The Warehouse arts center belies its name: It's quite homey

Revolutions have started in smaller places than The Warehouse - though not often - and by individuals less likely than Marla Brown, a former women's studies teacher who now rules over a unique, minuscule artistic kingdom. But a revolution is what's going on here, between a chicken-sandwich restaurant and a computer repair shop.

Brown operates The Warehouse Performing Arts Center, a spot so small you can almost cross its main room in the time it takes to say the full name.

Arts experts say hers is the first all-purpose arts center in Mecklenburg County outside Charlotte. Avant-garde music, poetry, mainstream jazz, experimental dance, staged readings and full-scale productions of plays that otherwise go unseen all claim space in the 50-seat, black-box theater.

Though she's not formally affiliated with the town of Cornelius, Brown is part of a mini-renaissance of the arts there in recent years. And though she's not connected with the Arts & Science Council, she embodies the kind of outreach programming the ASC has long desired for outlying sections of Mecklenburg County.

The Mooresville resident is stretched like overheated taffy among many responsibilities. She co-presents plays or concerts, books artists who find her through the Internet or word of mouth, promotes people who perform in her space and does the upkeep on her share of the building. (She rents it for a nominal fee from the owner - her father, Jim Morton.)

She was a lone entrepreneur when The Warehouse opened last year with writing classes; she's still a one-woman staff, now that it's booked multiple days per month with shows. It's a homey place - her grandfather's ivory-colored accordion sits in a case in the lobby - and she presides over it like a mom over a warm arts kitchen.

"The eclecticism has been intentional," she says. "My goal is to have a full triple-threat program someday of literature, theater/dance and music.

"I feel we're making progress at the right speed. I've had to take it slowly to bring the building up to code for 50 people at a time. I've applied for 501(c) 3 status as a nonprofit. I've spent a year trying to become more visible to the public, and I'm able to exercise quality control over what we show."

Big pros, little cons

Producer Don Cook, who staged his own comedy "Fast Trip to Omaha" there this summer, had a cramped but satisfying experience. The stage space is about the same as the Attic Theatre he and his wife, Divina, helped start in Detroit long ago, but the seating capacity is perhaps half of the Attic's.

He praised the lighting system, which lets directors configure the stage and seating areas to suit their plays. The stage can even be thrust into the crowd with seating on three sides, and "that flexibility is a great advantage many fledgling theaters don't have."

And the handicaps? "A small dressing room, no dedicated restrooms for the cast; little backstage area for props, costumes and scenery. ... (And) it would be difficult to pay cast, crew, director, rent, royalties, etc. on a six-performance run with 50 people (per night)."

Yet Divina Cook, who starred there in "The Road to Mecca," believes "the physical stage is sacred ground, much as the Greeks believed a few thousand years ago. The intimacy of The Warehouse encourages a communion between audience and actor."

Part of the problem will be getting actors or audiences to make the 30-mile round trip from uptown Charlotte for rehearsals or performances. Yet groups such as Davidson Community Players, which recently opened a new theater, have succeeded with an audience from towns nearby.

Growth in the north

Arts growth at the northern end of the county may go unnoticed by Charlotteans, but not locals. The Cornelius Arts Center opened in an old textile mill across from Town Hall, and it drew 2,000 visitors last year. The annual Symphony in the Park concert is now supplemented by country music and big-band shows.

Paul Herbert, director of Cornelius PARC (Parks, Arts, Recreation and Culture), says a 15,000-square-foot Arts Lodge is planned in the ongoing expansion of Robbins Park, down Westmoreland Road from The Warehouse.

"Of course, the bad economy affects us. So this lodge is a moving target, but over the next several years, the park should be fully phased in."

That lodge springs from the Arts & Science Council's long-standing suggestions for cultural expansion in north Mecklenburg and other areas.

"While we were moving forward on the big Charlotte projects - the Bechtler, the new Mint Museum, the Knight Theater - the county's Park and Recreation Department was doing a master plan that incorporated cultural centers," says Robert Bush of the ASC.

"Though those bonds have been approved, the county's not selling bonds right now, so they're in a holding pattern. But the concept of community cultural centers ... needs to be addressed in a variety of ways, including organizations like The Warehouse. Those small experimental places can get by with trying things more established places couldn't do."

A place in the vanguard

"Experimental" is the right word, both because of Brown's diverse programming and because she's still learning how an arts center has to operate.

"My philosophy is twofold," she says. "I want talented writers and artists to connect with an audience, even a small one; maybe they'll find larger audiences after coming here. And I want to produce plays that work best in an intimate space.

"Luckily, there's no pressure to earn a lot of money - the landlord's not going to kick us out soon if we don't make the rent! We're able to breathe in a way other arts groups are not."