It began with live snakes.
Actors in Romulus Linney’s “Holy Ghosts” were waving serpents at each other and the audience in the attic theater of the old Afro-American Cultural Center on that April night in 1989. Then a basket opened, and the audience heard the tail-whipping warning of a rattler.
Maybe many rattlers.
“Several people bolted for the door,” recalled Dan Shoemaker, with the satisfied look of a magician whose illusion worked.
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But audiences have been running the other way ever since: Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte is now the region’s most influential producer of homegrown theater aimed at adults.
Executive director Shoemaker and artistic director Chip Decker have announced ATC’s most ambitious schedule for Season 25: Three musicals (their highest total), multiple Tony nominees, and a world premiere of a play from ATC’s own 2012 nuVoices festival.
During this year, they’ll also celebrate their 10th anniversary in the old Reliable Music building on East Stonewall Street, the little dream home they gutted front to back after taking over in 2003.
And can they leave well enough alone? No.
For “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” a September musical that re-imagines the seventh president as a rock star, they’ll turn their proscenium stage into a thrust with seating on three sides. Why? Decker points out that it works better for a rock-concert feel, which the show needs, though he’ll probably use that configuration for the rest of the season.
“It’s a year of exploring stuff,” he says simply. For ATC, that could be every year.
Shoemaker and the other founders of the company left themselves a mile of leeway by keeping a mission statement simple: Provide the Charlotte region with bold, innovative new work by contemporary playwrights.
Sometimes ATC has commissioned a piece. Eric Coble’s distressingly funny “Southern Rapture,” based on the local “Angels in America” controversy of the 1990s, debuted there in 2009.
Sometimes it participates in a rolling world premiere through the National New Play Network. William Missouri Downs’ “The Exit Interview” opens in previews Friday and formally April 10; it’s about a sacked college professor who gets involved with a sniper and communiqués from God.
“People ask a lot if we do edgy stuff,” says Shoemaker. “Not necessarily. New work can be controversial, but it doesn’t have to be. We can also do a ‘Marvelous Wonderettes.’ (That musical about four girls performing at a high-school prom and 10th reunion was a 2012 hit.)
Adds Decker, “We think of our shows are being conversational, rather than controversial. We want to start conversations.”
They did that with “Rapture,” which lampooned Charlotte characters from politicians to critics. Coble, who’s about to open his play “Graphic Depictions” in Boise, Idaho, remembers Shoemaker’s enthusiasm:
“Dan was dogged in his desire to create a play based on the Charlotte Rep adventures. He pitched me on the project minutes after picking me up from the airport on my first visit, and he stayed on it until he got the show he wanted several years later. But it never FELT like pressure. There’s a calm atmosphere (there) that makes it easy to be a playwright.
“They don’t thrive on crisis, unlike some theaters, and just go about creating the best theater they are able to create. And they DO create great theater. Their production of ‘The Pillowman’ was the third I had seen, (including) New York, and ATC’s was easily the best – intimate and unnerving and real.”
Stability = creativity
A combination of two things makes ATC unique locally: Its management team has been in place for 17 years, and it controls its performing space. (It even has a Sunday tenant: Spiritual Living Center of Charlotte.)
Decker moved here from a community theater in Minot, N.D. By then, ATC was staging shows at Spirit Square, and he wangled a part in the 1996 play “Dark Rapture.”
He remembers loading in the cumbersome set and losing his focus every time the actors had to move another bulky segment of it.
“It was very stressful to rehearse. The second night, the cast surrounded Dan and looked like they were going to set him on fire. But he’s a calming influence who can get a mob to lay down torches and pitchforks and walk away.”
Decker’s suggestions convinced Shoemaker he’d be a good technical director, and he came aboard. But both men knew they couldn’t keep building sets in Decker’s garage, storing equipment elsewhere and trucking things downtown.
A search for a home began in 2000, but no building had sufficient parking, adequate sight lines and a reasonable price – until Reliable Music came onto the market.
ATC renovated, emptying a storage room that was chest-deep in refuse and renting jackhammers and steel-cutting torches to dismantle a multi-ton boiler. It opened “Bat Boy: The Musical” there in January 2004.
The troupe forged relationships with playwrights, including York, S.C., native Charles Randolph-Wright, whose “Blue” and “Cuttin’ Up” it produced. Randolph-Wright, who’s now directing “Motown: The Musical” in previews for its Broadway run, said he was impressed by ATC’s “professionalism, ingenuity, and artistry.
“The work they are doing is comparable to my favorite theaters all over the country. They have secured some productions directly after a Broadway run, which is amazing for a company of that size.” (ATC even staged the Pulitzer-winning “Clybourne Park” before last year’s Broadway opening).
Shoemaker has always paid cast and crew honoraria, however small. ATC made a big jump last fall, joining Actor’s Equity and guaranteeing actors a minimum of $280 a week. Recent auditions have lured performers from across the Carolinas and as far away as Atlanta.
Jason Loewith, director of Olney Theatre Centre in Washington, D.C., met ATC as executive director of the National New Play Network. He sees its impact as national now, not regional:
“They’ve begun commissioning, mounting that fabulous new play festival and producing a rolling world premiere. It’s gradual but desperately important work.
“They’re starting smart, letting playwrights around the country know ATC is a safe place for taking risks on new work and exploring what new plays mean for their community. And turning Equity is huge: It tells colleagues across the country they’re putting their money where their mouth is.”