STATE OF STAGES: Telling Stories That Matter
Common Thread’s 2022 cast of “Violet” | Courtesy of Common Thread
Common Thread Theatre, a collaboration between Davidson College and N.C. A&T, prepares for its second season of shows that carry a message
The subject line of Karli Henderson’s email was: Theater in Charlotte. The lecturer in Davidson College’s theater department sent it shortly after The Biscuit published a story in our “State of Stages” series on the lack of a theater ecosystem in Charlotte.
“Thank you for continuing the conversation,” it started. “It is definitely a challenge in terms of funding and space … I wonder if you might consider including Common Thread Theatre Collective … we are in Davidson, but I think the conversations can be a little broader than just the Charlotte city center, and I think our new company can contribute in a myriad of ways … Sometimes it feels like 19 miles is a vast distance!”
Henderson is a founder of Common Thread, a company affiliated with and supported by Davidson College. The company, which uses a summer stock model and performs at the on-campus Barber Theatre, is gearing up for its second season.
Cunningham Theatre Center at Davidson College | Courtesy of Davidson College
Diversity upon diversity
Before establishing Common Thread, Henderson – a theater veteran – had been pondering a college-affiliated theater company for several years.
As she considered the possibilities of such a pairing, diversity was crucial to her. She wanted to tell a diversity of stories about diverse groups, written by a diversity of playwrights from diverse background.
But Davidson College students have traditionally been a pretty homogenous group. The college, founded in 1837, didn’t admit women until 1972. And fully 68% of the student body is white. Henderson was going to have to go beyond Davidson’s pristine campus to achieve the diversity she sought.
She found Greg Horton, whom she’d worked with more than 20 years ago, at North Carolina A&T in Greensboro. Horton is the resident costume designer and interim chair of the visual and performing arts department there. He brought on his colleague, Donna Bradby, an A&T professor. Along with Davidson’s theater department chair, Mark Sutch, they began imagining what a collaboration between the two schools – a small, elite liberal arts college and the largest HBCU in the country – could look like.
For one thing, the founders wanted a paid internship component. And, they made it happen. Currently, there are eight – four from Davidson and four from A&T. Henderson hopes to expand that number in the future.
‘Learn, adapt and be flexible’
Henderson gives a candid assessment of the group’s first season, which she labeled “an experiment.”
“There were so many things coming at us so quickly that we had to learn, adapt and be flexible,” she said. “Our marketing was not where we needed it to be. Neither was our community engagement. Word of mouth wasn’t out there as well as we’d have liked, and yet I think both shows we did were highly successful.”
Season One included two shows:
- Violet, a musical by Jeanine Tesori (music) and Brian Crawley (libretto) based on Doris Betts’ short story, The Ugliest Pilgrim
- Robert O’Hara’s Barbecue, a dark, snarky comedy about sibling love and loathing that features an intervention for the strung-out sister at a family cookout
Violet has a pedigree. The tale of a disfigured young woman who travels by bus to see a TV evangelist she hopes will make her beautiful, won the Drama Critics’ Circle Award and Lucille Lortel Award for Best Musical when it premiered Off-Broadway in 1997. It went on to earn a Tony nomination when a revised version opened on Broadway in 2014.
Barbecue is less well known, but it was just right for Common Thread.
As an openly gay, Black man, O’Hara is exactly the kind of playwright Henderson and her team want to feature. (He’s also a director who was nominated for a Tony Award in 2020 for his direction of Slave Play.) His work, which includes Insurrection: Holding History and Bootycandy, often explores issues of racial and sexual identity.
Common Thread did manage to lure Charlotte folks to Davidson last summer. “Having the A&T connection was important because it brought a lot of alumni from Charlotte, in addition to all those who came from the Greensboro area,” Henderson said.
“A&T had a lot of buy-in and support from their administration. I hope we’ll do even better this year at marketing in Charlotte because I think the stories we’re telling are important, valuable stories.”
Common Thread’s 2022 production of “Barbecue” | Courtesy of Common Thread
Indeed, Common Thread is telling relevant, contemporary stories – by both titans of theater and up-and-comers. The work is entertaining – but not escapist summer fare. These plays, even the raucous comedies, have something to say.
First up this season is Clyde’s (June 16 – July 25).
“I was so excited to get this show,” Henderson said. “Lynn Nottage has won the Pulitzer for drama twice. Clyde’s just came off a Broadway run. We may be the first to produce it in North Carolina; Playmakers in Raleigh is producing it in August.”
They’re not alone in championing this work.
“An annual survey by American Theater magazine … found that Nottage’s sandwich shop comedy, ‘Clyde’s,’ will be the most-produced play in the country this season, with at least 11 productions,” according to New York Times’ theater reporter, Michael Paulson.
The play – a comedy – is about “a truck stop sandwich place whose kitchen staff are all formerly incarcerated individuals on a quest to create the perfect sandwich,” Henderson said.
Their dreams of creating that perfect handheld meal are, of course, a metaphor. If they can build the ideal sandwich, maybe they can build meaningful lives for themselves.
“Clyde – who’s a woman – is fierce and a crusher of dreams,” Henderson said. “And then you have [the staff, who are] trying to figure out their place in the world after they’ve come out of incarceration.”
One thing going for it? Brevity. Henderson considers that a big selling feature.
“I love that a lot of contemporary playwrights are writing plays that are 90 minutes long without an intermission,” Henderson said. “It’s enough time to be engaged and have fun.”
The four-person cast includes Scott Tynes-Miller, fresh off his big role as Joe Pitt in Queen City Concerts’ ambitious production of Angels in America. “I’m super excited to get him,” Henderson said. “He’s so talented.”
