Actor’s Theatre revives nuVoices, adds special world premiere

A $70,000 sapling planted in 2012 by the Women’s Impact Fund will put forth healthy new leaves at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte this winter.

That grant paid for two seasons of readings in what was then called the Nuvoices for a Nugeneration Festival, plus world premiere productions in 2013 and 2014 of the two winners. Just as Actor’s Theatre wondered how to keep the momentum going, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation dropped an $80,000 grant into its lap this summer. It will pay for two more sets of readings, two more premiere productions and a new play tentatively titled “Public Good,” about the forced sterilization of North Carolinians from 1929 through 1974.

“We’ve gone past gestation into the next period of growth,” says Martin Kettling, ATC’s director of development and marketing. “I think the Knight Foundation is investing in us because we can tell local stories. It’s not just about making art for the community; it’s about informing the community.”

Actor’s Theatre did that in 2009 with “Southern Rapture,” Eric Coble’s comedy about the brouhaha around Charlotte Repertory Theatre’s production of “Angels in America” in the 1990s. The new play, which will require months of research, will hit harder.

Kettling envisions a nationally known playwright as the main author, someone who could collaborate with local writers and be a mentor. Coble or Charles Randolph-Wright, who comes from York County and directed “Motown: The Musical” for Broadway, seem likely candidates. “Public Good” will be seen in 2016.

Martin Wilkins, a producer-in-residence this season underwritten by the National New Play Network, is overseeing that process. He was a dramaturge for Diana Grisanti’s “River City,” which had its world premiere last month at Actor’s Theatre.

“Here we are in Charlotte producing a play about Louisville,” says Wilkins, who grew up here and came back in 2012. “What stories could we tell about our own city? That was the pitch we made to the Knight Foundation, and they gave us the opportunity.”

The two-year grant provides $30,000 for staged readings at the nuVoices fest in January, initial steps toward crafting “Public Good” and a full production of the nuVoices winner in fall 2015.

The $50,000 installment kicks in for the second year. That will pay for a staged reading of “Public Good” and nuVoices finalists in January 2016, then a full production of “Public Good” in spring 2016 and a full production of the nuVoices winner in fall 2016. The last step of Kettling’s proposal has ATC “(continuing) to foster new growth for (a) local writers collective, with the hopes of finding a story from a local writer to invest in for future development.”

Premieres have been surprisingly popular: By the middle of its run, “River City” was outselling the previous three shows, including Tony nominee “Other Desert Cities.” “River City” had won the audience vote at nuVoices 2013 and came back to town with buzz around it.

“The festival doesn’t just allow for a conversation with writers,” says Wilkins, talking about the Q-and-A sessions with playwrights after readings. “(Theatergoers) know they will see one of these plays again and realize they have a hand in the process. The feedback people give at readings will change the play.”