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CAST takes three leaps into the future

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  • ‘Elemeno Pea’

    Carolina Actors Studio Theatre does the regional premiere of Molly Smith Metzler’s comedy (set on Martha’s Vineyard) about money, assumptions and why not to wear white after Labor Day.

    WHEN: Through Sept. 21 at 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Also 2:30 p.m. Sept. 8 and 15.

    WHERE: 2424 N. Davidson St.

    TICKETS: $28 adults; $22 seniors; $18 students.

    DETAILS: 704-455-8542 or nccast.com.



Every theatrical youngster needs two parents, but Carolina Actors Studio Theatre struggled gamely along with a single dad for most of its two decades.

Michael Simmons served as executive director, artistic director, repairman, director of certain shows and energetic spokesman, abetted in sundry tasks by wife Victoria and son Robert Lee.

Then Crystal Dempsey joined CAST this summer as its first designated executive director, wedging herself into a shoebox office in its NoDa headquarters for 25 to 30 hours a week. She’s part of a growth spurt: CAST recently became the newest of the Arts & Science Council’s annually funded members and upped its season to 12 mainstage shows, including the double bill of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America.”

That season starts Thursday with Molly Smith Metzler’s comic “Elemeno Pea.” Simmons and Dempsey see as far ahead as July, when the season wraps with Rajiv Joseph’s “Gruesome Playground Injuries.” They’re still discussing how to sail beyond that finale.

“After we moved here from Clement Avenue, the board set realistic expectations for our first year: averaging 44 people per night per show,” says Simmons. “We met that. The second year, we upped the expectation just a little, to 48. We met that. But we have 100 seats in each theater, and I want 100 people a night.

“Then artists could make a fair salary. Right now, we’re a stepping stone on the path to making a living as a performer, but I’d like to be the next Charlotte Repertory Theatre someday. A guest Equity contract would be the next step.”

He couldn’t make such a move without an executive director. Dempsey, a veteran reporter, editor and publicist, will deal with pragmatic issues – paying insurance, fixing leaks, renting unused space – while overseeing marketing and financial development. “My first priority,” she says, “is to see that Michael’s vision is served.”

A two-year, $75,000 Knight Foundation grant pays her salary and provides marketing money. And at 49, Dempsey is one decade younger than Simmons and just as energized.

She’s taking the reins

“We don’t have an annual giving or planned giving campaign, and we need those,” she says. “We hope to bring groups in for meetings – NoDa business owners will meet here the first Monday of every month – and we’re talking about an acting camp in the summer.

“I’ll work closely with the Arts & Science Council, too. We have a joke here: If I don’t know, I ask Ryan Deal.”

Deal, ASC senior program director for cultural and community investment, has known CAST since it got its first small project grant in 2009.

When the Knight Foundation gave $30,000, two-year Cultural Innovation Grants the next year, CAST was in the first batch of recipients. Money helped the troupe move out of its dilapidated Clement Avenue space; advice from cultural coach Josh Jacobsen helped it grow.

“CAST is a storybook example of someone who completed that program much stronger than they started,” says Deal. “They were eligible in every sense of the word (for) operating support.”

The ASC gave CAST $15,000 for the fiscal year that ended in June and $25,000 for the current fiscal year, with $25,000 anticipated for 2014-15. The company will go through a full review every two years.

“They’ll have to meet the standard they meet now,” says Deal. “The organization has to make an impact: Are you still relevant?”

Simmons asks that question constantly. “We put work and passion and love and pain into every show,” he says. “But if it doesn’t sell, we ask, ‘What have we done wrong?’ We’re at the mercy of the patrons.”

Taught by experience

He has learned lessons in CAST’s two years in NoDa.

He’s had to balance the company’s needs for space with rentals necessary to help pay bills. He realizes he didn’t plan far enough ahead technically; for instance, he installed fewer lights than he later decided he could use.

He thinks the company is audience-friendly but wants to make it more actor-friendly: He’s finally getting around to setting up proper dressing rooms.

He’ll probably never stop finding things to improve or ways to boost the company’s profile, money permitting.

“I ask myself before the season, ‘Do you want to pull all-nighters again? But this is the only thing I could do. Even if I won the lottery, I’d be coming back and forth to work every day. I’d just be doing it with a jetpack.”

Toppman: 704-358-5232
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