Artist at Work: The impresario of Cornelius

Marla Brown knew better than to call The Warehouse Performing Arts Center a salon.

First, she didn’t think most patrons would remember the term used in 19th-century Paris, where Chopin and Liszt played for audiences of 50 or 60 in a nobleman’s ballroom.

Second, she figured people in north Mecklenburg might make appointments for dye jobs and permanent waves.

Yet a salon is what it is: homey, comfortable (especially now that she has installed new seats), acoustically satisfying, intimate, occasionally offering wine (in real glasses) and adaptable to anything from a nine-person musical to an English octogenarian reading his memoirs from World War II.

That venue has been open for 2 1/2 years in Cornelius, between a chicken-sandwich restaurant and a computer shop just off U.S. 21. Its growing reputation and wide-open doors earned Brown the title of 2011 Theatre Person of the Year from Metrolina Theatre Association.

“There’s such a hunger for space and so many artists wanting a place to work,” she says, when asked why she thinks MTA voters chose her. “There’s not a lot of bureaucracy at The Warehouse. You want to do a concert? We’re open that day? Come do one.”

That’s not to say that a juggler of live piglets should start planning a debut; Brown does exercise quality control. But approach her with passion and an idea that’s fresh, mildly marketable, artistically significant and manageable for an audience of 50, and she’ll perk up.

“I can’t stress enough how important this is,” says actor-director Anne Lambert, who nominated Brown for the MTA award. “She fills a space – literally and figuratively – for a different brand. It’s not (competing with) Blumenthal or community theater or children’s theater. It’s an incubator for plays for a smaller audience.

“There aren’t enough of these places in any city in the country. But there’s especially a dearth of them in Charlotte.”

Both Lambert and Brown, who first worked together in 1996, recall a time when Chickspeare and BareBones, Epic Arts and Off-Tryon Theatre Company – all defunct – found venues for edgy theater.

Brown still does that. She hosted the first Mecklenburg appearance of Yasmina Reza’s searing, Tony-winning “God of Carnage” last weekend, in a show freshly imported from Hickory Community Theatre.

Brown gave audiences a long look at “Stigmata,” a philosophic play about privilege by Charlotte’s Don Cook. She created a festival of new short plays, “Grave Comedies,” and expects to repeat next year. When the room needed theatrical lighting, she put up the cash.

It took a village

If you have the idea by now that she’s a one-woman show, you’re close. It’s more of a one- family show. Jim, her husband, helped with reconstruction, knocking down a wall when Brown renovated space in a building owned by her father. Brown’s mother has been a stage manager for shows and worked the concessions stand.

The impresario seems both worldly and innocent during a conversation.

She took a Ph.D. in performance studies but felt stifled when she taught at UNC Charlotte for seven or eight years. (Dates are not her strong point.) She talks knowingly about Japanese Noh drama – indeed, she’s thinking about a series of theater pieces from around the world – yet had never been in a Starbucks until the day of our interview.

She’s savvy enough to run a nonprofit facility, yet her personality leans in another direction. “I have to pretend I know what I’m doing now,” she says. “I’m very indecisive, and now I find myself in charge. It’s like becoming a parent. After nine years, I’m still surprised when my kids call me ‘Mom.’ ”

Long-time Charlotte theatergoers know her as an actor and director, and she starred as the daughter in “ ’night, Mother” at the Warehouse soon after it opened. Yet she doesn’t miss giving up both jobs to run the place. She thinks of herself as a writer and a dramaturge, a person who can put words on paper or help another playwright do so effectively.

“My passion is writing,” she says. “I have gotten away from the discipline of writing, doing so many hours or words every day. If you don’t do that, you don’t have creative moments.

“The Warehouse demands a lot more time than I expected. When I thought about it three years ago, I envisioned it as a place for workshops or classes, maybe a play once in a while. But there’s so much creativity and love of theater among people that I’ve become the point person for so many of them.”

Captain seeking crew

Brown has learned the primary lesson of entrepreneurs whose small businesses succeed: “It can’t be me doing everything all the time.” She’d like to start delegating the marketing, website and publicity chores as the facility attracts more fans, leaving her freer to produce plays or import small shows from local companies.

At the same time, the personal touch makes the Warehouse experience unique, from office paraphernalia (that’s her grandfather’s accordion in the lobby case) to Brown’s one-on-one work with artists and patrons.

“A lot of people have ideas, but not all of them make those ideas happen;” says Lambert. “Marla’s a visionary, but she (also) thinks like a producer. She programs intelligently for the suburbs, balancing lighter comedies and darker pieces. She knows how to turn a potential patron into a donor.

“She and her family have prioritized this in their lives, the way other people have another home or a boat or a side business. We’re the better for it.”

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