenter of this show, but they and the Arts & Science Council seemed to be leaning too far backwards to accommodate the wacko religious right, which was making so much noise at that time.

Though Angels was a success, in retrospect it seems Charlotte Rep never recovered from the controversy and that it was just a matter of time that someone would pull the plug. What do you remember about the protracted death rattle of Charlotte Rep in 2005?

On top of everything else there were the bean counters and the upstanding citizens that were on Charlotte Rep's board. They set in motion the syndrome that we saw play out in 2014 with CAST, Carolinas Actors Studio Theater, in which the city's indifference to the importance of theater manifested itself by letting a theater organization be euthanized.

Sue and Perry Tannenbaum on the CAST red carpet in Charlotte in 2013.
  • Sue and Perry Tannenbaum on the CAST red carpet in Charlotte in 2013.

I acted in a few shows Michael Simmons directed before he founded CAST, which had a much more sudden demise than Charlotte Rep. What was going on there?

Organizational fatigue. When you get right down to it, nobody wanted to raise money.

Did that help shutter Rep as well?

No, that was more complicated. With Rep, the board boxed themselves in, so it became a matter of pride. It was a sequence that began with the firing, or "releasing," as they spun it, of Steve Umberger and (managing director) Keith Martin. The board was very nice and diplomatic about it, but they kicked (Umberger and Martin) out while popping champagne bottles and paying tribute to them both. So Rep showed them the door, brought in Michael Bush, treated him no better, and put him out the door.

Then they discovered that when you treat people that badly, nobody is going to want to come down to Charlotte to replace them. They had not only screwed over Michael Bush and Steve Umberger, but Rep had co-productions at the same time with a Syracuse theater organization. That was just tossed down the tubes. So who would want to work with a company like that?

They had one option, which was to grovel and beg Steve Umberger to come back, but they had too much pride to do that. So instead they closed the company. They boxed themselves in by treating their Artistic Director so badly and dishonoring the commitments that they had made with other theater organizations. They closed the company and blamed the city for it.

How did Creative Loafing's Charlotte Theater awards, forever known as "The Perrys," get started, and what prompted you to launch the awards?

It's an unlikely story. We were looking at the end of the year when they theaters are either flooded with out of town productions or shut down. The theater scene was, and largely remains, dark in December. Suzanne wanted a year-end round-up, and she asked me to do that. On top of that she asked me if I could give out some theater awards. She thought I should do nominations and awards like a regular award show. It sounded a little strange that I would be making the nominations as well as electing the winners. But I wanted to cash a paycheck on January 1, so I said I'd do it.

It was apparent to everyone you put a lot of work into picking nominees and winners. The nominations are very detailed.

The first year the categories were plays and musicals. Gradually, awards like actor of the year, actress of the year, newcomer of the year and tech categories were added on. So I ran through all my columns, and I was able to make up a list. I rated each and every show that I saw because I remembered them all. I made up my nomination lists. The first time we printed the nominations together with the winners, and the winners were in bold typeface.

When did you start doing the live award ceremonies onstage? I remember a couple of those at McGlohon.

We did that later, around 1999. We did it for three years. I think the last live awards show was in 2002. The printed awards lapsed [one year], but we revived them. We didn't have the awards in 2008, but we brought them back in 2009. Carlton Hargro thought it would be a good idea to publicize the awards online, so we videotaped a couple of announcements I did. The first year we did that we shot at CAST, and the second year shot a promo for the awards at Actor's Theater. That would have been in 2010, which was the last year we did the awards.

With daughter Ilana (left) and wife Sue at Schubert Alley on Broadway in New York
  • With daughter Ilana (left) and wife Sue at Schubert Alley on Broadway in New York

The theater scene has always had a love/hate relationship with you. People go from one extreme to the other: "I don't care what Perry says! But did he like my performance?" Were you aware of that?

I felt that something was going on. There were people who would greet me enthusiastically at one time, and then shun me another time. I got the idea that some people admired what I said, and some people discounted it. I always felt very close to people who performed because I performed myself. I know what they go through. I remember when I was in Kvetch, waiting with a certain trepidation for the papers to come out, and see what they wrote about the show or me. I understand how much it can hurt.

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