Artistic director looks to steer Children’s Theatre of Charlotte on fresh course

Adam Burke has been a bad hombre in Arizona with a bullwhip and a .45, the guy who turned the South Side of Chicago into a jungle and a freelance director who has changed locations about as often as anyone in the federal Witness Protection Program.

Now, at 40, he’s ready to settle down a while.

Home, since last August, has been Children’s Theatre of Charlotte. He moved in as artistic director just before the man who hired him, Executive Director Bruce LaRowe, moved out. Now the future of the region’s largest theater, which has a $4 million budget, lies significantly with Burke.

Charlotte will get a sense of his directing style on Friday, when “The Reluctant Dragon” opens at ImaginOn. We’ll have to wait longer to get a detailed idea of his philosophic vision.

It involves collaboration, sometimes with out-of-state companies – including a world premiere musical of “101 Dalmatians” next season, co-produced with Maryland’s Imagination Stage – and sometimes with local colleges or theater groups.

It involves enterprise: “We shouldn’t just do new plays; we should generate new works. Children’s Theatre has the responsibility to take chances,” he says.

And it involves the eternal, delicate dance between making art and selling tickets. Burke calls the recent “Spelling 2-5-5,” a drama about a family with an autistic son, “my favorite show of the season. But we don’t make payroll with it. Some audiences want things that are better known and more comfortable. I can find the balance.”

A distinctive strength

David Saar, whose recommendation may have tipped the job in Burke’s favor, was his mentor for two years at Childsplay in Arizona. He calls Burke “a good strategic thinker, not just an artist. He was an instrumental part of a planning process that ended with us changing our business model.

“I lobbied to get him the Children’s Theatre job because they’re doing exciting work and aren’t as well known as they should be (among) theaters for young audiences. It’s a national resource that has not been recognized as such. Adam can make that happen.”

Burke’s hiring surprised folks who expected CTC to pick someone with decades of experience in the genre.

He had apprenticed with Saar, author of the beloved play “The Yellow Boat” and a leader in the field. Burke started Chicago Theatre for Young Audiences, which went from a budget of zero to $130,000 in three years before fading in 2007. (That’s where he set “The Jungle Book,” an adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli stories, in Chicago.)

But he has spent a larger part of his life directing adults, and he moved to Charlotte from the outdoor drama “Tecumseh” in Ohio. That’s where he had his first professional job, playing a frontiersman on a summer break from college, and where he landed as artistic director in 2009.

“I learned how to handle large groups of people and large animals, how to raise money for a million-dollar budget, how to work with a board, how to deal with makeup artists who specialized in blood effects,” Burke says. “So I knew I was prepared for Children’s Theatre, but no one else could have known that. I was surprised they took the risk.”

Marion Waggoner, who had the “Tecumseh” job before Burke, says he wasn’t surprised: “Not every individual can reach across the broad spectrum of personalities. The actor, the rigger, the house staff, the volunteers all own a piece of the action and have to feel valued. If you can meld a company into a unified force that promotes your mission, that’s a great achievement.

“ ‘Tecumseh’ is a big operation: It’s 100 people, it takes place outside, it’s a pain to produce. It helped Adam step back and see the big picture. He’s an acute student of human nature.”

Changes in the works

Burke knows he’s running a company that has long artistic relationships with its own staff and talent around the community. At the same time, he wants to start importing folks he’s known elsewhere. He has one caveat: “There are too many fantastic directors and designers for me to put up with someone who’s temperamental or a jerk.”

Tom Burch, his friend since graduate school, will come to CTC to design a show next season. He calls his old comrade “one of the few directors that can deal with the forest and the trees at the same time.

“I’m particularly thankful for his ability to think about how the smallest details matter. ... His trust in us (designers) is complete. I’ve felt invested in every project we’ve worked on because he values the collaborative spirit of theater.”

Burke has approached Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte about the possibility of commissioning two plays from the same writer, one for adults and one for kids, with a common theme or characters. Mark Sutton and Jill Bloede of Children’s Theatre have led a script development workshop with UNCC students and professors, with an eye toward production of original plays in a future season.

Folks who know Burke well mention his dry sense of humor and restless inquisitiveness on the job.

“You’ll be working on something and find him right next to you, looking on,” says veteran scenic designer Tim Parati. “There’s nothing about theater that doesn’t interest him.”

And despite his chameleonic past, it’s theater for kids that grips him now.

“I feel a greater responsibility to that audience,” he says. “You can sit through three hours of Chekhov, with a woman saying, ‘I’m a seagull. No, I’m an actress!’ There’s beauty in that, but not for me. I want to give kids the experience I wish I’d had when I was a kid.”