STATE OF STAGES: The New Parr Center is a “Grand Central Station” for Theater
Already a community hub, Central Piedmont’s Parr Center features a theater, gallery space and a knock-your-socks-off mural
In a building with a lot of bells and whistles, one attraction stands out more than any other. It’s the eye-popping mural at Central Piedmont Community College’s newest facility.
Last spring, Central Piedmont selected two local artists – Rosalia Torres-Weiner and Felicia Sky Sutton – to create the massive, interior mural for the four-story Parr Center at 1201 Elizabeth Ave. The two were selected in a juried review process. The mural honors the college’s nearly 60-year history, its present and its aspirations.
Torres-Weiner and Sutton, both former Central Piedmont students, were chosen from a competitive pool of applicants to work with current students, faculty and staff to create the interactive mural. (Yes, it’s interactive. More on that in a bit.)
The Parr Center is the student services hub that features a library, 450-seat theater, rooftop terrace, a 1,100-square-foot art gallery and a makerspace for students.
A wall of windows adjacent to the mural wall offers what Melissa Vrana, executive director of Performance Facilities and Events at Central Piedmont’s central campus, calls “the single best view in town of our skyline.”
Vrana said the center – designed by Moody Nolan from Chicago and their local architectural partner, Morris-Berg – has a central stairwell with “an M.C. Escher quality.” Visit, and you’ll see what she means.
Central Piedmont will host a panel discussion in the Parr Center Theater on March 22, 2023 at 3 p.m. The muralists and technical executive (Ben Weiner, Torres-Weiner’s husband) will share about their process and inspiration. The discussion and reception afterwards are free and open to all.
The show-stopping mural is just one of many stand-out features at the Parr Center, which took shape during the pandemic. Vrana, who worked closely with Amelia Zytka, the college’s director of galleries, on the arts and culture spaces, called it her “passion project.”
By and for the community
At 184,000 square feet, the Parr Center is the campus’ largest building. Its construction was made possible thanks to a 2013 bond issue that approved $213 million for projects across the city and county. Mecklenburg County added another $70 million.
“The community supplied the funds,” Vrana said. “So, we want community members to feel welcome here.”
Indeed, everyone is welcome. You don’t have to present an ID at a security desk. There’s even – what a rarity these days – ample free parking for up to two hours in decks and surface lots.
Central Piedmont’s newest theater (the college awaits a naming benefactor) is on the lowest level. The pristine space – which doesn’t allow food or drink to keep it in that condition – seats 435 and has an impressive dressing room and a loading dock – a convenience local theater companies don’t always have.
Just a few steps from the theater is Dove Gallery. Central Piedmont has two other galleries at its central campus – Ross Gallery and Overcash Gallery, both in the Overcash Center at Elizabeth Ave. and Kings Dr.
New stages for local performance (with limitations)
The new theater isn’t the only place to see a performance on campus. There are also the Halton and Tate on central campus and the Georgia Tucker Fine Arts Hall on the Levine campus in south Charlotte. That’s where long-time actor, director and theater educator Corey Mitchell runs Theater Gap Initiative and where Queen City Concerts will stage their ambitious production of the two-part Angels in America May 18 – 21.
In a sign of just how needed this new space was, all of Central Piedmont’s theater venues are fully booked every weekend through the end of 2023, Vrana said. When it comes to rentals, college events take precedence, which means limited dates are available to local theater companies and others.
Central Piedmont can’t accommodate local theatermakers who hope to schedule three-week runs – the ideal duration to build word-of-mouth marketing. “We can manage a weekend,” Vrana said. “But it would be difficult to have the space for a theater company to rent for three weeks.”
Working with creatives … to make it work
But people are making it work. In February, Rory Sheriff of Brand New Sheriff (BNS) Productions rented the new theater for his company’s production, Speakeasy.
Already, the Parr Center has become the community hub Centrail Piedmont leaders hoped it would be.
