CENTER STAGE: ACTORS THEATRE GOING OUT WITH A TRAIL OF BLOOD
After 33 years, Actors Theater prepares to close its doors. But there’s one last campy musical – Evil Dead – before the final bow.
The email landed with unusual force.
The subject line – “An Important Message from ATC Executive Director” – didn’t give much away. “Important” could refer to a schedule change or parking information. And, this message was of seismic importance.
“With a heavy heart,” the email from Laura Rice began, “I am announcing the permanent closure of Actors Theatre of Charlotte following our upcoming show EVIL DEAD THE MUSICAL. A combination of factors [has] led to this decision, including the continuing effects COVID-19 has had on performing arts operations such as ATC, disappointing ticket and subscription sales and recent news that ATC would be seeking another performance venue after our current residency at Queens University’s Hadley Theatre will end in 2023.”
Losing Home After Home After Home
Rice, who joined ATC as managing director in 2019 before being promoted to executive director early this year, said ATC’s untenable position became clear to her and the board in mid-to-late August. The defining moment was finding out they were losing their space at Queens University.
It was doubly cruel as Queens had been a replacement space for a “home” they’d found in FreeMoreWest – a “home” that fell through during their first show there. And after they’d lost their long-time home on the former Stonewall Ave.
“It sent me and our board chair into a tailspin of trying to figure out where the heck we would go next,” Rice said.
“That ended up being my first big project as executive director. I ran around the city trying to figure out what our options were.”
Loss of space was catastrophic. But, it revealed unrecoverable cracks in ATC’s foundation.
PHOTO ABOVE: ATC Production of “Rock of Ages” CREDIT: Actors Theatre
A Temporary Situation Revealed Permanent Truths
“But really, once our flex pass sales didn’t pick up, and looking at our cash flow, it became clear,” said Rice. “It’d be one thing if it was just the space issue. But with everyone’s spending habits changing and people not wanting to buy in advance and still being stressed [about] COVID, we realized that the ground couldn’t be made up.”
Rice hadn’t thought the theater’s space at Queens was going to last forever. But she didn’t think the partnership would end so soon.
“We certainly weren’t ever thinking it was our permanent home,” she said. “But we were working under the pretense that we would have another five-year lease. And it turns out, that wasn’t the case.”
PHOTO ABOVE: ATC Production of “Becoming Doctor Ruth” CREDIT: Actors Theatre
Sadness, But Not Bitterness
There’s no trace of bitterness in Rice’s voice. She loves theater and said she and the whole ATC crew intend to support local theater in every way they can. In fact, she said she’s looking forward to having more time to see local theater now.
She has happy memories of her time at ATC. One of the most joyous was seeing her son, who was 3 at the time, dancing in the aisle to the opening number of Hedwig and the Angry Inch in January.
“I had gotten him to help pass out programs before the show,” she recalled. “He loves everything having to do with the stage and music and watching people play guitar. It was really meaningful – being able to see a story of a trans person on stage. And then seeing his joy during the moment – it’s just a really good memory.”
PHOTO ABOVE: ATC’s Laura Rice
An Important, Creative Legacy
When asked to choose a favorite ATC show, Rice can’t do it. She loves any play or musical that centers around “young women and empowering women like our most recent show, If Pretty Hurts, Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka.”
“I love showcasing stories that empower people and give voices to people that don’t get to see their stories on stage very often,” she added.
Fun Home is another play ATC produced that has personal meaning for Rice.
“The theme of being a lesbian and not realizing it until later in life is something I identify with,” she said. “There’s a song in that show called Changing My Major that could easily be my song. There’s a naivete in it, but it’s also about the joy of discovery and coming to terms with who you are. That’s something I certainly know firsthand.”
Once More With Feeling …
Once Rice and the board realized the gravity of their situation, they determined they had enough money to mount one final show – but not enough to “move forward in a responsible way.”
“That’s when you’ve got to make the call,” she said.
So, the first show of what was to be ATC’s 34th season – Evil Dead The Musical running now through Oct. 30 – will be the last show the company produces. Rice hopes people will come in droves – and be in a celebratory mood.
“I couldn’t think of a better show to go out on,” she said. “It is so on brand for us. It’s edgy and silly and raunchy and pushes boundaries and challenges us technically with all the blood spatter. This really is going to be a fun one, and we’re looking forward to seeing everyone turn out and celebrate the legacy that we’ve built over the last 34 years.”
Rice encourages theater lovers – and art lovers in general – to support local theaters and other cultural nonprofits “There’s tons of them out there that need support,” she said. “People need to make it a priority. Put your dollars there. Make calls to your city council member and county commissioners. It takes all of us to create a thriving arts scene.”
It’s too soon for Rice and the ATC staff to know what their next move is. But it’s not too soon for her to consider what ATC’s legacy might be.
“I hope it’s one of fostering room and space for non-traditional theater, more contemporary and new stories,” she said. “And I hope we have shown people in Charlotte the types of cool plays and musicals that are out there, so people go out and search for those on their own. I hope we’ve shown that there is value in plays that aren’t traditional theater pieces or name-recognized shows. And I hope that the legacy is one of collaboration, positivity and partnership.”
Supporting Local Theater
Over the coming months, Rice hopes to “get our assets over to other organizations that could use them.”
And she’ll continue to advocate for theaters producing new work. “If you ever came to see Actors Theatre shows in the past, I hope you’ll go see a show at Three Bone Theatre because they’re doing really great, contemporary work, too. There’s room for all at the table.”
“I had a lot of really exciting plans I was looking forward to implementing at ATC,” Rice said. “Within a few weeks, my job shifted from ‘here’s my plan’ to ‘I gotta find a new theater space’ to ‘nope, doesn’t even look like that will work.’ There were certainly a lot of goals and ambitions, and it is incredibly disappointing not to be able to work on them.”
“I think if we were a company of a different size – a little larger or a little smaller – we might have been able to have more of a safety net,” she said. “But every dollar that comes in is a dollar that goes out. We’ve always insisted on paying our actors. When that’s where the majority of your budget goes and it’s not coming in – you have very few options.”
PHOTO ABOVE: Cast of Three Bone Theatre’s “Toni Stone” earlier this year. CREDIT: Three Bone Theatre
See Evil. Hear Evil. Speak of Evil.
For ATC’s final production, the crew returns to the Barn at MoRA (8300 Monroe Rd.) for the musical based on Sam Raimi’s ‘80s cult classic films. Bring your own seating. According to ATC’s website, the show is recommended for ages 16 and up. In addition, “production elements will include strobe lighting and theatrical fog. Subject matter includes zombies, demon possession, blood and power tools. Loss of limbs may occur.”
Die-hard fans may want to buy tickets in the “splatter zone.” It’s “a specially designated seating area that puts you in the middle of the action. It’s worth it just for the free poncho!”
Evil Dead The Musical runs Thursdays through Sundays through Oct. 30. Splash zone tickets are $37 each. Tickets are $38.66 (includes service fee) in the standard section and $49.14 (includes service fee) in the premium section. Learn more and buy tickets at atcharlotte.org.
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