August 24, 2012

Charlotte theater director wins $75,000 prize

Quentin Talley, the founder and artistic director of On Q Productions, Mecklenburg County’s African-American theater, has won one of six One-on-One awards in America.

Sometimes, people give you money because you’re cool.

You run a respected, struggling arts organization for a few years, trying to get people to notice. Then $75,000 drops from the sky like manna – not for your company, but for you.

You don’t have to fulfill any commissions or spend any of it on a production. You get guaranteed income for 18 months. You’ve become an “early career leader,” and to justify this expenditure, all you have to do is become a smarter version of yourself.

That magic wand has tapped Quentin Talley. The founder and artistic director of On Q Productions, Mecklenburg County’s African-American theater, has won one of six One-on-One awards in America, paid for by the Andrew Mellon Foundation and run by Theatre Communications Group.

A Leadership U(niversity) program will pay him $75,000 over 18 months, starting in September. Up to $14,500 more is available for professional development or life needs, such as health care or medical expenses.

Even better, Talley will hook up with a veteran in his field: Lou Bellamy, founder and director of Penumbra Theatre Company in Saint Paul, Minn.

So Talley gets his bills paid and his mind elevated. On Q gets a higher profile nationally, on the brink of its fourth season: “Kiss My Black Angst,” a pair of one-acts by Amiri Baraka and Adrienne Kennedy, begins Sept. 14 in the Arts Factory at Johnson C. Smith University.

What does Charlotte get? The rejuvenation of this 32-year-old producer-director, who wants to shake up sleepy theatergoers: The new season is titled “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, It’ll Be Live!”

“I’ve always felt Charlotte had Broadway-quality talent,” he says. “When you do good theater, people come out of the woodwork to be part of it.

“The difference between Charlotte and other cities is that (we) don’t seem to recognize talent that’s already here. I hope this grant will help get the word out to individual and corporate funders that we’re serious about what we’re doing.”

It couldn’t have come at a more crucial time for Talley, who has often footed On Q’s bills himself.

“A couple of weeks before I learned I received the grant, I was strongly – and I do mean strongly – considering taking a step back from the art/theater world and finding a ‘regular’ j-o-b. I’ve received this as a sign to keep on rolling along.

“I’d do it for free, because I love it. But I have done it for free, and being a starving artist is for the birds. Free doesn’t pay for clothes, shelter or food. It seems everyone values the art but didn’t want to pay the artist. This grant makes sure the artist is taken care of – who will, in turn take care of the art.”

So who is this guy?

Talley grew up in Greenwood, S.C., (Imagine a triangle formed by Greenville, Columbia and Augusta; Greenwood is at the center.) Locals know Q, which everyone calls him, as a poet: He was on the Slam Charlotte team that won U.S. championships in 2007 and 2008.

He has acted for local companies and founded On Q in 2009, after producing “Miles & Coltrane” (a multimedia show about Miles Davis and John Coltrane) at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland. America was in the middle of the worst recession in decades, and half a dozen theater groups of comparable size had died in Charlotte since 2000, but he wasn’t fazed.

People began to notice, among them newly hired JCSU President Ron Carter.

He wants to develop the Beatties Ford Road corridor as an arts destination and opened the Arts Factory as a step in that direction. Then he wondered what relationship JCSU and On Q ought to have.

“I enjoy every minute of my conversations with him,” says Carter. “He’s not that much older than our students, but he’s very mature – a shining example of an individual who’s always learning and growing.

“I want to do everything I can to make sure he and his company stay in Charlotte. We are working with him to find funds to upfit space in the Arts Factory for him to have an office, make use of our black-box theater and other facilities.” Down the road, Carter hopes a communication arts building would offer On Q space for fuller theatrical productions.

JCSU invited Bellamy earlier this year to begin a partnership between Penumbra and its students, one which Bellamy hopes will lead to “professional theatrical productions advocating for social justice and positive social change.” Talley met the veteran director there and realized Bellamy could be a fine mentor.

How will the grant work?

Talley will have staff responsibilities at Penumbra, which Bellamy says is the largest African-American theater in the U.S. He’ll participate in production and education meetings, teach in Penumbra’s Summer Institute – where teens develop critical-thinking skills, writing and performing plays – and will teach and recruit kids from Minnesota high schools.

He’ll work up a version of Summer Institute for JCSU and Penumbra to do in Charlotte and assist Bellamy in directing shows at Penumbra, Denver Center for the Performing Arts and Oregon Shakespeare Festival. He’ll bring Bellamy to Charlotte to conduct workshops with On Q, observe Talley’s direction and engage the community.

But what does Bellamy get out of this, besides a mentor’s honorarium of $5,000?

“We have increased our national footprint by offering programs in many U.S. cities: Washington, Tucson, Phoenix, Cleveland, etc. The number of African-American theaters in the U.S. is dwindling. Any effort we can make to strengthen any of these companies, we perceive as being worthwhile.”

Predicting up the future

Theater Communications Group thinks long-term, too. A peer panel chose the six out of hundreds of applicants, thinking not so much of what they have done as what they can do.

“They’re in the sweet spot, longevity-wise and experience-wise,” says Emilya Cachapero, TCG’s director of artistic programs. “This generation will take over theaters in times to come, so the applications needed to convey a level of readiness and maturity. We talked to them not only about the responsibility to develop professionally but how their work will affect their company.

“This is the first step in a longer relationship between the recipients and TCG. We’ll be involved with them throughout the length of their careers.”

The question is, what path will Talley’s career take?

Carter talks about making him “a clinical professor in our theater program,” concentrating on political plays and anchoring the On Q-JCSU-Penumbra triangle. Cachapero wants to “fold the winners into the TCG circle,” where they’ll become mentors themselves or serve on panels.

Talley says he has been asked if he’ll stay in Charlotte. The answer is yes, in matters small – Soul Stage readings at Allure Restaurant on Wednesdays – and large, such as his leadership of On Q.

“We’re in just about the right place: Going into the fourth season, our second as a nonprofit, with a base of about 100 folks who come to all the productions and are diverse in age and ethnicity,” he says. “The struggle has been worth it – and the struggle continues – but the hard work has paid off.”

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