Matt Cosper is a theatre maker who lives in Charlotte. Directing credits include work in the Pacific Northwest, New York City, and Eastern Europe. In addition to a great deal of freelance directing, Matt serves as the Artistic Director of The Machine, an ensemble of local actors, writers, designers and musicians who create, perform, and tour original works for the stage. In January, The Machine presents their signature piece, Mums the Word, at the Duke Energy Theatre in Spirit Square.
Charlotte stages see their fair share of work that is below average. Local theatres also do a lot of work that is fairly good. And sometimes, a company in town creates a production that is truly transcendent and transformative. The thing is: Thats how it is everywhere. Its not just the Charlotte scene. Theatre is nearly impossible to succeed at. It is an imperfect art form that relies on the contributions of a great many collaborators marshaling too few resources in pursuit of revealing something true and beautiful about the human condition in the present moment.
Essentially were talking sorcery here, people.
Ask Sam Beckett and hell tell you: Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better. And thats what theatre makers do, all over the world. We keep grinding away; we take our licks; and we keep making the work.
For those of us in the local theatre community, the demise of Charlotte Rep nearly a decade ago remains a source of angst, a tear in the cultural fabric of our city, and a blow to those who would make a living and a life here as theatre artists. Today we still feel the effects of that loss, especially economically, as passionate artists remain strapped to their day jobs and competing for the handful of paying gigs available. We keep losing scores of artists to the big three (Chicago, Los Angeles, New York) and the mythos surrounding those cities and their opportunities.
But still a core of the stubborn remains committed to the Queen City and to making art here. In the void left by The Rep, there have sprung up a great deal of small-to-mid-sized theatres, like weeds clotting a vacant lot. Multiplying. When no one was looking, Charlotte became an active theatre town with its own unique make-up and peculiarities. Lets take a look at some of the trends in Charlotte theatre at the end of 2012:
I wish that an organization as large and well funded as The Blumenthal would do more actual producing to supplement the armada of tours they bring to town each year. I wish that Childrens Theatre of Charlotte would ditch Pinkalicious and put some Shakespeare on the main stage. But, in this post-Rep reality, perhaps medium is the new big. And weve got a small handful of mid-sized theatres here that add up to something more than could be achieved by just one institution.
Actors Theatre of Charlotte really seems to be coming into its own as the professional theatre in town, focusing exclusively on new plays, and recently on new play development. It also is working towards providing a living wage to artists, which is vital to any arts economy. A member of the National New Play Network, its NuVoices festival of new plays and its recent foray into the world of commissioning, ATC hopefully will become a nationally known writers theatre and a center for regional voices.
What to look for in 2013: Actors Theater presents the eerily prescient campus shooting comedy The Exit Interview, as a rolling world premiere through the NNPN in April.
CAST works in a more eclectic vein. Whereas ATC has made its mark with new plays, CAST has become known for the cinematic attention to detail and uniformly high production values of its shows, with programming ranging from new plays to modern classics. It also boasts an incredible space in NoDa with two theatres, a spacious rehearsal hall, and an on-site shop. I believe CAST staff members started paying artists a stipend, which is an encouraging sign that their commitment to the artists is just as strong as their commitment to the art.
What to look for in 2013: The company produces Sondheims notorious musical about Americas culture of political violence, Assassins, June 30-July 13.From CASTs production of August Osage County. Photo by Charly Photography
Theatre Charlotte is a bit of a riddle. It produces some of the best work in the city, and its casts consist almost entirely of professional actors, but it doesnt pay those actors because it is a community theatre. And the professionals keep coming back to work there, so it must be doing something right, right? Right.
What to look for in 2013: Puppets talk dirty in the popular musical Avenue Q, May 17-June 2.