Carolina Voices held their annual Singing Christmas Tree here in December. Coming soon is Candlelight Concerts: 100 Years of Warner Bros. and Lost Girl, with a cast of primarily CPCC students.
“It’s the story of Wendy from Peter Pan,” Vrana said. “She’s older, disconnected and reminiscing about Peter.” In July, Opera Carolina will host the International Lyric Academy at the Parr Center.
Elsewhere on campus – at the Worrell Gym – the Charlotte Squawkers are rehearsing their June shows. It’s the 17th year Mike Collins and team will lovingly roast QC politicians, sports, media, traffic and more.
Debuting on March 28 is the Parr Arts & Humanities Series, named for building benefactors Mary and William Parr. Sons of MyStro, young, Black violinists who integrate DJs into their act, grew up in Broward County, Florida and fuse contemporary and classical music.
Looking ahead to December, Need A Little Christmas is a Radio City Music Hall-inspired show featuring songs, a kick line and a live nativity scene. The old-fashioned holiday revue is produced by Laura Little, who co-produced Come From Away on Broadway as well as the national tour.
Vrana is excited about an upcoming event hosted by BFB Foundation, an organization that supports teenage girls pursuing STEM careers. The Charlotte-based nonprofit has ties to Guatemala. “They have spectacular speakers – and the events are free,” Vrana said. Pixar’s Danielle Feinberg is this year’s speaker on Saturday, April 1.
Central Piedmont aims to keep its spaces affordable. The college is transparent in its pricing; rental rates are on the website. “We serve a lot of organizations,” Vrana said. “Charlotte Youth Ballet’s Wizard of Oz, YMCA’s Nutcracker, dance competitions, Odyssey of the Mind – they’ve all been here or will be. It’s Grand Central Station on the weekends.”
Vrana noted that administrative fees accompany the rental rate. (Those, too, are listed on the website.) The college’s technical assistance, CMPD security, ushers and more – they’re required as part of the rental agreement.
A mural that ‘talks to you’
Now, about that mural …
The Central Piedmont mural, spanning a 13′ x 98′ wall, highlights the college’s commitment to supporting Charlotte’s creative culture. It’s made of vinyl, so it isn’t permanently affixed to the wall. It could be taken down and moved. Since it was created digitally, it can also be scaled, printed and placed at another location.
It took 10 months for the artists to complete, Vrana said – and nearly eight of those were devoted to collecting student stories, which are told via an augmented reality (AR) element built into the mural’s metadata.
The RedCalacAR app (designed by Weiner and available for iOS and Android) allows viewers to interact with 30 targets using a QR code. AR provides viewers animations, songs, poetry and other narratives that share Central Piedmont’s history.
The mural illustrates the history of the college in three layers. A historical layer on the bottom in muted blue tones represents CPCC’s early years. Those are real people depicted here. Look for John White, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist active during the Civil Rights era who graduated from Central Piedmont. (If you look closely, you’ll find a hummingbird – a frequent symbol in Torres-Weiner’s work.)
Student stories are featured on the colorful middle layer; the equally colorful top layer, purposely left abstract, represents the college’s future.
Torres-Weiner – artist, activist, community leader – captures the themes, colors and symbolism of her native Mexico in her work. Sutton, an educator, muralist and multimedia artist, works with paint, video, digital illustration and animation to tell visual stories through portraiture, symbolism and metaphors.
The muralists’ March 22 event offers lessons in pursuing a creative career. They’ll discuss how they became full-time working artists, how to apply for grant opportunities, how to respond to RFPs. It’s all part of the college’’s focus on workforce development. It’s also aligned with Charlotte Is Creative’s mission to support and encourage creatives of all stripes.
The Parr Center is Charlotte’s newest creative hub. And its first floor – home to a statement mural – is the perfect place to get inspired.
Be part of the Parr.
Visit tix.cpcc.edu for a full events schedule and to purchase tickets.
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