That sound you don’t hear coming from The Green – lines from a Shakespearean comedy, followed by laughter and applause – means Charlotte Shakespeare has gone on hiatus, canceling its summer season for the first time in its 10-year existence.
The troupe, which began in 2005 as Collaborative Arts Theatre and changed its name in 2012, has been the city’s only theater to operate on a “pay what you can basis” on every show.
The problem, says artistic director Elise Wilkinson, is twofold: Donations haven’t kept up with costs, and the all-volunteer staff has struggled each year to mount the outdoor spring comedy and more serious summer show at Booth Playhouse.
By the end of 2014, the company had a $17,000 deficit on a budget of $58,000. So she and the board decided to spend a year regrouping, in hopes of mounting a summer season in 2016.
“It’s a shortage of resources,” she says simply. “When we started using The Green, back when Wachovia owned it, there were no expenses to use it. After Wells Fargo took it over, the bank changed the way it operated. They still don’t charge rent, but it costs $9,000 for security personnel, event personnel and parking. Insurance doubled last year, and this year we would have needed an additional insurance policy.
“These shows have large casts, as well as technical staff, stage management and directors. (Charlotte Shakespeare pays those people.) We have seen a shrinking of the talent pool in Charlotte, because artists can’t find meaningful employment. As it has become difficult to fill key roles, we have turned to people outside of Charlotte. It’s expensive, when we have housing costs for professionals.”
In its heyday, the company did two shows in fall-winter, usually contemporary pieces in Duke Energy Theater, plus two by Shakespeare in spring-summer.
Charlotte Shakespeare took its most daring turn in 2011, inviting celebrated Shakespeareans Tina Packer and Nigel Gore to Charlotte in “Women of Will.” That show, which examines female characters across the Bard’s spectrum, played successfully in New York and Boston. In Charlotte, its hosts took a beating.
At the time, the budget was about $75,000-$80,000. Within two years, Charlotte Shakespeare dropped its fall-winter season.
Now, Wilkinson and the board must answer three questions. First, will Charlotteans support two big shows each summer?
Second, where can extra money be found – in the short term to pay off the deficit, in the long term to let the company hire a development person who might raise more than his own salary costs? (Wilkinson hopes to forge multi-year corporate partnerships to sustain the troupe.)
Third, should Charlotte Shakespeare give up its nine-year model and start charging for tickets, as the Charlotte Symphony has done with its once-free Summer Pops series?
“Every year, we hear wonderful stories from people who use (us) to introduce children to Shakespeare, who bring the family,” she says. “Many come because tickets (elsewhere) are a burden, and they thank us for our pay-what-you-can model. But everything’s on the table now.”
To learn more about the company – or to donate money or time as a volunteer – go to charlotteshakespeare.com.