STATE OF STAGES: Charlotte Conservatory Theatre Dreams Big
STATE OF STAGES: Charlotte Conservatory Theatre
“There are so many amazing artists working in town. We should dispel any notion that in order to have professional theater in Charlotte, you have to fly in artists from New York.” – Stephen Kaliski, Director, Charlotte Conservatory Theatre’s production of POTUS
Formed in 2022, Charlotte Conservatory Theatre is geared up for its second production. The group aspires to be an officially professional theater for the Queen City and surrounding region. Although they’re not (yet) a League of Resident Theatres, or LORT theater, they’re producing high-caliber work.
“Right out of the gate, we want to give the audience an experience that feels professional,” said Stephen Kaliski, one of the theater’s co-founders.
Kaliski also starred in the company’s inaugural production, Witch, last August and will direct the upcoming (March 16 – 19) POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive. He’s a triple threat – actor, director, playwright. He’s also a visiting assistant professor at Davidson College.
Establishing a professional theater company
“We’re not at a point where we have a fully salaried staff,” said Kaliski. “We don’t have our own brick-and-mortar location. We’re not that close to functioning as a true regional theater. That’s the North Star we want to get to eventually.
“But we’re trying to figure out these first couple of years. How can we sustain a practice of giving audiences professional theater while slowly implementing the infrastructure that will allow us to eventually make that leap?”
Kaliski noted that “professional theater” means different things to different people. As for Charlotte Conservatory Theatre, they’re working on what it means to them now.
“Are we paying our actors?” he asked. (They are.) “Does it mean hiring ‘professional’ actors? What’s the audience’s perspective of ‘professional’? Does it feel different from – and this is not a pejorative at all – a typical community theater production?”
There’s a misconception, Kaliski said, among Charlotte audiences that “professional” means “touring.” Kaliski and company want to change that, starting with how they manage their own productions.
Fortunately, they don’t have to go far to find talent. Charlotte provides a rich pool of actors and crew.
“The talent pool here is incredible,” Kaliski said. “We should dispel any notion that in order to have professional theater in Charlotte, you have to fly in artists from New York.”
This group is legit
Kaliski was a working director in New York for 11 years, but he’s no outsider. He grew up in Charlotte and graduated from Davidson College before moving back in 2018.
“I am coming at this with a real love for the city and an awareness of theatrical history but also as somewhat of a newcomer as a practitioner here,” he said.
“Everybody else [in the collective] has been involved in Charlotte theater for decades.”
In addition to Kaliski, “everybody else” includes Marla Brown, Ph.D., founder of Warehouse Performing Arts Center in Cornelius and part-time lecturer at UNC Charlotte; Frances Dell Bendert, a TV, film, stage and commercial actor; Kellee Brewer Stall, a theater and casting director and playwright; and Savannah Deal (theater producer and venue manager at Queens University who also performed in Witch). On the production side, Carrie Cranford and Kathryn Harding – both formerly at Actors Theatre of Charlotte – are also involved.
When it comes to background and pedigree, this group is legit.
“We’re thinking of [ourselves] as a collective versus establishing any sort of hierarchical structure,” Kaliski said. “We don’t have an artistic director, an executive director, a development director at this stage. We’re rethinking organizational structure.”
Without their own space, the team holds auditions all over town (and some via video), rehearses in a warehouse in Cornelius and performs at Booth Theater at the Blumenthal.
The Booth is a deluxe space. “We want to work at a venue like the Booth, but we can’t afford to rent it for three weeks,” Kaliski said.
“There are trade-offs. You can either do a small venue for a longer run or a large venue for a shorter duration.”
The company hopes to eventually increase the length of its runs. They’ve already been able to extend POTUS. It will move to Cornelius’ new Cain Center for the Arts and run April 26-29. Showtime and ticket information will be available soon through charlotteconservatorytheatre.org and cainarts.org. A three-weekend run is considered ideal for smaller companies; it allows time to build crucial word-of-mouth advertising. And the group has the same mandate every local or regional theater company has – keep ticket prices affordable.
An “equal opportunity offender” direct from Broadway
Kaliski and company didn’t think they could get the rights to POTUS: “It hasn’t been on the market very long. We must be one of the first, if not the first, regional groups doing it.”
The play, written by L.A.-based Selina Fillinger, was a hit on Broadway, where it starred Vanessa Williams (Ugly Betty, Desperate Housewives), Julianne Hough (Dancing with the Stars) and Rachel Dratch (SNL’s Debbie Downer).
The play’s slapstick nature is similar to Noises Off or The Play That Goes Wrong.
“There are doors slamming all over the stage, people popping in and out of things,” Kaliski said. “The plot gets absurd at times. People are piling on top of each other, and someone seems like they’re dead at one point.”
(You know, just like the White House has been reported to be in recent years.)
In POTUS, the president, who’s never seen, is a horrible boss. The women in his life – including his Chief of Staff, his mistress and the First Lady – have to continually avert disaster.
The president is a mashup of several former presidents – both Democrats and Republicans, Kaliski said.
“The playwright was clever enough to appeal to a broad audience,” he said. “What makes it funny is that we can, I hope, all unify over how the office of the president has become a source for parody.”
“The political culture surrounding the president has become sort of a sideshow,” he added. “The play is not a liberal pile-on or conservative pile-on. It’s an equal opportunity offender.”
The play offers something we’ve never seen in real life – a President who’s white and First Lady who’s Black. “She’s not Michelle Obama or Kamala Harris,” Kaliski said. “She’s feisty and ruthless and the smartest person in the room. She’d be a better president than her husband. The president is goofy and affable, and the First Lady is a highly intelligent, accomplished, hawkish kind of person with her own ambitions.”
As a self-described “politics nerd,” Kaliski was naturally drawn to the material. “It shows the stressful, fast-paced world of politics where the boss is sometimes the least qualified person around,” he said.
He described the play as a sibling to HBO’s VEEP, which starred Julia Louis-Dreyfus. “It’s rude and angry and hilarious,” he said. “It moves at a mile a minute. I’m just letting these amazing women in our all-female cast of seven [go]. They’re hilarious naturally, so all I really need to do is make sure they feel safe to do their very best work and get out of their way.”
Like the cast, which includes Brown, Sarah Molloy and Iesha Nyree, the crew is also top-notch.
Chip Davis – a Davidson colleague of Kaliski’s – is the set designer, Ashleigh Poteat (a Charlotte native who teaches at Coastal Carolina University) is designing costumes, Gordon Olson is designing the lighting and Matt Sherwin is in charge of sound.
Davis is creating realistic interiors, but not, said Kaliski, “just the parts of the White House we’d see on tours. We’re also interested in the cramped, back hallways and offices. We’re trying to blend those two elements.”
Kaliski cautions that the show is best for those 17 and up.
“The language is salty, for sure,” he said. “Anyone who enjoys a stand-up comedy show will probably appreciate it. It’s got that crowd-pleasing sensibility.”
The dumbass POTUS and the women trying to save him
See the recent Broadway hit in Charlotte at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center’s Booth Playhouse (130 N. Tryon St.) from March 16-18 at 8 p.m. and on the weekend (March 18 and 19) at 2 p.m. Tickets for the Charlotte Conservatory Theatre production range from $25 to $45 and are available at carolinatix.org.