How long should a paper house last?
Maybe five shows, in Charlotte’s harsh theatrical climate. But five years after coming up with the idea, Nicia Carla’s offbeat PaperHouse Theatre turns up semi-regularly at Frock Shop, doing irregular theater of a kind nobody else in the region would touch – or, perhaps, conceive.
It’s always immersive, often interactive, consistently rewarding the brain and belly. (You get snacks and drinks, designed according to the show.) Carla and her company often take on classic stories in modern ways, and the upcoming “The Sherlock Project” fits that mold: Andrea King, one of the PaperHouse regulars, will put the “she” in Sherlock, opposite Chaz Pofahl’s Dr. Watson.
“There’s no one mystery, though we use bits of a lot of stories,” says Carla. “There will be puzzles for the audience to solve – it’s almost like a Sherlock-themed party – but the story is the relationship between the characters. Sherlock is analytical, not a quality that women are always thought to have, while Watson is more intuitive. He’s not dumb, but he has more emotional intelligence.”
Arthur Conan Doyle might be spinning in his grave like a rotisserie porker at a Baptist barbecue, or his spirit might be looking on approvingly at their daring. That’s why PaperHouse exists: to take risks with audiences. Small audiences, because they can’t accommodate more than a couple of dozen people at Frock Shop at one time. But audiences willing to sail into unknown waters.
Carla picked the troupe’s name because “I liked the idea of making a home in impermanence. We build a world out of the words, the text, but that world is temporary. It exists only in the present, before it is swept away.
“(That) has worked well with our nomadic nature. Our most lasting home has been Frock Shop, but even there we leave without a trace, at least physically – except for that time blood spattered on the ceiling in ‘She Who Watches.’”
‘A more refined truth’
That elegant vampire tale, taken from Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla,” typified PaperHouse’s approach. It adapts often-obscure minor classics, condensing them to fleet running times and stressing or injecting humor. The action moved around the building – some shows take viewers outside – with light refreshments available beforehand and at intermission.
Atmosphere counts for as much as narrative. Frock Shop’s broad stairs, burnished wood and handsome fireplace suit 19th-century pieces such as “Holmes”; the building began as a private home in 1902, when the detective would have been afoot. The setting immediately makes audiences feel at home and connects theatergoers to each other.
Carla does that herself when she directs. J.R. Adduci tackled one of the most difficult roles in his career in “Venus in Fur” and watched her shape that play at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte in 2013.
“I had great trust in her from the beginning,” he said. “There is nothing technical about her directing. She is very open to see how things play out, then chase down a more refined truth with her actors. We only had 10 days of rehearsal, and she was dedicated to the max: always there to run scenes or talk, making herself available despite her hectic schedule and family life.
“She has a very nurturing quality to the way she directs. I knew when things needed to be thrown away or solidified, because she would call it out when she saw the need – no-nonsense, yet always looking to push things further for the better. I would jump at the chance to work with her again in any capacity.”
Adam Burke, artistic director for Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, saw that drama about a stage director and the mysterious woman who comes to an audition and plays mind games with him. Burke thought, “This is the opposite end of the world from us, but she understands dramatic action and composition.” He has since often hired her to direct shows for kids, including one that will kick off the 2018-19 season this summer, “The Lion and the Little Red Bird.”
“One of her strengths is her open spirit, her ability to lead people without seeming overbearing or creating antagonisms,” says Burke. “Everyone involved feels they’re a part of the solution. She understands audiences, (whether) adults or children, and she’s good at the mechanics: She knows how to pack a set into a van and unpack it an hour later in a school gymnasium.”
That comes from touring with Tarradiddle Players, as the traveling arm of Children’s Theatre used to be known, from 2000 to 2003. She had graduated from Myers Park High School in 1992 and Winthrop University in 1996, majoring in theater. Now she found herself hustling portable shows around the region from school to school.
“Best training ever,” she recalls. “You’re trying to make a good show out of simple elements, not create a spectacle. Kids tell you exactly what they’re thinking. It focuses you as a performer, because anything can happen. Teachers would ask afterward, ‘Weren’t you disturbed when….?’ Nope. Didn’t see it.”
She bumped along as an actor-director, mostly at Children’s Theatre, slacking off in 2009 after the birth of her second child. (Pearl is now 11, James 8.) Eventually, she realized something was missing. The something turned out to be a company that would do … well, she wasn’t sure.
The real questions
“My first thought was, ‘How can we make PaperHouse like other theater companies?’ But the real questions were ‘Why are you making theater at all?’ and ‘How can you be a person and have a family and still be an artist?’ PaperHouse was the answer,” she says. “We make theater that’s interesting to us and hope it’s interesting to other people, too.”
The company began as one of countless small groups who share space at the Blumenthal’s Duke Energy Theatre. It didn’t quite find its identity until it moved to Central Avenue, where Frock Shop owner Caroline Cook-Frers has become an unofficial collaborator on shows. (Carla’s still trying to figure out how to incorporate her two brothers, both chefs. So far, that’s been too complicated.)
A full-time job fell out of the sky eight weeks ago, when North Mecklenburg High School hired her in mid-semester to revive its theater program. That means, among other things, that she won’t be able to tour with pieces such as “Journey to Oz,” which Children’s Theatre exported to Alaska, Texas and New York. (Carla, who can get nasty in character, played the Wicked Witch of the West.)
“My kids were very protective when North Meck hired me,” she says. “They asked, ‘Well, who are you, Mom?’ I’m not a type-A personality. The administration wants a strong theater program. Meanwhile, I’m a single mom for my family, and I’m rehearsing PaperHouse in the basement of the house I’m renting.”
The long-term answer may be to pass the baton, or at least let another runner carry it more often. Carla gratefully mentions frequent collaborators – King, leading actor Chester Shepherd, graphics designer Chad Calvert – while acknowledging that the company relies mainly on her.
“PaperHouse is a quirky, weird thing because of me, and that’s OK,” she says. “From a sustainability standpoint, though, I don’t want it to depend so much on me.
“I also want to direct more outside the company, and (2017-18) has been a great year for that. It’s a continuing battle to feed myself literally and artistically. I’m still figuring out that arithmetic.”
‘The Sherlock Project’
WHERE: Frock Shop, 901 Central Ave.
WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, April 26-May 12.
TICKETS: $25-$30 ($5 discount before April 25).