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Rep´s Clumsy Lockdown

One dumb move after another doomed company

In the end, Charlotte Repertory Theatre was so depleted - and so incompetent - that they didn't even know how to say goodbye. Their valedictory press release, suffused with the maudlin negativity that has marked the company's actions for the past 16 months, came out Saturday morning just before 10am. Faceless, gutless, and bitter. For a company whose lifeblood had been drama, it was remarkable that there was nobody left at the company who realized its power. Nobody ever summoned the press to cry out that Rep was on the brink of collapse. Appeals to the audience from Judith Allen at Rep's last two productions were so tepid, you might have gathered that the company was temporarily hospitalized — rather than gravely comatose.

So it was cruelly apt that Rep's final press release bore the headline: "THE POWER OF THE SPOKEN WORD — SILENCED." For the Rep itself wasn't speaking, hadn't really been speaking for over a year as they trudged to their doom without any real artistic or administrative leadership.

Rep's new board Chairman, Bill Parmelee, had shaken my hand once early in his brief tenure. His behavior quickly became hermetic as the company's bottom line worsened. He still hasn't returned the phone message I left for him back in December, even after I called him out on it in print.

It's a mystery to me how a proud theatre company's fate can wind up in the hands of someone with so little media or showbiz savvy. Perhaps mystery is too soft a word. It's a travesty. A tragedy.

"It's unfortunate that the spin being put on the Rep's demise by some is that Charlotte audiences and donors are not interested in supporting high quality professional theater. That's hogwash." - Performing Arts Center president Tom GabbardIt was a travesty for an unbelievably loyal audience that, with I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change!, handed Rep its second-highest grossing show in its history to close 2004, surpassed only by the legendary production of Angels in America. The tragedy is what happened to the efforts of artists and craftsmen who poured their talents and passions into the Rep and, at its pinnacle, made Rep a company of national prominence.

"It is very unfortunate," said Parmelee via the Rep's final press release, "that there was little community support for a core cultural organization — The Rep — in our city. We feel that it is a tremendous loss to the quality of life for our entire region. Charlotte Repertory Theatre is the only accredited professional theatre in the region — it indeed is a major cultural loss that will be felt for many years to come."

No, Bill. There was just too little stomach left in the organization to fight the fight. And too little passion for the art. Even cast members for the Rep's final production, The Exonerated, were blindsided by the news that the company was shutting down. Phone calls came to them early Saturday morning, about the same time marketing manager Lisa Wilker was launching the fatal press release into cyberspace.

So amid promises that there would be future contact about subscriber refunds, which we now know aren't going to happen, Parmelee went out flailing against a community that wouldn't support a company the Rep board had suffocated. The reclusive Parmelee's assertion — that there is "little community support for a core cultural organization" — is being roundly assailed in every quarter, none more forcefully than Performing Arts Center HQ.

"It's unfortunate," snapped PAC president Tom Gabbard, "that the spin being put on the Rep's demise by some is that Charlotte audiences and donors are not interested in supporting high quality professional theater. That's hogwash. It's easier for some to blame the community rather than acknowledge the lack of vision and leadership that is ultimately the reason for the Rep's demise."

The last time Rep publicly referenced their financial plight was when they spread the good box office news early in January. "Despite the record sales," the taciturn Parmelee revealed, "we still expect this year's operations will result in a deficit." Allen was named to head a committee that would produce a due diligence assessment, to be presented to corporate and community leaders by the end of February, determining "whether there is sufficient community support for The Rep to continue past the 2004-2005 season." There wasn't a word that Rep was on the verge of imminent collapse. In fact, it was only last weekend that the cast of Exonerated learned that their final performance of The Exonerated would be a death march — a macabre ending for a docudrama about Death Row prisoners who are vindicated after being wrongfully sentenced to die.

Up on Broadway, where the rites of showbiz are as codified as parliamentary protocol, setting a date when your show will close is a recognized marketing tool. Producers and publicists who know the game routinely issue such announcements in hopes of sparking a last-minute run on the box office. If such a spontaneous outpouring of audience response occurs, a follow-up press release announcing the show's reprieve is at the ready. It's a pretty standard maneuver.

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