UNCC brings Mobile Arts & Community Experience to Levine Avenue of the Arts

UNC Charlotte Department of Theatre students help to move into MAX, the Mobile Arts Community Experience, while at Boxman Studios on Tuesday, April 7, 2015.
UNC Charlotte Department of Theatre students help to move into MAX, the Mobile Arts Community Experience, while at Boxman Studios on Tuesday, April 7, 2015. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

We seldom hear the words “circus” and “revolutionary” in the same sentence. But we may Friday at 5 p.m., when MAX rumbles down to Charlotte’s Levine Avenue of the Arts for its unveiling.

The circus comes courtesy of UNC Charlotte. Performers will work on aerial straps and aerial hoops, hand balancing, and contortion; a live band will play; tumblers will do parkour; theater students will perform excerpts from “Lazari,” a Southern-fried adaptation of the Spanish comedy “Lazarillo de Tormes.” This happens from 5 to 7 p.m., with food trucks disbursing dinner. Further performances follow Saturday.

The revolutionary element also comes courtesy of UNCC, with $350,000 worth of backing from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. MAX, formally known as “Mobile Arts Community Experience,” will do more than stop and disgorge culture on demand. It’s a portable theater and a portable think tank, designed to hunker down in areas that need it – Reid Park will be the first this fall – and become a temporary community center.

What kind? Any kind.

“We are still figuring that out,” says Jose Gamez, UNCC associate professor of architecture and urban design. “We’ll never go in uninvited, and we’ll never assume we know everything that’s helpful before we arrive. I think of this as a tiny third campus for UNCC.

“It’s about organizing collective action and maybe positing some resolutions. Say MAX is in the middle of one of Charlotte’s food deserts. We could show people where and how to grow their own vegetables, or how to organize and get a grocery store to come in.”

CarlosAlexis Cruz, who teaches voice and physical movement in UNCC’s theater department, wants to use the arts to build community. “Theater’s a communal event,” he says. “We’re losing this feeling of connection when we (isolate ourselves) with technology. The excitement of theater, that something crazy is happening in front of you – that can’t be duplicated.”

The men met when the newly hired Cruz was looking for a Latino mentor on campus. They got to talking about El Teatro Campesino, the bilingual California theater born 50 years ago on the Delano grape strike picket lines of Cesar Chavez’s United Farmworkers Union. They joked about having a theater they could run off the back of a truck and ... a research project was born.

Both men have roots in Latino cultures – Mexico for Gamez, Puerto Rico for Cruz – where theater was more than entertainment: It was informative, even political. Cruz remembered days at the University of Puerto Rico when a truck would tour that island, dropping a stage to present a play to rural residents. MAX won’t provide overt agitprop, but it’s able to take programming risks another theater might not.

Right now, MAX lives at Boxman Studios off North Graham Street. Boxman built it to specifications: It’s about 20 feet wide, with a 16-foot stage folding down from one side and an 8-foot community space folding down from the other. UNCC is still raising money for a truck that would transport it; the Knight Foundation grant pays for three years of residencies.

After MAX’s uptown weekend, it goes to the main campus on N.C. 49 for performances April 20-24. It’ll move to Reid Park in the fall, then undertake neighborhood residencies next spring in conjunction with Cruz’s “Nouveau Sud, Nouveau Cirque” project. (He won a $25,000 McColl Award last year to create a work that would bridge ethnic communities.)

“At some point, this will outgrow Carlos and me,” Gamez says. “Maybe other faculty members will use MAX for projects. Meanwhile, we’ll have to build a curriculum to make sure it’s active when it gets somewhere and leaves some activity behind.”

Toppman: 704-358-5232

Uptown’s MAX festival

▪ Friday, 5-7 p.m.: Live music and performances by cirque artists, parkour tumblers, musicians and students from the UNCC Department of Theatre.

▪ Saturday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.: Activities include UNCC theater department performance of “The Life of That Little Scoundrel Named Lazarillo” at noon.

Details: Free; Levine Avenue of the Arts, uptown Charlotte.