I've made a few encouraging discoveries this summer in my travels – as near as Greensboro, where I found a branch of the UNC system that actually matters to the cultural life of the city, and as far away as Denver, where an all-handicapped theater group is a fixture in the heart of town, not asking for any pity and performing at a high professional level that doesn't require any. If we wanted such things to happen here, they easily could.
In Abingdon, not far from where North Carolina borders on Tennessee and Virginia, we made our first pilgrimage to the Barter Theatre, the State Theatre of Virginia. Good place for a weekend getaway, quicker to reach by the Interstates than you might think. In Washington, D.C., bunking with my stepson and attending the 2008 ATCA Conference with two charter busfuls of theater critics from across the country, we saw 10 shows in less than six days in Metro D.C., between Bethesda, Md. and Arlington, Va.
If you can't afford the airfares, hotel rates and ticket prices of the Big Apple, D.C. is better than a poor man's alternative. You don't have to starve for stars. We saw René Auberjonois in the title role of Molière's The Imaginary Invalid, a truly fine production by the Shakespeare Theatre Company, and we saw a summit of two Tony Award winners, Chita Rivera and George Hearn, at Signature Theatre in The Visit, Kander and Ebb's musical version of the Friedrich Dürrenmatt classic. Very, very good.
With our MTA Awards, Charlotte already has one theater development idea that would have been worth stealing from D.C.'s Helen Hayes Awards. With Children's Theatre and their pioneering ImaginOn facility, we have one very fine idea they could stand to steal from us.
Duly dazzled by the big names and the big budget productions, I noted some community efforts on behalf of little theater companies that could work here. Our smaller companies could go to school.
No, I mean literally go to school. When I first joined ATCA in 2003, our annual conference was in Minneapolis-St. Paul. During our stay there, our buses took us to an out-of-the-way school in an economically distressed neighborhood where we saw an extraordinary production of August Wilson's King Hedley II. Penumbra Theatre has become one of the leading professional black theater companies in the country, working for 32 years in its little corner of a St. Paul middle school. Hell, it actually launched Wilson's playwriting career.
Well, Arlington has taken an even more proactive role in incubating small developing theater companies. Once again, school facilities are the fulcrum -- on a far grander scale. A school building in South Arlington opens its doors year-round to fledgling theater companies. Audiences enter through a door that proclaims its brand name in neon, Gunston Theatre II. Companies that perform there don't have to worry about intimidating rental rates or staging works that will attract enough audience to cover costs. High ticket sales or low, theater companies pay out a fixed percentage of their gate receipts. A wonderful incentive for audacious, risk-taking theater.
There's more pragmatic innovation. Companies can also utilize additional sectors of the same school building for set construction, costume design, and storage. Can mighty professional oaks grow out of such simple cultivation? Indeed, they can, aided by talent and vision. Eric Schaeffer made it happen with the acorn he planted at Gunston Theatre II in 1990. Now Schaeffer's dream, Signature Theatre, is housed in a fabulous new $16 million facility -- including two luxuriously well-equipped theaters -- in the heart of Shirlington, with the largest operating theater budget in Virginia, $5.6 million.
If you truly want to know how fabulously that acorn has grown, swallow this again: Signature Theatre is where we were wowed by Chita Rivera, George Hearn and the awesome Kander & Ebb remake.
Up in D.C., where municipal action was an oxymoron in the not-too-distant past, we saw impressive development in new spaces -- Shakespeare Theatre Company's gleaming new palace on F Street -- and in resourceful remodelings and reclamations. Woolly Mammoth Theatre performs edgy new work in a space carved out of expensive condo real estate not far from the new Bard building. The Shakespeare's satellite outpost where we saw the Molière, Lansburgh Theatre, is part of a larger Harman Center for the Arts, now in an exciting expansion mode. And while Arena Stage sojourns down in Arlington County, its D.C. home is going through a drastic remodeling that will leave only its original shell intact.
It's true: New theater facilities do not have to be wed to bank buildings! The wrecking ball can be sparingly used in fostering cultural development.
Best news of all, even the most hopelessly corrupt of communities can get off their butts and get it together. The infamous pipe organ at Belk Theater could actually be completed before the building falls down around it, and the grand old lady of our Uptown and Center City, Carolina Theatre, could actually begin its afterlife before we choose the next name for downtown. Doing those things is actually more important than holding those intense brainstorming sessions that will hatch that new name.
Preservationists in D.C. knocked heads with developers and forged a compromise. They saved part of a gorgeous old movie palace at Tivoli Square, building a cozy new theater space high up close to the old ceiling. Since 2005, the renovated space on 14th Street has been the HQ for the GALA Hispanic Theatre, where Spanish rep is presented with English supertitles.
Preservationists got part of their loaf instead of a long, slow starvation. Business got a property that is a magnet instead of a moldering, ghostly eyesore.
Rita Moreno nailed it when she said, "What happens at GALA Theatre should be happening across this country."
We can do this. All of it, whether emulating D.C., Greensboro or Denver. We certainly should.