If they want to be, either Queen City Theatre Company (QCTC) or Charlotte Shakespeare could be next in line to join the ranks of Charlottes successful mid-sized theatres. QCTC has built a strong connection with the gay community and are really onto something conceptually with their intimate stagings of offbeat, emotionally rich musicals at the Duke Energy Theatre. Charlotte Shakespeare has built the foundation for something lasting with their summer festival, and with focus could tighten up their contemporary offerings. Both groups have the potential to make a big step forward in the near future if they have the stamina, strategy, and luck.
What to look for in 2013: Queen City Theatre Company presents the Pulitzer Prize winning musical about mental health and the American family, Next to Normal, Jan. 24-Feb. 9.
The good news is that On Q Productions is producing very interesting work that speaks with variety and eloquence about the black experience in America. Ive consistently been stoked to see their work and to see the community that is growing around it. Their production of Rhyme Deferred last season was one of my all-time Queen City highlights. The Bad news is that I see almost no other minority voices in our local theatres. Where is the Spanish language theatre? Asian theatre? Apart from a few offerings at Theatre Charlotte, there have been no sustained efforts at such a thing. Charlotte has large and diverse immigrant communities and Id love to see what sort of performance grows out of them. At this point, it either isnt happening, or this white boy just doesnt know about it.
What to look for in 2013: On Q presents Pulitzer Prize winner Ruined by Lynn Nottage, about a brothel in the Democratic Republic of Congo, May 24- June 8.
While the mid-size houses are pretty dude-centric in their work, leadership, and general culture, there are a number of high-quality guerrilla outfits in town that are run by righteous lady theatre makers. The grand dames of this situation are Chickspeare, Charlottes all female Shakespeare company since 1998. Sheila Snow Proctor, Joanna Gerdy, et al., teased Charlotte audiences with a brief return engagement at NoDa Brewing Company this summer which we can only hope is a sign of more to come from a unique company that makes Charlotte a cooler place to live.
Two new companies have sprung up in the past year that are led either entirely or primarily by women artists. Paperhouse Theatre, led by Nicia Carla, Andrea King, and Peter Smeal premiered at Wine Up in November with a production of the Dickens Spoof Penny Pennyworth that was as tight as it was loose, if you catch my drift. Three Bone Theatre, run by Carmen Bartlett and Robin Tynes is so new that they havent actually performed in Charlotte yet, although they did put up a production of Steven Dietz Fiction in Salisbury in November.
What to look for in 2013: Rumor has it that Three Bone will be making its Charlotte debut in March. At a bar.
So, Im sensing a theme here. While there is a glut of top-notch performance spaces uptown, a lot of smaller companies are choosing to perform their work in bars in Plaza-Midwood or NoDa. While Im sure economics plays into this decision, it is interesting to observe the aesthetics that this bar theatre demands. We end up seeing shows that may lack a certain technical polish, but often feel more immediate, more connected, more entertaining. Im particularly excited to see what develops at the space currently known as Wine Up in NoDa, which has been hosting more theatre events of late. Id be thrilled to see a beer soaked and rowdy era of DIY performance and theatre as a viable popular entertainment option. As of right now, with a positive dearth of experimental theatre in the region, this bar theatre boom is the closest thing weve got to an avant garde.
What to look for in 2013: A stage adaptation of the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind by local madman Jimmy Cartee and his Citizens of the Universe. The Citizens are known for their sight specific stagings of popular films, so ironically Wine Up might be the most conventional space theyve utilized. After that, Stephen Seay Productions will be at Wine Up with All the Great Books (Abridged), March 1, 3, 7 and 9.
Im cautiously optimistic. Weve got a few companies that are doing interesting, relevant pieces and whose work keeps tightening up. These larger groups are forming a foundation that will only help solidify Charlotte as an attractive home for theatre artists and audiences. Its also heartening to see women taking leadership roles and driving the theatrical agenda. Having a strong African American theatre is a blessing, but honestly weve got a pretty embarrassing situation here when it comes to racial and cultural diversity in our theatres. We need to work harder to invite everyone into our theatres regardless of race, or perhaps more importantly, regardless of class. A more inclusive theatre is a more relevant theatre, and thats what I hope well be seeing in 2013.