STATE OF STAGES: Charlotte Theater Lacks an Ecosystem — Not Talent
Local theater leaders speak out on obstacles to their success
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a very special and long-baking batch of The Biscuit. When Actor’s Theatre had to shut its doors last October, we made a pledge to commit our time and resources to support local theater companies’ productions and addressing their challenges.
Working with our favorite local writer, Page Leggett, we initiated the “State of Our Stages” series. With today’s Biscuit, we’ve published seven stories in this series over the past six months. You can read each installment here. Page has been at the vanguard of this work, exploring the factors that have affected local theater in the past, at the moment and into the future. We’re grateful for her passion.
We were excited last week to see Axios Charlotte jump in and address some of the important issues facing our theater community we’ve been talking about. With Page at the helm, we’ve been researching and writing the in-depth story below for a couple of months. We’re proud to present it now. And, we hope others will join in and help us illuminate what each of us can do to strengthen our stages for years to come.
When Three Bone Theatre Company lost their old home – the Duke Energy Theater at Spirit Square – in 2021, it was a blow. But also a blessing.
The theater company (and others) lost the space when construction began on the expanded uptown library – and shut down the black-box theater they and other companies had been renting for years.
“One of the things that made the decision [to become full-time with the theater] was losing Spirit Square,” said Robin Tynes-Miller, Three Bones’ artistic and operations director. The performance space they found is at the Arts Factory at West End Studios near Johnson C. Smith University.
About Spirit Square’s Duke Energy space closing, Tynes-Miller said, “We knew [in our new space], we’d have to [staff] our own ticketing, front of house and our box office and realized we had to have a staff person for that.”
For the first nine years of Three Bone’s existence, Tynes-Miller had a day job in addition to her role as artistic director. The rest of the team still does.
She had ticketing experience, having worked at the Blumenthal ticketing office as their ticketing sales and service manager. So, she and her cohorts decided to take the risk of making Tynes-Miller’s role full-time. “I’ve been full-time for just over a year,” she said. “It’s so much harder than I thought it would be. Plus, I have a kid now.”
Since the beginning, Three Bone has paid all its actors, designers, stage managers and directors.
“We don’t pay a lot; it’s certainly not market or industry standard,” Tynes-Miller said. “It’s not a living wage. But we’re increasing it every season.”
Lack of incubator space, rehearsal space, audition space
Charlotte’s “theater problem” isn’t due to a lack of talent in town.
“There’s a lot of really amazing work being done here,” Tynes-Miller said. “But small, local theater companies don’t have the resources larger tour houses have. It’s challenging for us to get the word out. When a national tour comes here, it’s been vetted.
“And Charlotte is very into what’s been approved by outsiders. I see it as a self-confidence issue. I want Charlotteans to know there’s great theater being produced right here, and when you support it, you’re supporting your neighbors and colleagues.”
The lack of affordable performance and rehearsal space is a big problem, Tynes-Miller said.
“It’s suffocating the theater ecosystem. To have a healthy ecosystem, you need sustainable art happening at all different levels. We have the big fish – and Charlotte deserves these Broadway shows we get – but we don’t have a lot of healthy undergrowth.”
“We don’t have an incubator space. When UpStage [dinner theater space in NoDa available for reasonable rent] was around, there were close to 10 theater companies producing there. When it closed, maybe two or three of us continued producing.”
“If we were starting out now, I don’t know where we’d go. Losing the Duke [Energy Theater at Spirit Square] was a huge blow to mostly women- and BIPOC-led companies.”
Corey Mitchell, a theater maker and long-time theater educator who founded and leads the Theatre Gap Initiative, said the challenge is even bigger.
“I think there’s a lack of a theater ecosystem here,” he said. “Minneapolis has the Guthrie. Chicago has the Goodman. Atlanta has the Alliance.” All are theaters producing original work that sometimes goes on to Broadway, on tour or to subsequent productions, and all nurture the careers of emerging playwrights, actors and behind-the-scenes staff. “We have Children’s Theatre [of Charlotte],” he added, “but it serves a specific segment of the population and doesn’t pay Equity scale.”
