Consult an English-language dictionary, and youll see that Vito Abates last name means stop. But everything else about him says Go!
Hes started Just Do It, a performance series at Theatre Charlotte that begins its seventh season Friday with a dog-friendly outing: a canine co-host, mutts in the mix onstage and pooches (well-behaved, please) sitting with the human audience.
This year, he played language-challenged Manolo Costazuela in the female version of The Odd Couple, directed a play for Actors Theatre of Charlottes NuVoices festival, prepared to direct Fiddler on the Roof at Theatre Charlotte, saw the rights withdrawn and shoved A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum into its place all between early June and early September.
Hes worked for so many theaters in so many capacities that Metrolina Theatre Association named him Theatre Person of the Year in 2010, then drafted him to be its vice president for 2011-12.
Thats the life of this shyly gregarious dynamo, who actually pronounces his last name as an Italian boy from Queens, N.Y., ought to do: Ah-BAH-tay. (In Italian, it means abbot. That doesnt fit, either.)
In one sense, hes an open book. Ask close friends what might surprise people who know him casually, and they strain to answer: He plays piano. Hes a quick-witted master of ceremonies. Hes involved with animal charities and Time Out Youth, which supports and educates LGBT youth or those questioning sexual identities. (Hes the reason the annual Time Out Youth fundraiser is held at Theatre Charlotte.)
In another sense, he has hidden depths. Ask why he seems so drawn to comedy as an actor and director, and he replies, I was in New York in the late 80s and 90s, during the AIDS epidemic. So many people were dying including my best friend and my brother and I didnt know if I was going to make it myself. I guess that gives me a certain perspective now.
Like a lot of theatrical people, Abate has had a foot in the non-arts world much of his life: He worked in photo composition for The New York Times magazine group in the 90s and now does some freelance stuff tied to publishing to help pay bills.
Like any actor, he has learned to live simply and frugally. Part of my background is Depression-era thinking, growing up with my mother and grandmother in the house. (His dad died when he was 6 1/2.)
I also sort of have pack-rat issues. My excuse always is, You never know when youll need this in a show! My mothers Tupperware came in handy once for Same Time, Next Year.
Life as a series of circles
Abates youthful days have paid off in adulthood more than they do for most people. He had his first significant theatrical experience at 4, when his parents took him to his first New York musical: South Pacific at Lincoln Center with Florence Henderson. Later, he made the role of profane sailor Luther Billis his own at CPCC Summer Theatre and won an MTA award.
He watched soap operas at his grandmas knee in elementary school. Now he examines the same themes through Little People, Big Lives, a series of videos on YouTube featuring male and female dolls.
With soap operas, the story never ends, he says. People never remain happy for very long. Its a lot like real life: Over time, you feel you know them.
I got a new camera last year and a Mac that has iMovie. I do all the voices. The upside is, I dont have to deal with live actors. I dont even have to have a finished script, because I can add voiceovers later. And I can act like Mr. Hollywood in my living room. Whats not so fun is being on the ground so much or shooting outdoors in the mud with the mosquitoes.
Just Do It, already
The one theatrical constant in his life has been Just Do It. It began in the early 90s in the basement of a Methodist church in Manhattan, when New York was flooded with performance art. Helen Russell and Abate, who met in acting class, held 17 themed shows of short plays and performance pieces. The $5 tickets covered the cost of stamps and paper for mailing and juice and cookies for snacks.
They had an ongoing series of short pieces about a gay man and a straight woman sharing an apartment in New York years before Will & Grace, plus a segment Abate has revived here: Picture This, where people agreed to write playlets around a preselected photograph.
He aims, he says, for the atmosphere of an old-fashioned salon: casual presentation of polished pieces, with performers coming out into the audience to share pieces. We think of it as a giant living room.
Part of the concept was that its enough for someone to create something and us to find a venue for it, says Abate. Maybe you didnt consider yourself a writer or didnt know where to go to be one. It sucks to be an outsider. So it was satisfying just to get (audiences) excited for one night.
Because soap opera had such an influence on me, its fine that these (short plays) are here for one night, then gone. Thats probably why I never wrote a full-length play: Im never short of ideas, but not for full-length pieces.
His friendship with Russell turned into a collaboration when they wrote and produced benefit performances for their a cappella chorus, the City Singers. They know each other so well, she says, that they can throw a show together over the phone and step onstage with full confidence, knowing what the other will cover.
Vito is an enigma: detail-oriented yet easygoing; a perfectionist who is comfortable working off the cuff and letting imperfections slide. He starts his research weeks in advance but will be up to all hours the night before his deadline, polishing. He is patient with everyone but takes crap from no one.
As an actor, hes ridiculously generous with his partners. As a director, Vito will bring out the best in his actors and staff and is an expert with a shoestring budget. He knows how to listen and what is the kind thing to say. Ive always said he would have made a great priest. (Hmmmm, maybe the name abbot could apply, after all.)
Type A, but in a likable way
Abate pops up in company after company around town. He tells a story about the winter of 2007, when he was preparing a Just Do It installment, directing The Guys (a two-person show about the 9/11 attacks) for Pi Productions and appearing in Junie B. Jones and a Little Monkey Business at Childrens Theatre of Charlotte:
On opening night of The Guys, we had a horrible snowstorm that shut down the city. I finish the performance of Junie, I go see The Guys which was already in progress and the doors are locked! So I stand outside in the snow, watching the rest of the show through a window.
That wouldnt surprise Ron Law, who has worked with Abate for seven years as Theatre Charlottes executive director.
He is always dedicated to whatever projects hes working on which is remarkable, as he often works on several at the same time, says Law. He is incredibly well-organized. And his background, abilities and tastes cross several genres, so hes remarkably versatile.
He has a great sense of humor and is a patient guy. As you know, there is a lot of pressure in theater. As a perfectionist, he sometimes can display a touch of temperament. But I truly love working with him, as does our entire staff.
Man of a dozen faces
Abate knows how to labor in a theatrical front office. He spent four years in Denver between leaving New York in 1999 and landing in Charlotte with longtime partner Ron McDowell in 2003. There he handled volunteers and audience relations for Denver Center Theatre Company, then became its company manager. (He revived Just Do It there, too.)
Here in Charlotte, he has focused on production. Abate keeps redefining himself as a writer-director-actor-entrepreneur and doesnt affiliate himself permanently with any company. He wishes local troupes chose favorites less than they do and encouraged talent to flow more from stage to stage.
His specialty, community theater, requires a director with an unusually sensitive touch: You decide as you go along how to pick your battles, he says. You incorporate a sense of respect, yet sometimes you have to suck it up, because someone is irresponsible or lazy, and thats what youve got. The stage manager in Denver used to say, Ah, actors they break so easily!
Abate, however, does not. I take things one day at a time, he says, choosing not to conform to long-range plans. I always have a Lets see what happens feeling.
I never saw myself going to Colorado. I never saw myself coming to Charlotte, either, but Charlotte has been really good for me. If I could just find a great bagel .