When you start moving, you die.
That’s Chip Decker’s philosophy, and that’s why the artistic director of Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte doggedly sought a permanent home after a seemingly secure spot on Louise Avenue fell through this summer.
He found one just before the 2016-17 season at 2219 Freedom Drive, in a space formerly occupied by Paradox Films and Digital. He and executive director Dan Shoemaker and the staff no longer have to worry about a roof over their heads. They just have to worry about staying alive through Season 28 and beyond – but Decker says the chances are better there than anywhere else, especially on the road.
“When you’re itinerant, audiences don’t find you,” he says. “They come once and say, ‘I’ll wait for you to find a permanent space.’ You can’t raise money while you’re moving around. People don’t invest in an idea; they want something they can see.”
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For the last 12 years, the troupe lived at 650 E. Stonewall St. The landlord gave them a year’s notice in 2015 and sold the building to a developer, who wants to put up residences and retail.
The theater signed a letter of intent on a rental property off Louise Avenue, half a mile from Central Avenue. But when a construction company backed out of the deal, taking away its $100,000 in-kind contribution toward an upfit of the space, that prospect became too expensive.
Other options didn’t suit
“We looked at properties all over town,” says Decker. “We saw huge old warehouses with 40,000 square feet, which we didn’t need. We saw smaller spaces that required too much upfit.”
Blumenthal CEO Tom Gabbard offered to fit ATC into his venues. But Decker says the troupe had trouble working around the Blumenthal’s busy schedule; it also feared Booth Playhouse would cost too much to use, and Stage Door Theater would be too small for ATC to make money.
The company contemplated a season split between CPCC’s Pease Auditorium and Charlotte Museum of History. But wherever it went, it would lose concessions revenue to its landlord and have to spend down its reserve. Says Decker, “After a year, we could be broke.”
Then Stuart Owens called, and the stars aligned.
Owens had opened Paradox in 1999 in a former HVAC facility on Freedom Drive, creating a space where he could shoot films and commercials. He still owns the building through Gotham City Properties but didn’t shoot there anymore. He had better offers for the space, he says, but took less than top price so ATC could move in.
“I’m in the arts, so to see it go in that direction is outstanding,” Owens says. “I like the vibe and the people and what they’re doing. It’ll be a great asset to that community and make it more of a destination. And it’s good business sense long-term for me to see the community turn in the right direction.”
Actor’s Theatre has a five-year lease, with two five-year extensions and first right of refusal if Owens decides to sell. The property comes with a multi-floor set-up that includes stage space, office space, a potential lobby, dressing rooms, even a small café. The raised ceiling gives ATC room to hang its lights, and even the curtain rack is constructed as it was in the building on Stonewall Street. (Decker says the same firm built both stage areas.)
Perhaps best of all, a 4,500-square-foot building sits across the parking lot on a level below the main one. It has plenty of rooms for costume and set storage and construction, plus multiple rehearsal areas. And the rooftop of that building can eventually be adapted to serve as an outdoor stage setting three seasons of the year.
The keys to survival
Decker says three things have to happen for Actor’s Theatre to succeed in its new home.
First, “We have to overcome the outdated perception that Freedom Drive is not safe. That hasn’t been true for a long time – in the ’90s, maybe, but the Wesley Heights neighborhood is flourishing, and people are building expensive houses (near Berryhill) in the area behind our property.” Adds Owens, “It’s close to town, and the town is coming that way. You can get there off I-77 and I-85 and the John Belk Freeway. It’s about to take off.”
Second, says Decker, “We need for the city, county and neighborhood to be behind this idea. The city and county have already been helpful – we are putting in a security system with a grant from the city – and we’d love to see other businesses come into the neighborhood and work with us.”
Third, “Having tenants will be integral. We have to exploit the whole complex with parties, rentals, meetings, sorority nights, bar mitzvahs. (Director of development) Bennett Rich is also an event planner, so she’s on top of that.
“We have to be not just a leading theater but a theater cheerleader. So we will invite small companies that have no places to build and rehearse to use that second building at a low cost. We could open up rooms – and eventually the roof – to Chickspeare and Paperhouse and Three Bone and Citizens of the Universe. We could become a venue for contemporary dance, too. There aren’t enough venues for that.”
The immediate future and beyond
Right now, Decker and his team have to bring the space up to code for patrons, creating a handicapped ramp and exit door. That has to happen before the first show – which has yet to be confirmed – opens in late October.
The initial upfit should be $150,000 to $200,000, about a third of the proposed alterations at Louise Avenue. Decker said ATC will continue to make changes in the facility “as we see how the building flows when it has audiences in it.” Current tenants, including a video post-production facility at the front, will remain on a month-to-month basis.
The hall will seat about 160 to 170, slightly less than the 199 at Stonewall, but productions will run longer to prevent ticket income from dropping. Decker expects the company’s repertoire – contemporary dramas, comedies and musicals from Broadway and off-Broadway – won’t change.
What will change, if ATC attracts theater and dance tenants, is its nature. It could become a Charlotte version of The Warehouse in Cornelius, which produces some events, presents others and operates as an arts center.
Meanwhile, Bennett Rich has been given a mandate to raise enough cash over the next five years to make Owens an offer, should he wish to sell in 2021. “When you own the building,” says Decker, “you know you’re not going anywhere.”
Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte
October-November: “The Toxic Avenger.”
November-December: “The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical.”
March-April: “Stupid F---ing Bird.”
April-May: “Hand To God.”
May-June: “The Luckiest People,” winner of the 2016 nuVoices new play festival.
July: Green Day’s “American Idiot.”