H’arrya Canty (Letitia), an intern from A&T, is in the cast. So is Eduardo Sanchez (Rafael), a recent graduate of Elon University who’s originally from Charlotte.
Common Thread’s second show, how to make an American son (July 14 – 23), has a cast of six. And whereas the oft-produced Clyde’s was written by a certified luminary of the theater world, American son is by a young playwright, Christopher Oscar Peña, and Common Thread’s production of it will be just its third ever, said Henderson. It premiered last summer at Arizona Theatre Company.
In the play, Mando, a “model immigrant” and entrepreneur, is bracing for an economic downturn at the same time he must put the brakes on his privileged son, Orlando’s, out-of-control spending. After a personal crisis, Orlando finds himself responsible for the fate of a co-worker and the future of his father’s business. Described as a “coming-of-age comedy,” the play looks at privilege, citizenship, sexual identity and family ties.
How to build a theater
Henderson, who shares artistic producing responsibilities with her three co-founders, acknowledges Common Thread is lucky. The company isn’t burdened with looking for hard-to-come-by space for auditions, rehearsals and performances.
The Barber Theatre, their home base, is an intimate, configurable black-box space – with a seating capacity of 130 – that Common Thread uses rent-free.
“Davidson College is 100% behind us, and the stories we’re telling fit really well into the college’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts,” Henderson said. “The college recently created the Commission on Race and Slavery, so what we’re doing matches the college’s values.”
The commission’s goal, according to the website: “To examine the college’s history, which is intertwined with the institution and legacies of slavery and the lives of enslaved persons.”
“The college has given us money and the use of their space,” Henderson continued. “This year, we also got a generous donation from Davidson College alums Phil and Nancy Kukura to underwrite the season. We’ve gotten funding from the Arts & Science Council, the Opportunity Fund, the North Carolina Arts Council. And I’m about to apply for an NEA grant for next season. And this year, A&T is providing monetary support for their interns.”
For now, Common Thread operates only in the summer. Last year, interns created a show specifically for young audiences and took it to the public library in Davidson and A&T’s campus in Greensboro. This summer’s interns will do the same and take it even more places.
In addition to the touring component, Henderson would like to eventually produce a holiday show, but she’s unsure if this “will ever be a year-round endeavor. Part of the reason for creating a theater like this is to involve students – and they need the summer for that.”
Saving money on rent means Common Thread can do something many fledgling theater companies can’t: Pay.
“Because our space is given to us, in kind, from the college, my whole budget – every bit of it – goes to paying my artists and to materials to create sets, costumes and props,” Henderson said. “I’m really fortunate and grateful and do not take for granted that I have access to free theater space.”
Common Thread’s 2022 production of “Barbecue” | Courtesy of Common Thread
“Last year, we had two Equity performers in our casts and paid them on guest artist contracts,” Henderson said. (Those professionals rehearsed and shared the stage with student interns, which Henderson said is common in summer stock and university settings.) “It’s one of the best ways to network in our business. It’s also how interns and students learn – by working with professionals in the room.”
“I’ve been around Equity my whole theater career before I fell into arts administration – I was an Equity stage manager for years,” she said. “I’ve worked under a lot of different contracts. There are many different tiers – probably 40 or 50 – of Equity contracts. LORT [League of Resident Theaters] is just one example.”
“Actors Equity is incredibly valuable in a lot of ways,” she added. “It can also be a challenging organization for small regional theaters [to be part of]. For instance, I think lots of actors in Charlotte who were once in Equity dropped their cards. I don’t know if there’s enough work here to get people to pick their cards back up.”
“I want to eventually be an Equity theater,” she said. “But we need to run this a couple of years longer before we figure out the best fit for the area we’re in.”
Corey Mitchell | Courtesy of Theatre Gap Initiative
The theater ecosystem
In The Biscuit’s “no theater ecosystem” story, Corey Mitchell, performer, theater maker and long-time theater educator who founded the Theatre Gap Initiative, talked about Charlotte needing colleges and universities to nurture theater careers. [NOTE: Listen to a Charlotte Is Creative podcast interview with Mitchell here.]
He pointed out that no area college or university offers a BFA or MFA in theater and added that institutions of higher learning need to be part of the solution. Local colleges have existing (and often under-utilized) space that lends itself to professional theater. With Common Thread, Davidson has stepped up to meet the space challenge.
Henderson agreed on Mitchell’s points.
“It’s absolutely important to have professional theater attached to colleges and universities,” she said. “That’s how students start to understand how to be professionals themselves and make connections.”
She can’t help but compare Charlotte’s theater scene to Greensboro’s: “Several theaters in Greensboro are thriving, in part, because the city has BFA and graduate programs we don’t have.
“Charlotte is capable of supporting all kinds of arts organizations,” Henderson said. She wondered if there’s “a lack of awareness or understanding of the value of homegrown theater. Small theaters housed in your community are invested in your community. They can start important community conversations.”
Common Thread is trying to start those conversations by telling diverse, relatable, relevant stories – ones Henderson said “need to be heard.”
She’s hoping Charlotteans will experience homegrown theater right in our backyard. “I don’t like that 19 miles seems, to some, such a long way,” she said. “I would love for more people from Charlotte to come to our space and see what we have to offer.”
With the current season, Common Thread is giving Charlotteans enticing reasons to make that trip.
For the Common Good.
Check out Common Thread Theatre Collective’s second season. Shows are staged at Davidson College’s Barber Theatre at 314 N. Main St. The first show of the summer season, Clyde’s by Lynn Nottage, runs June 16 – July 25. Tickets range from $15 to $28 and are available here. Learn more about the show here.
This is the latest installment of our “State of Stages” series addressing the work of local Charlotte theater companies and the daily challenges they contend with. Click here to read past installments.