Starving Artist feeds us a meaty drama

You can be born only so often - five times seems about right - before you have to grow up. Starving Artist knows that.

This Charlotte troupe has done "The Birth," a nativity tale based on a chapter in Frederick Buechner's "The Magnificent Defeat," since 2006.

Now, for the first time, it will muscle its way into a larger venue - Duke Energy Theatre - and a larger season of three plays. The first, Brian Friel's "Faith Healer," gets its fully staged Charlotte debut tonight.

Executive director Nathan Rouse isn't literally a starving artist, though he quit a job last summer to devote himself full-time to the theatrical world for which he's been trained. (His wife has the job with benefits, as thespians' spouses often do.)

Nor, despite the company's acronym, is Rouse a sap: He sees the long road ahead, paved with grant requests, application for nonprofit status and beating of all the bushes that hold donors or collaborators.

Though the name Starving Artist has been around since "Birth" opened in 2006, he first incorporated the company and formed a board last year.

Jenny Wade, who's directing "Faith Healer," is in charge of the theatrical arm. Michelle Wheeler, who directed the short "Ladies Room," runs the film arm. Kate Rouse, who has danced in "The Birth" since 2006 and is Nathan's sister, handles marketing and media.

SAP wants to make sure artists don't starve, a remarkable goal for a fledgling company. So it's paying the cast and designers of "Faith Healer."

"It's important to pay people," says Rouse. "I've often been the actor who isn't in it for the money, but it validates a performer to get paid."

Though Rouse initially underwrote "Birth," the Buechner Institute commissioned a performance last year that covered production costs. Starving Artist could then apply box office receipts from that show to "Faith Healer."

Like "The Birth" - and in a way, the company itself - Friel's drama is about a leap of faith.

It's told in monologues by a healer named Francis Hardy (Rouse), his wife, Grace (Christina Whitehouse-Suggs, herself a Baptist minister) and Teddy, his raconteur of a manager (James K. Flynn). As their perhaps unreliable memories conflict and overlap, we see a portrait of a man who comes to doubt his own great blessing.

"Critics who reviewed the play (which opened on Broadway in 1979) think Friel is writing about his own gift: Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't," says Wade. "But audiences think it's about faith, about the loss of a loved one, keeping a sense of hope intact.

"There's humor in certain moments - Teddy's monologue is funny in spots - but a lot of Friel's plays are about people who struggle (to make hard choices). The most memorable moments are the small ones; those can really kill you."

Rouse also likes Friel - he acted in Epic Arts' farewell production of "Dancing at Lughnasa" in 2009 - but didn't realize how apt for the company "Faith Healer" would be.

"It's great to put questions of faith in front of people in a literate, intelligent way," he says. "I'm a big fan of the TV show 'Lost,' which dealt with faith in its final season. The creators said the show was about the whole human experience; faith was part of that, so they wanted to include it. I'd agree."

Yet religious themes won't always define Starving Artist, whose second 2011 show is waiting to be determined.

Though the company began with "The Birth" and will make it the final 2001 show, though "Faith Healer" has a theological element, and though Rouse would someday like to adapt a multi-novel series by Buechner, the company's mission statement simply says it will move beyond pure entertainment to stories that matter.

"That can mean anything from songs to Neil Simon," says Wade. "We're not limited."

"Our job is to ask what's not being done locally that should be done," says Rouse. "What will get people thinking?"