“Yes, there’s a lack of space,” he continued. “But even if there was space, there’s a lack of something bigger – infrastructure.”
This is a surprisingly touchy subject. More than one local theater leader we contacted would not go on record for this story. (That’s a problem itself.)
The importance of familiarity
Actors Theatre of Charlotte (ATC), which closed permanently late last year, was working to create an ecosystem, Mitchell said.
“They had a relationship with [nationally known director, writer, producer for stage and screen] Charles Randolph-Wright,” he said. “He’d come to town from New York and workshop shows. Charles did local auditions for Motown The Musical after directing it on Broadway.
“[ATC’s] old spot on the old Stonewall St. was a hub of activity people could count on,” he added. “When they lost the space, a great organization became a ship without a moor. Over the years, I saw a lot of innovative stuff at Actors Theatre and lived for seeing it, but I got confused when I’d go over to Queens’ campus.”
The confusion came in because ATC was actually housed in an unlikely spot – inside the elementary school just behind the university.
The space was behind Queens and off a residential street. Mitchell said, to him, the space felt incongruous with ATC’s often edgy, provocative productions.
Theater patrons need to know what experience they’re going to get when they buy a ticket. Moving from one venue to another makes it hard for audiences to know what they’re going to get, he said.
“Theatre Charlotte still exists, even with its two-and-a-half-year hiatus to recover from the fire, partly because we know where Theatre Charlotte is,” he said.
“We can count on it. If they ever sold the building – and that’s a prime piece of real estate – they’d be starting over.”
Some local theater companies have to be nomadic (again, lack of space; lack of infrastructure), and audiences don’t know from space to space and from production to production what the experience is going to be. If you’re running an experimental, experiential theater, the surprise can work in your favor. But otherwise, you may not be able to build a following.
“I knew what the experience was going to be on Stonewall,” Mitchell said. “I know what the experience is going to be on Queens Road.”
He thinks a theater co-op model – where several theater companies share space and different shows are running concurrently – could work and cites New World Stages in New York City as an example.
“I think that could be very valuable for Charlotte,” he said. “I think it could be a model that works.”
Furthermore, he thinks Camp North End or a warehouse space on the west side could be the right place for it.
Mitchell may well be on to something there. Just months after opening, the new theater in the Parr Center on Central Piedmont’s central campus is already playing host to performances from a wide array of groups and organizations.
The role schools could play
No area college or university offers a BFA degree in theater, nor do they offer graduate programs in theater, Mitchell said.
“Yale has Yale Repertory Theater,” he said. “Berkeley has Berkeley Rep. Even PlayMakers Rep [a theater company in Chapel Hill] is associated with UNC Chapel Hill.”
Careers in theater aren’t being nurtured at the college level in the Charlotte region.
“So many little things can spring up around a big thing,” Mitchell said. “You build your house first, and then make your garden grow. But right now, we’re trying to create a garden with no house.”
We need “the big thing,” he said. And one big thing would be a university-led theater.
Local colleges have space that lends itself to professional theater, Mitchell said.
“Robinson Hall [at UNC Charlotte] would be a nice space to create a professional theater, and the new theater at Queens [Gambrell Center] could be a great space, too. But once more, we’d need money to go along with that.”
The new Charlotte Conservatory Theater, formed by several stalwarts of local theater, has aspirations of becoming an Equity theater. (The group currently holds auditions all over town, rehearsals in a Cornelius warehouse and productions at the Booth Playhouse.)
One step? A professional theater company
Charlotte hasn’t had a professional theater company – one that’s a member of the League of Resident Theatres (LORT) – since Charlotte Repertory Theater shut down in 2005. The closest LORT theater to Charlotte is PlayMakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill. Charlotte Conservatory aims to address that.
