The coolest project in local theater this year poked its head above ground for the first time Thursday night.
It’s been going on since 2015, when artistic directors Adam Burke (Children’s Theatre of Charlotte) and Chip Decker (Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte) had a caffeinated brainstorming session: What if one playwright created separate but interlocked plays for each of their companies, stories that would share characters or situations? The one for CTC would be done from the viewpoints of children. The one for ATC would be seen through adult eyes.
Burke remembered a time when unaffiliated Phoenix troupes Childsplay and Arizona Theatre Company happened to overlap works by Texas playwright Steven Dietz. Both ATC and CTC had done multiple plays by Dietz. They contacted him in Austin, where he told them, “If something scares the hell out of me, I know I have to do it.”
This idea must have made him tremble, because he has delivered two linked plays: “The Ghost of Splinter Cove” and “The Great Beyond.” Half a dozen fine local actors gave them a private reading before a tiny crowd of donors Thursday at Center City Church, next door to ATC’s home-to-be at 2219 Freedom Drive. (The company doesn’t yet have its certificate of occupancy.)
Characters related by blood, hints of the supernatural – more than hints in “Ghost” – and a tragic event tie the plays together: Forty years ago, a father went hiking with his 8-year-old son, who disappeared and presumably died. The plays take place on the same night, soon after the old man has passed away; one is set in the basement of his house and one on its main floor.
In “Ghost,” the more finished play at this point, his grandkids (who were never allowed near him) “camp out” in the basement with an old imaginary friend and a new real one. In “Beyond,” which is little more than a first draft at this point yet still polished, the mother and aunt of the kids downstairs try to make peace with each other and contact their father’s spirit through a medium.
Dietz will work on both a while longer, with an eye toward simultaneous world premieres during the 2017-18 seasons. He’ll come here for a workshop this spring, listen to feedback from actors and audiences, and go back to his computer. He’ll almost certainly tighten “Beyond,” though I’d guess he’ll leave the taut “Ghost” much as it is.
While each stands alone, the effect of seeing them back-to-back with a 15-minute break intensifies the emotional impact. The ambiguities of “Beyond” were resolved (at least for me) by knowing “Ghost”; the outcome in “Ghost” is more poignant when you get the rest of the story in “Beyond.”
Journalists are taught to avoid the word “never.” So I’ll say instead that none of the parties involved have ever heard of a collaboration like this, and we haven’t had any in my 37 years covering the arts here. I can’t wait to see how it turns out.