Arts » Feature

Rep Gives Up Their Porsche

Group's haste makes waste of talent and time

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Hang on tight, theater lovers, the rollercoaster of Charlotte Repertory Theatre's internal politics is throwing us for another loop. You can bet there are more new twists straight ahead.

The scenario for the current upheaval began when the final tallies on income from Rep's season opener, Pump Boys and Dinettes, began making their way onto the company's spreadsheets. Coming on the heels of last spring's The Miracle Worker, the 20th anniversary edition of Pump Boys, featuring the show's co-creator, Jim Wann, was intended to ignite ticket and subscription sales.

"We thought that was the one-two punch that was going to put us over the top," says J. Michael McGuire, chairman of Rep's board of trustees. "And it didn't happen that way. Pump Boys, from a financial side, was a disappointment."

Make that a huge disappointment. Figures obtained from Charlotte Rep indicate that Pump Boys ticket sales fell nearly $40,000 below projections. With a reported deficit of over $600,000 carried over from the 2002-03 season on their ledgers, Rep's trustees shifted abruptly into crisis mode.

Then they made a series of hasty, counterintuitive moves that could haunt Rep for years. They pulled the plug on an ambitious co-production of Hamlet, betraying both Rep subscribers and the company's producing partner Syracuse Stage. They canceled their annual New Year's Eve fundraising gala. They shortened the runs of all remaining mainstage subscription productions by a full week. And for good measure, they yanked Rep's New Play Festival, an established fixture in Charlotte's theater scene for the past 17 years.

We cannot verify that Rep's feisty board demanded the resignation of producing artistic director Michael Bush. A 40-minute interview with McGuire a week before Thanksgiving failed to elicit a single expression of shock, bitterness or consternation over Bush's departure.

Nor did Chairman McGuire regard Bush as a failure. While the official announcement cited Charlotte's lack of support for Rep revamped product, McGuire blamed the nation's economy, state budget deficits, the sudden drought in foundation grants linked to conditions on Wall Street, and the fallout of 9/11.

"In some respects, we felt like we bought a Porsche," says McGuire, "and we thought we were going to go down the autobahn in Germany and make some rapid progress. In the meantime, before the Porsche was delivered, they put a 55 speed limit on the autobahn."

For the moment, Rep will gladly trade its Porsche in for a Toyota. Meanwhile, close examination of McGuire's metaphor -- corroborated by more concrete statements from Bush and Rep founder Steve Umberger -- reveals that Rep's financial woes began before Bush took the wheel.

As we go to press, Rep has not made good on promises to release financials on its past two seasons, but Bush is on record with statements indicating that company debt had reached approximately $250,000 before his first show, The Glass Menagerie, opened in September 2002.

Bush bristles at charges that he busted the Rep budget. The widespread idea that Rep shelled out big bucks for their big stars, repeated in a column by Mike Collins in this month's Charlotte Theatre magazine, has absolutely no foundation. Glittery contacts that Bush had cultivated during his decades at Manhattan Theatre Club worked in Charlotte for Equity minimum. Production costs for the 2002-03 season, Bush claims, were just $40,000 over budget.

Reliable sources, however, say that Bush's regime was more autocratic than Umberger's. There was a healthy balance of power between Umberger and former managing director Keith Martin -- and a healthy surplus before Martin's departure. Before they resigned from Rep, we've heard, managing director Matt Olin and development director Anne Lambert never achieved parity with Bush. They were frustrated in their attempts to make a positive impact -- and in their dealings with the producing artistic director.

In the wake of Olin and Lambert's departures, the disappointing receipts from Pump Boys may have looked more alarming to the Board. But it's easy to see why all of the trustee actions -- and their painfully awkward timing -- made Bush's position untenable.

Press releases announcing Rep's schedule shakeup began appearing the day before Jar the Floor began its preview performances.

"The timing was unfortunate," Bush states, "and it certainly was something that I was greatly concerned about. I had artists here in town who, in some ways, were being told they weren't successful before they hit the stage."

One of those artists was Gretha Boston, who won a Tony Award for her role in the Broadway revival of Show Boat. After a previous Rep appearance in Let Me Sing, Boston was playing her first-ever role in a straight play here in Charlotte thanks to her confidence in Bush.

It's hard to defend Rep's insensitivity to the fine artists Bush had brought in for Jar the Floor -- or the slap in the face to African-American theatergoers that the show appealed to, an audience Rep sorely needs to develop. By the end of its last week, says Bush, Jar the Floor was selling out.

On the horizon, Robert Moss and Syracuse Stage were on board for their second collaboration with Rep after last year's outstanding production of M. Butterfly. While McGuire asserted that Rep's pullout from Hamlet was a consensus decision, Bush's narrative clearly indicates that he was blind-sided.

"It was terribly last-minute," Bush fumed. "So last-minute that I have to tell you that I had flown Bob Moss here to Charlotte, I had done local auditions. He got back on an airplane that Sunday night to go to New York, I drove up to New York and was going to be in auditions with him in New York for Hamlet, and during the car ride up North, the Board decided to cancel the production. I drove to New York only to turn around and come back. Because of what went on, I can't approach a single theater in America without their saying, "But hey, at the last minute are you going to pull out?'"

Rep was scheduled to announce what they plan to replace Hamlet with the day after our press time. McGuire's timetable calls for a stabilization committee and a search committee to spring into action, salvaging their season and replacing Bush. While Theatre Charlotte has already announced their lineup for 2004-05, Rep won't be turning that page until next spring.

Meanwhile, Rep is reeling, its ability to attract topnotch actors and administrators compromised by its micromanagement and its caprices. A major new constituency was kissed off in the Jar the Floor debacle 10 days before the Observer ran a Sunday spread on the show. Subscribers have been jerked around and alienated by the Hamlet cancellation.

Can Rep get its act together? If it doesn't, Charlotte will be the largest city in America without a resident professional Equity theater.

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