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Where do the pros go to act?

Lawrence Toppman
ltoppman@charlotteobserver.com

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  • John Patrick Shanley's play focuses on a principal and a priest she suspects of molesting a student.

    WHEN: Through Feb. 5 at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Also 7:30 p.m. Feb. 1.

    WHERE: Theatre Charlotte, 501 Queens Rd.

    DETAILS: $8-$24; 704-372-1000, carolinatix.org.



The good news for theatergoers is that five to six dozen actors auditioned for five roles in "Doubt," which opened at Theatre Charlotte on Friday. Anyone casting a show knows there's strength in such numbers.

The bad news for theatergoers is that five to six dozen actors auditioned for five roles in "Doubt." Because that's a reminder of how few places around here skilled performers can go.

"What was really alarming - and wonderful, and depressing - was that they were all really good;" says director Gina Stewart. "Usually, with community theater, you can tell in 15 minutes whether somebody is a candidate. You can get rid of 60 percent of the people, because they're not ready for that size of a role.

"But I was getting people with bachelor's degrees in theater. Some had master's degrees or had worked extensively in professional and regional theaters. I was swarmed with professional actors wanting to do this (nonpaying) show."

Stewart has spent more than 25 years making music and theater, from Charlotte to an off-Broadway venue. She was around for the '80s rise of Charlotte Repertory Theatre and its demise seven years ago. And as we spoke, she compared Charlotte - not favorably - to Fayetteville.

"Cape Fear Regional Theater offers new works and classics there," she says. (Its current season includes "Boeing Boeing," "Miss Saigon" and "Othello.")

"They develop local actors but bring performers in from New York and other cities; a lot of Charlotte actors work there. When I was there two years ago, four children (who started there) had gone on to get work on Broadway. Should Fayetteville have a professional theater like that when Charlotte does not?"

Well, who's a 'pro'?

The word "professional" starts us down a slippery slope. If we define it as "paying some amount of money to the entire cast and/or crew," Actor's Theatre of Charlotte certainly qualifies. Other producers pay small salaries, provide honoraria or share box office receipts, and we have one company with paid, full-time performers and technicians on its staff: Children's Theatre of Charlotte, which has a touring arm in Tarradiddle Players.

Nor does "professional" automatically designate any level of quality: Davidson Community Players offered a "Ragtime" last year that was comparable with some touring musicals I've seen at Ovens, and those people - some of whom had been paid to sing elsewhere - worked for love of the art.

Stewart means a company that performs for adult audiences and pays enough of a living wage to let actors stay here year-round, without taking nonacting work.

It need not be a member of the League of Resident Theaters, operating on a fixed pay scale. (The Rep was, but only one remains in the Carolinas: Playmakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill.) This imaginary theater would have to employ mostly local talent and develop an audience that followed it through seasons fat and lean. That we haven't had since 2005.

When the Rep collapsed, some people assumed another company would step into its big shoes. The admirable Actor's Theatre of Charlotte was the only realistic candidate, but ATC was content with its smaller budgets, cozy venue, small staff and loyal fans.

So what do we miss in the absence of such a troupe?

First, a wider potential selection of plays. Carolina Actors Studio Theatre gave us a season of 1970s and '80s "classics" last year but has gone back to modern work. Nobody outside colleges now tackles the intellectually challenging dramas of Samuel Beckett, George Bernard Shaw, Eugene O'Neill or Tom Stoppard.

Second, a level of craft in which casts large and small can be filled by people who act for a living, and where understudies could step in to replace a lead actor. Directors often get fine players for key parts, passable actors for smaller roles and occasional clunkers to fill out a cast; unanimity of quality is hard to achieve.

How to get a company?

If we start from scratch, we need rich backers with theatrical passion and deep pockets, and/or an entrepreneur who has enough time, patience and connections to locate these backers - plus a suitable venue available to the company year-round and a staff.

Our best bet might be to import one. Steve Umberger, one of the founders of Charlotte Rep, now runs the professional Festival Stage in Winston-Salem.

There, a 51,000-square-foot complex houses rehearsal halls, technical space, storage and offices. Festival is affiliated with N.C. Shakespeare Festival in High Point, and Umberger hinted to me that he'd like to bring Festival shows to Charlotte ... one of these years ... perhaps. ...

Maybe we've already gone too long without such a company. Anyone who came to town after 2004 has no idea how things used to be. Residents may have gotten used to doing without one, as they've gotten used to reduced library access.

Stewart would like to think that's not the case.

"Audiences don't know what they are missing," she says. "They don't know what it is to have homegrown, relevant, professional theater made by and for the community it's in.

"But if they knew what they've been missing, things would change. I think more art would create more art; the more people go to good theater, the more they'll want to go. If you build it, they will come."

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