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Year in Review: Boardroom drama upstages the Q.C.'s theatrical successes

The best and worst of times in Charlotte theater

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It was a great year for theater in Charlotte — and it would have been far greater if all our theater companies had survived it. Artistically, local talent was clicking every month of every season, and our biggest players were especially sure-footed.

Our blue chip companies didn't sustain their successes by sticking with one director or one kind of show. Actor's Theatre of Charlotte ran the gamut in its stellar season, zigzagging from an intense family drama (Other Desert Cities) to a searing rock musical (Passing Strange), to a hilarious Tony Award-winning comedy (Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike) before finally arriving at what they do best: a balls-to-the-wall off-Broadway-style musical spoof. That show, The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical, was recently crowned as the most prodigious box office hit in the company's 26-year history.

Earlier in 2014, prospects around town weren't nearly as rosy. Carolina Actors Studio Theatre (CAST) swung into its death spiral in early May with what was envisioned as a landmark revival of Angels in America, Parts 1 and 2. Despite an unprecedented barrage of media publicity for CAST and its enterprise, Charlotte responded with a collective yawn. Box office doldrums continued into the following month when CPCC Summer Theatre began its 41st season with fine productions of The Scarlet Pimpernel and Li'l Abner.

CP got its mojo back parleying two Disney hits, The Little Mermaid and Mary Poppins, into a veritable family stampede at the Halton. Meanwhile at 2424 N. Davidson, the CAST board of directors was euthanizing a 20-year-old company, deaf to the desperate pleas of its founder and artistic director Michael Simmons.

That's exactly what happened at CAST. On the day that the board decided to shut down, Simmons had a lunch meeting scheduled with Michael Ford, the visionary restaurateur-entrepreneur who has turned UpStage (formerly WineUp) into the new theatrical hub of NoDa. Simmons was looking for a steady tenant at his two-theater facility and a fresh revenue stream while Ford needed an extra space to deal with his crammed calendar.

Obviously, this was a business opportunity worth exploring — unless the financial situation was truly hopeless. That's pretty much how the CAST board's spokesperson framed it. Lisa Walker conceded that the red ink wasn't shocking but that there was no long-term solution to the company's revenue woes.

Numbers to back up that picture weren't forthcoming. After I had filed my July 23 cover story, Walker disclosed that CAST had fallen short by $50K on its 2014 budget of $400K. Now compared with the $340K debt that put Balagan Theatre out of business in Seattle this year, $50K sounds comparatively small. Next to the plight of North Carolina Shakespeare in High Point, where a $1.5 million donation in 2011 couldn't keep that company afloat, CAST's finances might not appear nearly as desperate. That's because they weren't.

Balagan and N.C. Shakes were theaters that fought to stay alive. CAST's board is still fighting — to suppress the truth. Dee Abdullah, the board member who was actually one of CAST's co-founders, informed me that she had signed a non-disclosure agreement discouraging her from speaking to the media until the board dissolved.

They're still dealing. According to an email I received from Simmons on Dec. 11, they were asking him to sign a non-disclosure agreement while offering to shortchange him on what they owe him. So he is taking the wraps off the numbers.

On the day CAST closed down, they owed Simmons $31,000, or between 25 and 62 percent of the company's debt. They planned to pay down that debt by liquidating equipment they had confiscated from Simmons without his consent. Aside from the money that the board insisted on owing Simmons, they may have destroyed CAST over a total debt as small as $19,000. And I'm told that board members carried insurance to cover such liabilities!

So that disaster is one of the key reasons why the center of NoDa theater activity has shifted to Ford's 3306-C N. Davidson St. address. At least seven different fringe companies performed up in that loft this year, most notably James Cartee's ever-prolific Citizens of the Universe. COTU's 2014 exploits included a delightfully disheveled adaptation of The Big Lebowski, a woozy masked take on The Merry Wives of Windsor, and a trendy Disturbance at Whitechapel that started off at UpStage but had us trekking all over NoDa's Bohemia in search of Jack the Ripper.

NoDa's most encouraging long-term development, in the wake of CAST's demise, may have been the formation of a new League of Independent Theatres. I'd already heard that guerilla groups performing at UpStage tended to leave and share some of their sound and lighting gear at the site, but the new LIT group promised a deeper, more formal alliance reminiscent of the Charlotte's Off-Broadway troika that took shape in 2002, including BareBones Theatre Group, Chickspeare and Off-Tryon Theatre Company among its NoDa notables.

Right off the bat, Intro to LIT accomplished something we never saw with the Charlotte's Off-Broadway alliance. Four different theater groups collaborated on this coming-out sampler back in September, beginning with Plaza-Midwood refugee Stephen Seay Productions and continuing with three newbies, Appalachian Creative Theatre, Quixotic Theatre and TAPROOT. Each member of the collective strutted its stuff, Seay most recently with Hollywood: Abridged, Appalachian with The Santaland Diaries, TAPROOT with It's Christmas, Carol, and Quixotic with T Bone 'n Weasel.

Aside from CP and Actor's Theatre, our surviving mainstream mainstays had solid years. Theatre Charlotte continues to overachieve as a community theater, scoring most triumphantly with Driving Miss Daisy, To Kill a Mockingbird, and a tribal revival of Hair. Children's Theatre of Charlotte was absolutely exemplary, with two smashing world premieres this season, a fresh musical version of 101 Dalmatians and The Story of the Little Gentleman. Nor was there much amiss with the two jolly musicals that capped their 2013-14 season, Petite Rouge: A Cajun Red Riding Hood and The Reluctant Dragon.

So how much do I need to revise, correct or amend my Best of Charlotte pronouncements from October? Not so very much. Actor's Theatre rates a comedy nod for Vanya & Sonia that places them in the company of the resurgent Queen City Theatre Company's The Performers and CP Summer's Over the River and Through the Woods. And notwithstanding my grief for CAST, Actor's Theatre's Other Desert Cities reached the same lofty plateau as Sizwe Bansi Is Dead. Among musicals, Passing Strange and The Reluctant Dragon remain my top picks.

How about some acting accolades? Among the guys, I'd say it's a three-way race between Hank West (The Performers and The Little Gentleman), Mark Sutton (Petite Rouge and Reluctant Dragon), and Grant Watkins (Reasons to Be Pretty and Great American Trailer Park). Tops among the dames are Cassandra Howley Wood (Petite Rouge and Trailer Park), Caroline Renfro (The Last Days of Judas Iscariot and Rapture, Blister, Burn), and Brianna Smith (Dream a Little Dream and Trailer Park).

Peeping into the Theaterperson of the Year envelope as the drumroll crescendos, I'd say Sutton and Renfro have the inside track for the crashing cymbals.

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