If Prohibition ever returns, Charlotte’s most important new venue for alternative performances can quickly turn into a speakeasy.
You enter from North Davidson Street, through a discreet side entrance at 3306-C in the building fronted by Neighborhood Theatre. A small “UpStage” sign hangs over an entrance 3 feet wide, guarded by a reddish-brown door with a combination lock. Peer through glass panes at the top, and what do you see? Sixteen stairs leading to another locked door above.
Behind that door waits Michael Ford, who took over this space last summer and has made it a home for performers with big hopes and small budgets. When he opens these doors, theater companies and slam poets and dancers and burlesque groups and sketch comedians stream through them.
His 100-seat venue shares its niche with Blumenthal Performing Arts’ Duke Energy Theater (168 seats maximum) and Warehouse Performing Arts Center in Cornelius (roughly 60 seats).
“The great thing about doing that in NoDa is that you need arts activity in all parts of the city, not just center city,” says Douglas Young, Blumenthal’s programmer. “You want pockets of culture everywhere.
“The hard thing for small groups is having enough infrastructure to cover their expenses for productions, much less overhead. Michael has taken an established business and opened it to these groups, so they don’t have to try to put up a storefront theater somewhere.”
At 42, Ford has spent half of his life in the hospitality business. He has an edge over many people running venues: His back stairs, unseen by patrons, lead down to Boudreaux’s Louisiana Kitchen, so he can bring hot food up from the place where he once worked. But his main advantage, friends say, is this: He makes audiences and performers feel at home.
PaperHouse Theatre did its first show, “Penny Penniworth,” there last fall before moving to Duke Energy Theatre for “La Ronde” and back to NoDa for a staged reading of the “Heathers” film script.
“It is such an intimate, warm space, and Michael makes everything as easy as possible,” says PaperHouse founder Nicia Carla. “While it is upstairs, it has an underground feeling, like you are in on a cool secret. Producing a show there, it feels like a big party with friends.”
James Cartee, who directed “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” for Citizens of the Universe, says Michael “takes care of us. When you load in, he asks, ‘What can I get you? Do you need coffee? Water?’ After rehearsal, it’s ‘Let’s have a drink.’
“I never have enough technicians helping me out, and Michael can run lights or sound. When a sofa rolled over on me during ‘Eternal,’ and I was on crutches, he helped me take down the lights. (A presenter) being so hands-on is unheard of.”
The man who now engineers performances was initially supposed to be a different kind of engineer.
His dad, Belmont native Dan Ford, worked for more than 20 years with Hendricks Motorsports’ NASCAR teams. Teenage Michael would go to school during the week, jump in a plane or car to wherever the team was racing, then get back in the wee hours on Monday.
So when Michael went to the University of Alabama in 1988, he started in engineering but switched to business – and then to a business, leaving college to work at River Run Country Club in Davidson. He became its banquet manager, moved to catering director at IBM, scouted properties for real estate investors, then joined Boudreaux’s and worked up from part-time server to manager.
Stirring up a Roux
He began to book Roux, the 900-square-foot space adjacent to the main dining room, in 2011 as a center for sketch comedy (Robot Johnson) and theater (Cartee’s one-man Hunter Thompson show, “Gonzo”).
After a decade with Boudreaux’s, he sought more options and a bigger venue. He found it last summer in the 3,200-square-foot space called Wine-Up above Roux.
“Two women had started it in 2003, when NoDa was more of an artsy neighborhood, as an upscale pool hall with beer and wine. The slate pool tables were professional quality. I thought, ‘This place is gorgeous, but it’s not gonna make money.’ ” (Eventually, Wine-Up became a space mostly for private rentals.)
“When I took it over, my friends all got excited: ‘Michael’s running a bar! It’s gonna be great!’ I was quick to say, ‘It’s an event space. It has a bar – that’s an important part of it – but it’s a showplace.’ We’re not open 5 to 2 every day for people to drink.”
Ford kept slam poetry on Thursdays and added regular events to many weekday nights. He took in new theater companies (Three Bone, PaperHouse) and recruited others he admired: Machine Theatre, Citizens, Stephen Seay Productions.
The flexible Mr. Ford
Seay had been doing small-cast plays intermittently at Petra’s Piano Bar on Commonwealth Avenue. He was intrigued by UpStage: The main bar area doubled his space at Petra’s, and Ford also offered three side rooms.
“I asked if he’d be willing to get rid of a wall by the front door to open up the seating area,” Seay recalls. “He said yes. I asked if he’d let me move the stage against the wall, across from the bar area, to give (it) a more central feel; he said yes.
“I asked if he’d be all right with me (leaving) my lighting equipment there as a semi-permanent home; he said yes. I booked my next show with him, and now (we use) UpStage as a home base.” (Seay will produce “Vanities” there Aug. 16-17 and 23-24.)
Ford keeps refining his presentation. He tailors drinks to shows: Wild Turkey concoctions for “Gonzo,” cherry vodka slushies at “Heathers.”
He’s about to create an “Iron Bartender” series along the lines of “Iron Chef,” with bartenders challenged to create new drinks in short periods using assigned ingredients.
And the man who never performs in public (except for karaoke) plans to keep giving improv troupes and dance instructors a home.
“My dad liked his job, and he stressed that I should find something I enjoy, too,” says Ford. “There’s a lot about UpStage to like.
“I help people find a way to put on shows. I get to meet audiences who are out to have a good time. And I’m learning the tango.”
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