CAST flies happily off to NoDa

Paradise has exposed heating pipes, a wall full of mirrors for self-examination, indirect lighting from high square windows, a 22-foot ceiling, half a glitter ball dangling from a rafter and one piece of non-functional equipment: a tiny gray plastic astronaut that looks like a 1950s Robby the Robot, symbol of a leap into the future.

This might be a humble setting for most businesses. But it's heaven to Carolina Actors Studio Theatre, which has spent its recent years in a purgatory at 1118 Clement Ave.

The troupe will show off its new digs at 28th Street and Yadkin Avenue - better known as the NoDa building that houses Amelie's Bakery - when it opens "Neon Psalms" June 16. (It's doing a last show, "Agnes of God," in its current home now through May 21. Call 704-455-8542 or visit www.nccast.com for details.)

At that point, it will formally bid farewell to a leaky roof, limited parking and lack of signage and say hello to the space that once held Charlotte Repertory Theatre and N.C. Dance Theatre, until the former went into oblivion and the latter into new digs on North Tryon Street.

For the first time, CAST will have three performance spaces, all slightly larger than the two it now uses. It'll have a scene shop and a costume shop, storage space, foyer, conference room and bathrooms that serve more than one occupant at a time.

"From the moment we moved into Clement Avenue, we dreamed of expanding for artistic reasons and patron reasons," says managing artistic director Michael Simmons.

"On Clement, we have no fly space (above the stage), and our lighting - the single most important element in setting the mood of a show - operated at about 40 percent efficiency because of low ceilings. With a 22-foot ceiling, we can be more creative and energy-efficient.

"Patrons will have an easier time finding us when we have signs on North Davidson Street, in the front of the building and in the atrium of the building, where people walk. You couldn't see the Clement Avenue building from Central Avenue, and we were never allowed to put a sign on Central."

Board President Stephen Dunn says the search for new quarters began in earnest last summer, after the organization developed a long-range expansion plan and a $30,000 grant fell into CAST's coffers.

That grant came from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Arts & Science Council, which jointly selected a few arts groups they could boost to a higher level.

"This is part of Charlotte's maturation into what people like to call a 'world-class city,'" says Dunn. "That kind of city has independent, alternative theater companies. Charlotte doesn't like to compare itself to Atlanta, but go to Atlanta, and you'll find them thriving."

Simmons says the old building could never have held the planned productions of the Tony-winning "August: Osage County" (which will open in NoDa in August) or the musical "Floyd Collins," for which he has obtained the rights.

CAST could run two shows simultaneously, using the empty middle space as a buffer. It could rent space to other companies - Caroline Calouche & Co., an aerial dance troupe, is already interested - or provide meeting rooms for businesses.

If there's a downside to the move, nobody sees it yet.

"This is so serendipitous: the grant, availability of the space, the increased competence of the board, the artistic growth of the theater," says Dunn.

"We're moving from an invisible place to a visible one, and we think folks who never knew we existed will come out."