Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte recently announced its 33rd season.
That doesn’t seem like headline-grabbing news until you consider that a 33rd season almost didn’t happen. After COVID forced ATC to go dark for most of 2020, the company is roaring back with a seven-show season that’s heavy on feel-good favorites.
They’ll hit us with their best shot when they open with the musical tribute to hair bands, hard rock and soft ballads, Rock of Ages (July 28 – Aug 21). And they’ll kick off 2022 by bringing back fan-favorite Hedwig and The Angry Inch with Ryan Stamey in the titular role that won Neil Patrick Harris a Tony Award.
“My staff had its ups and downs last year,” said Chip Decker, the theater’s executive director. “In September, we furloughed everybody. It became a nonstop walk down a weird tunnel where we thought we could see a light but it was more of a mirage.”
“We’d get excited about something and then have our hopes dashed because more COVID restrictions were put in place or extended. It was that constant up and down.”
But, he added, he knows last year was tough on everybody.
Retaking the stage
Three ATC staffers returned about a month ago. Managing Director Laura Rice came on two weeks later and Decker started back this week. ATC is down one staff position from 2020.
“We were in the middle of a very successful fundraising campaign and then all of a sudden, it was cut short by COVID,” Decker said. “The timing couldn’t have been worse. We cut all of our spending to the bare minimum. We suspended the entirety of our overhead. Queens [University] was nice enough to suspend our rent payments for that period of time.”
“Earlier, we told the board: ‘We’re going to need this much in the bank to restart. Any less than that, and we’re going to have to consider throwing in the towel,’” he continued. “So, we did the Payment Protection Program and got a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts.”
“We were able to compound what we had saved and give ourselves a solid, fighting chance coming out of the pandemic. We’ve been very thrifty and thoughtful with our fiscal management and had a lot of support from people.”
Thinking outside the (black) box
Creating a season that appeals to long-time patrons and attracts new ones takes time and forethought. That task is made even more difficult when you’re not sure at what point people will be allowed to gather in groups again.
“We came to the decision pretty early that people were not going to want to huddle in a small, confined black box,” Decker said of their Hadley Theatre home base. “I mean, it’s a great space, but it was not going to work for social distancing.”
So, they decided to go way outside the box and move outdoors.
MoRA (Monroe Road Advocates) is ATC’s presenting sponsor for the 33rd season. They have worked with Levine Properties to create “The Barn at MoRA, a Levine Property” at 8300 Monroe Rd. in Charlotte.
“It’s this wonderful old dairy barn with three silos and a huge field that used to be a farm,” Decker said. “It’s a little reminiscent of, for those folks that remember, Woodstock. The barn and the silos will be part of the whole experience.”
Theatergoers will bring their own lawn chairs for an al fresco, “rain-or-shine event,” Decker said. “There will be food trucks and representation of the local beer scene and concessions.” Charlotte’s own version of The Barns at Wolf Trap outside Washington, D.C., perhaps? Except people won’t be in this barn; it just serves as a backdrop.
Three musicals will be staged in that bucolic setting. In addition to Rock of Ages, there’s Head Over Heels with songs by The Go-Go’s in September and The Rocky Horror Show in October. “We picked those three because they’re fun and frothy, and we want people to get back to having a good time,” said Decker.
The second half of the season finds ATC back at its Queens University headquarters. After opening the indoor half of the season with the musical comedy Hedwig, it’s “right back to our roots,” Decker said. “We’ve got three new shows that are very compelling. They’re very now – unfortunately or fortunately. It’s the kind of work that we really excel at, and that’s the hard storytelling.”
ATC’s off-stage drama
Decker knows about doing hard things. ATC was booted from its long-time Stonewall St. location in 2016 (to make way for – wait for it – apartments) and set out on a surprisingly arduous path to find new space.
One location fell through during negotiations, and another fell through after ATC had already moved in. But Decker isn’t down and out. He’s optimistic – and not just about ATC’s future, but about the future of the Charlotte theater scene.
“The show goes on, you know?” he said. “It’s going to get back to normal, and I can’t wait. I … disliked theater on Zoom. There were valiant, valiant efforts, and I applaud those efforts – Actor’s Theater’s included. And I hated every minute of it.”
He’s ready to get back to live, in-person theater.
“I love this switch we’re going through now,” he said. “I’ve been saying for a couple of years that a theatrical Renaissance is coming. I believe this [coronavirus pandemic] was the European black plague, and now we’re going to come out into an artistic Renaissance like we haven’t seen in decades. And with that will come other opportunities for new companies to grow.”
People in Charlotte talk a lot about “space for performance,” he said. “And that’s not really the issue. When it comes down to it, artists will always find a space to hang a painting or do a street performance. They’ll find a place to perform. What we desperately need in this city – more than performance space – is support space. The city doesn’t have rehearsal space, storage space, classroom space.”
“Charlotte has struggled with finding ways to support the arts,” he added. “Money and economic and fiscal don’t have to be dirty words in the arts.”
With support from Presenting Sponsor MoRA and Media Sponsor WCCB, ATC’s 33rd season – a season in two acts – includes:
ROCK THE BARN
Rock of Ages by Chris D’Arienzo
July 28 – Aug. 21, 2021
Head Over Heels by Jeff Whitty and James Magruder
Sept. 1 – 25, 2021
Richard O’Brien’s The Rocky Horror Show
Oct. 6 – 31, 2021
At Hadley Theatre at Queens University
Hedwig and The Angry Inch by John Cameron Mitchell & Stephen Trask
Jan. 5 – 22, 2022
Ghosts of Bogotá by Diana Burbano
Feb. 17 – Mar. 12, 2022
Hype Man by Idris Goodwin
April 14 – May 7, 2022
Becoming Dr. Ruth by Mark St. Germain
June 2 – 25, 2022
Single tickets and season flex passes are now on sale. For tickets and information, visit the ATC website at atcharlotte.org.
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