PlayMakers is the professional theater in residence at the University of North Carolina. Not every LORT theater is affiliated with a university – but it certainly helps.
Could Charlotte Conservatory one day fill the void here?
“I think they could,” Mitchell said. “But there needs to be a combination of very good public and private support to keep them going. It takes years to really develop a relationship with an audience.”
Mitchell isn’t the only person we spoke with who’s zeroed in on colleges being part of the solution. Kellee Brewer Stall, a co-founder of Charlotte Conservatory Theatre who said she’s not speaking on their behalf for this story, said, “All the beautiful and worthy schools in Charlotte currently training theater makers could convert their stages to professional stages in their off-seasons.”
She’s not just talking about universities. “There are prep schools in Charlotte with gorgeous, decked-out stages that could consider renting their stages in the summers to theaters,” she said.
“Churches could pitch in – especially the vacant ones. Any Realtors out there who can hunt unconventional spaces with parking lots and bathrooms for theater use?”
Stall has other ideas, too. She envisions theater events – with small casts – happening in unconventional spaces. Coffee shops, bridal shops, bookstores, warehouses, even people’s living rooms.
“Let’s write new plays or adapt them for busy areas like parks, pubs, grocery stores, hotel and museum lobbies,” she added.
Reasons to stay and build?
Like Mitchell, Stall said the problems hindering local theater go beyond a lack of space. “Charlotte lacks a professional theater,” she said.
“Excellent theater will happen in Charlotte if excellent theater makers stay in Charlotte.”
Mitchell, who taught at Northwest School of the Arts for 20 years, said his students didn’t – and still don’t – see a way to follow their dreams in Charlotte. Some of his former students have gone on to illustrious Broadway careers. Some have gone on to movie careers as actors; some work in wardrobe or as part of a tech crew. Few of them stayed here.
“Right now, there’s no way for students to make money at it,” he said. “With the lack of an ecosystem, there’s no incentive for young artists to stay in, or move to, Charlotte.”
“Mayor Lyles asks me regularly how we can get young [theater] people to stay in Charlotte, and I say: Give them something to stay for. People who want to be theater professionals shouldn’t have to work at [a bank] during the day and then act during the evening.”
Stall said Charlotte has “a lot of community theaters and a few stipend ‘semi-pro’ theaters – and that’s fun for many. But where do professional theater makers go to direct, act, write and set design if they don’t want to do children’s stories or community theater?”
They tend to leave Charlotte, she said. “They train here, sleep here, call Charlotte home, but work a paid theater gig elsewhere.”
Mitchell said Charlotte is losing out to other cities: “You could live in and be a full-time actor in Minneapolis, Chicago, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Orlando. The list goes on.” In Charlotte? It’s harder to do.
‘Fighting the good fight’
What’s it going to take?
Tynes-Miller said, “I think the current state of local theater is pretty tenuous right now. I’m worried. I think if you talk to any theater maker in town, they’re worried, too.”
“When you look at what you need to be sustainable, you see that the building blocks aren’t here. There are a lot of people fighting the good fight, and I’m hopeful, but it’s definitely worrisome.”
Tynes-Miller said the local theater community is strong and supports each other. They’re colleagues; not competitors.
“We have a great relationship with Theatre Charlotte and [Executive Director] Chris Timmons, with Rory Sheriff and his Brand New Sheriff Productions,” she said. “We’re fans of Stacey Rose’s Queen City New Play Initiative. We’re really lucky to have, even in the midst of an unhealthy ecosystem, these amazing artists we get to play and work with.
“When any of us are doing well, we’re all doing well,” she added. “Any individual choosing to spend their time and money on locally produced theater is a win for all of us. That’s why it’s heartbreaking to see companies close.”
“This market is not saturated, right? There’s room for all of us and more.”
This is the seventh 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.
Like what we write?
Do you think you have what it takes to write for the Biscuit?Well, let us know!!
"*" indicates required fields