In Ballantyne, a theater struggles to be discovered

05/09/2012 5:00 AM

05/09/2012 9:25 PM

American pioneers know the drill. You break ground in a forbidding territory far from a population center – say, out in the wilds of Ballantyne – and endure a harsh winter, hoping civilization will catch up with you before you starve or have to abandon your outpost.

The husband-and-wife team of Chip Caldwell and Marika Metting staked out uncharted ground at Ballantyne Commons Parkway and North Community House Road last spring, in the new Ballantyne Arts Center run by the Morrison YMCA.

They began to hold theater classes, including one that trained 14 performers for the annual Carolina Renaissance Festival. Result: The Alleyn Apprentice Players finished third in the Best Children’s Act or Performance category of the national Renaissance Festival Podcast Awards for 2011.

In February, the troupe offered the gently comic “Almost, Maine” as the first show in their black box theater. Result: Theater professionals worked alongside amateurs, teaching via performance.

Now the first anniversary of their time at the BAC is here, bringing a Ballantyne Theater production of Lee Blessing’s drama “Eleemosynary” – and a reckoning by themselves and the YMCA as to how (or just how long) this effort ought to continue.

Blessing’s show is unusually apt for such a situation – and, of course, for an opening on Mother’s Day weekend. It’s about a smart young woman who is trying to assert her own personality while dealing with strong-willed, older people who tell her what to do.

A gathering last week of Caldwell, Metting and Laura Smith, associate executive director of the Y, produced consensus on at least two points: “Nobody’s getting rich here,” which was said more than once, and audiences must get into the habit of finding Ballantyne Theater in a spot that’s obscure and badly marked.

(The theater is in the small Ballantyne Corners shopping center. You’ll find the arts center on the second floor of the building with the big sign for Streetwise Music; Streetwise is the center’s musical component.)

“The idea of designing the arts center under one roof was to form something (greater) than its parts,” says Smith. “It’s not just another place for dance classes or another small theater space in a strip mall.

“Our 11 years’ experience at the Y has been mostly in providing activities for pre-school and young school-age kids. They fill programs at a quicker pace, because Ballantyne is full of young parents with young families. We’re not normally in the producing business.”

Money affects the outcome

But Caldwell, a teacher at Northwest School of the Arts, and Metting want to be in the producing business, and they have set up a tentative five-play season running from June through May 2013.

It would include community theater favorites – “The Odd Couple” and “Dearly Departed” – a holiday perennial in “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” and “Moonlight and Magnolias” and “The Friar and the Nurse.”

Nobody doubts the dedication of the couple, who often take students (theirs and others) to regional, multi-theater auditions. Nobody doubts the potential quality of the shows or the instruction, formal or informal, that might accompany them.

Professional lighting designer/installer John Hartness acted in “Maine” and, says Caldwell, “gave a disquisition on lighting: This is what will make you look good, and this is what will get you up and down a 12-foot ladder safely.”

Doubts center on money. “Maine” lost $2,000, not a huge total in the nonprofit world and understandable for a first show, if a theater has to station girls with signs in the parking lot to let patrons know they’ve arrived.

Potential is there

Caldwell and Metting are optimistic, and they come around after work – she’s project manager for a financial firm – to paint sets and rehearse their actors. On the positive side, Caldwell says, Ballantyne Theatre can start applying for grants that require a recipient to be in business at least a year.

Smith says the Morrison Y has been approached about arts grants directed not toward the theater program but the greater arts movement in which it’s involved. The Y “passed on the money at the time, because we did not have the personnel in place to deliver on the impact and criteria the grant called for – and (we) would be audited on.”

For now, Smith’s mood is hopeful: She believes the theater needs to pay for itself or find alternative funding, but she does not think a final decision has been made about the viability of productions.

“This place has all the potential in the world,” says Caldwell. “We have talented people, a room with acoustics that are good – for theater or other purposes – and the work here reimagines what theater can be from play to play. We want everyone to see what’s possible out here.”

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