Troupe wants new audiences to experience theater

03/01/2013 12:00 AM

02/27/2013 11:00 AM

In a few weeks Jacobi Howard will roll his suitcases out the door of his Guildhall Lane home and drive to Washington, D.C., for his latest acting gig: 10 weeks as Ennis King in Nathan Louis Jackson’s “Broke-ology.”

Like many professional actors, Howard, 28, will follow any good role out of town. Since graduating from the N.C. School of the Arts in 2011, he’s performed in plays from New York City to Los Angeles.

What separates him from many of the other actors, though, is his strong desire always to return home. That’s because Howard, a native Charlottean, sees plenty of opportunity for theater here in his hometown, even if he has to create some of it himself.

A few years back, Howard launched Sitting Dog Society, a theater company interested in bringing performing arts to potential audiences he feared were being overlooked.

“I hear a lot of ‘I can’t afford to go,’ or ‘I don’t go because I don’t have anything to wear,’ or even, ‘Charlotte has plays?’ ” said Howard. “I don’t just want art to be for a specific group. Theater is for everyone.”

In 2009 his company rented Duke Energy Theatre inside Blumenthal Performing Arts Center for a production of Cormac McCarthy’s “Sunset Limited.” It opened to rave reviews.

“That was the first glimpse people got of us,” he said.

Since then, the company has performed smaller shows and dinner theater at area churches such as CrossWay Community Church on Prosperity Church Road and Eastside Community Church on Harrisburg Road.

“We’re just going around, putting a lot of little stakes in the ground around the area,” he said, “making a trail.”

Howard didn’t always plan to start a theater company in Charlotte after college. At one time, like most actors, he intended to live in New York City or Los Angeles and make it big.

“I think people are attracted to that routine of going to New York to make it big or to Los Angeles to be famous,” said Howard. “I’ve spent time in both places, but I knew there was something within me that was missing. I think it’s the fact that I know arts and culture is in my city. I know that it’s at home.”

Howard also has started planting the seeds of theater appreciation for the next generation, by leading acting workshops at local community centers for local teens. Each class usually has between 35 and 40 participants.

“A lot of those kids from the urban area have never been exposed to theater,” he said. “They’ve been drowned in media, and they’re always plugged up to something. These are the guys who are coming up after us.

“We’re pioneering. We’re leaving examples for them to take up and run with.”

At the end of his career, Howard said, he will measure his success not by how many marquees his name graces, but by how many people are turned on to the pleasures of theater.

“It’s not really just about putting on a play. I really want to perpetuate the idea that theater is for everyone,” said Howard.

“It’s community outreach. That’s what it’s about for me.”

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