Meet TAPROOT Ensemble, three Charlotte performing artists determined to harness the creative talents of everyone associated with their built-from-the-ground-up theater productions.
“We are working with a concept called devised theater,” said Brianna Smith, the group’s founder. “What this means is that our productions are entirely original, conceptualized by us and involving input from artists that we cast, those involved with staging and lighting and even audience members who attend incubator sessions of work in process.”
Smith, 28, established TAPROOT in 2012 after seeing a need for a different type of theater company. The name is derived from the main root of a plant that grows most deeply and sends out offshoots for additional nutrients.
The company combines elements of theater, dance and music to create a nontraditional theatrical experience where audience members may be brought on stage or otherwise immersed in the production.
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Smith is joined by artistic directors Alexander Windner Lieberman, 28, and Camerin Watson, 30, as the core team.
Lieberman, 28, is a Charlotte native and performed professionally with the internationally acclaimed Pilobolus Dance Theater. He toured Europe for three years with the company and still maintains an affiliation.
Watson, 30, is a UNC Greensboro graduate with a BFA in dance and has worked as a dancer/choreographer in fringe festivals in Atlanta, Asheville and Greensboro and performed with Dance Place in Washington, D.C.
Smith has been a regular in Charlotte theater circles for several years. She worked with Machine Theater during the 2012 Democratic National Convention in pop-up performances and has been associated with the Queen City Theater Company and Davidson Community Players. She is a teaching artist with the Wolf Trap Institute for Early Learning Through the Arts.
“There is tons of creative talent in Charlotte,” said Smith. “People don’t have to go to New York or Atlanta to experience the power of great theatrical work. We want community members to be involved in creating artistic experiences, not simply be passive consumers.”
Since forming, the group has developed original productions including “Ophelos,” a play that explores the cycle created by domestic violence that may influence the way young men and women cope with challenges they face in life.
The group has hosted several incubator sessions featuring “Ophelos.” These are best described as working performances where new aspects of a production are debuted. The troupe often makes modifications based on input from the audience.
“It is very exciting and interesting to bring theater to where people meet and perform in nontraditional space,” said Watson, noting the production has been done at venues such as churches and at the Packard Place entrepreneurial hub.
The group has slowly built an underground following by marketing mainly through social media and word of mouth, particularly among the younger, art-enthusiast crowd.
Money, money, money
Creating and operating a theater company is not without its challenges, notably funding. A group needs money to pay for costuming, set design and stipends for artists, musicians and stage hands.
The group is evaluating its future and trying to determine whether operating as a nonprofit or for-profit organization is the best approach. It did arrange for the nonprofit Martha Connerton Kinetic Works Dance Company to act as its fiscal agent for a $5,000 Cultural Project Grant from the Arts & Science Council to tour Mecklenburg County with “Ophelos.” TAPROOT also received a micro-grant from Queen City Soup, a fundraising organization, to create a theater/movement class for young adults with autism. TAPROOT has also applied for a $25,000 grant for another show, “The Liminal,” in production.
Often they perform in space that may be donated or offered in kind for services, such as a performance of musicians that affiliate with the group. Tickets are often offered on a sliding scale, allowing access to people who might not otherwise be able to afford to attend the theater.
“While much of what we do is unpaid,” said Smith, “we operate on the principle that if anybody is paid, everybody gets paid.”
At its core, this a theater company that is all about engaging the community.
“There is tremendous satisfaction in working with a group of creative people here in our own community,” said Lieberman. “There is quality work being done here, world-class quality.”