Play Of The Month Club.
Doesn’t that suggest quiet evenings by the fireside, pipe clenched in teeth, contemplating masterpieces of drama?
Well, not at Carolina Actors Studio Theatre. They’re billing the 2013-14 season that way, though the title is an understatement: “Angels in America” consists of two full-length pieces, so the total is 13. And this club will meet in heaven, hell and all points in between.
CAST operates these days from a position of strength. It has settled comfortably into its NoDa home after two full seasons. It’s among the 12 performing arts organizations that get unrestricted operating support from the Arts & Science Council. It runs shows concurrently in its arena and thrust-stage theaters and offers a third space to groups that need to rehearse or perform there.
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That’s why managing artistic director Michael Simmons feels confident about his new blend of modern classics (“Angels,” Athol Fugard’s “Sizwe Banzi Is Dead”), recent Tony nominees or winners (“Good People,” “Boeing-Boeing”) and plays hot from the current Broadway season (“The Other Place”) or the Humana Festival of New American Plays (“Guru Guru Guru,” which Simmons didn’t see until the night before he submitted choices to CAST’s board of directors).
CAST joins Blumenthal Performing Arts and Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte in a season where all three significantly upped their games with in-demand shows. And CAST’s 11 new productions – every outing but “Tuna Christmas” is fresh out of the box – are the largest set of plays created from scratch in this region.
The company has a unique way of choosing its plays: Anyone from a board member to a one-time patron may propose a title, at which point Simmons gives that person a questionnaire. If all five questions can be answered “yes,” Simmons seriously considers the idea.
“We call these the ‘itties’,” he explains. “Does it have CASTability? That means two things to us: Are there actors locally who can do it, and is it the sort of play the company would do?
“Then there’s fun(d)ability. Can we afford it, and will we enjoy doing it? At this level, there’s no reason to do a play we don’t enjoy. The others are produce-ability, market-ability and experientiality.” (He uses that term for the creation of an immersive environment for theatergoers all over the building.)
Not that Simmons and his fellow readers don’t do research on their own. He decided they should read every Pulitzer-winning play, then expanded that to every Pulitzer finalist, then expanded further to include Tony-winners. Then they gave “slow reads” to serious contenders. (He’s famous for carrying plays around for contemplation, especially if the rights are delayed. The upcoming season-opener, “Elemeno Pea,” has spent a record three years in his briefcase.)
This kind of open-mindedness makes room for both “Boeing-Boeing,” a sex farce from the 1960s where a swinging bachelor juggles three stewardesses, and “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot,” a surreal meditation on the conflict between divine mercy and free will.
When CAST does a play such as “Angels in America,” says Simmons, he’s not making a socio-political statement: “It’s because of the quality of the writing, because we help the playwright’s voice come alive.”
He might be proudest this year of “The Other Place,” a psychological thriller by Sharr White that Matt Olin helped the writer develop. Laurie Metcalf has been nominated for a Tony in the leading role, bringing the show some buzz; Olin has returned to Charlotte, where the former managing director of Charlotte Repertory Theatre will work with CAST on the production.
The company made its first real attempt to get season ticket subscribers two years ago. (In its old, single-stage home on Clement Avenue, it had a mere 12.)
The 2011-12 season in NoDa netted 34 season ticket-holders. Simmons hoped to double that number for the current season, so he offered a flex-pass plan that let patrons buy eight tickets and use them however they liked.
The number more than quadrupled, as 150 people signed up. So he’s keeping the eight-ticket plan but also offering a 12-ticket option that drops the price to $20 per ticket. Single tickets stay at $28, though Simmons says CAST has a Play It Forward campaign: He sets aside seats to each show for audience members who can’t pay full price or, in some cases, can pay nothing at all.
CAST will hold season auditions on June 4 for all its plays, and directors will start work with the actors on each production 16 weeks ahead of time. Once in a while, as with “The Other Place,” Simmons will take charge of that process himself.
“All the good directors who work with us wanted to do it, and I was thinking about who’d be best. Then I realized I want to do it. I’m going to be 60 in January, and one of the perks of being the guy in charge for all these years is that I get to pick a plum now and then. So it’s going to be me.”