Local Arts

Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte has surprising new (new) home

Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte put on “American Idiot” at Queens’ Hadley Theater last fall.
Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte put on “American Idiot” at Queens’ Hadley Theater last fall. Courtesy of Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte

Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, which lost its longterm home in 2016, then saw two possible relocations fall through while performing in an array of alternate venues, has signed a contract for a new “new” home.

It’s become the resident theater company of Queens University, via a five-year contract with an opportunity to extend, says artistic director Chip Decker, who is audibly relieved by the arrangement.

“Things got pretty dark at times,” he says, and staffers had a combination of furloughs and reduced pay, some of which continues.

But this partnership offers, for ATC, stability after an uncertain period as vagabond players; seating comparable to its longtime Stonewall Street home, with a larger theatrical space (“I can do a two-story set now,” Decker says) – and ongoing artistic control.

“It’s explicit in the contract that Actor’s Theatre maintains complete artistic control,” says Queens’ John Sisko, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “We, in no way, will ask them to tone down anything they choose to produce.” (With an ATC lineup that typically includes a few edgy productions, that did come up in negotiations, says Sisko.)

We’re looking to continue to grow our arts programs in general. That’s on campus and out in the community.

John Sisko of Queens University

For Queens, says Sisko, a professional theater company on campus helps attract students interested in the discipline. Queens currently offers a minor in theater. The ATC partnership may lead to “more opportunities,” he says. “We’re looking to continue to grow our arts programs in general. That’s on campus and out in the community.”

Queens students are already interning with ATC, and Martin Kettling, ATC’s business manager, is teaching theater courses at the university. Queens drama students produce two theatrical productions a year; ATC will help elevate those, Sisko says.

The road here for ATC, amid its 29th season, has been ... circuitous.

A series of challenges

In March 2016 – after finding out they’d lose the Stonewall Street home they’d had for 12 years – Decker and team lined up a new space, the old Kellogg factory on Louise Avenue. Then a significant contribution dried up.

Its next new home was a former office building on Freedom Drive, in the burgeoning “FreeMoreWest” area near the Panthers’ stadium. Target date: the October opening night of its 28th season, with the show “The Toxic Avenger.”

Again, obstacles arose: First, trouble getting city/county approval to perform in the building bumped the show into the neighboring Center City Church. Then the show lost a cast member, after a death in her family. Then Dan Shoemaker, the group’s first and only executive director, announced his retirement.

Finally, making the Freedom space work seemed impossible. A key problem: Not enough parking to satisfy zoning laws.

By this time, says Decker, “We were hemorrhaging money. We were paying for a building we couldn’t use. That’s a very bad business plan.”

ATC staff was furloughed, and worked for several months without getting paid. “During that time, I was hellbent on getting us into 2219 (Freedom Dr.),” says Decker. “By about the fifth or sixth brick to my head, I realized: Freedom wasn’t going to work. There were too many obstacles. Something finally woke up and said: You are not supposed to be here.”

A match

ATC had half-jokingly branded all its moving around as the “New Faces, New Spaces” tour. “We were just trying to stay afloat,” Decker says. Charlotte Ballet and the Mint Museum on Randolph had hosted ATC productions. But neither could provide a lasting home.

ATC did “Stupid F@#%ing Bird” last spring at Queens’ Hadley Theater, on Radcliffe Road. And it turned out that the space was available for more – lots, in fact: The university was only using it for two productions a year.

That’s when Decker got to know Sisko, and eventually brought up the idea of a marriage. Sisko had been thinking the same thing. Over the past six months, ATC has produced “American Idiot,” “Hand to God” and “The Santaland Diaries” there.

The theater can seat 150 to 200 depending on layout, exactly what Stonewall could. Twenty-foot ceilings make a difference: “From an artistic standpoint, this space forces us to grow,” says Decker.

“Our board (of trustees) was on this roller coaster with us,” he says. “Our current board chair, Karen Bernhardt, was available to us 24/7 to make this all happen. Sometimes the board had to pick us up and sort of slap us in the face when we were about to give up.”

The Freedom Drive landlord has been “sympathetic,” Decker says, and agreed to their contract’s termination clause; ATC is scheduled to be out of that building by the end of February.

ATC is already operating out of office space on Queens’ campus, and “there’s a financial component to this,” Sisko says. “The modest revenue stream we expect will be put directly back into arts programs on and off campus.”

Queens is scheduled to break ground this year on the $20 million Sarah Belk Gambrell Center for the Arts & Civic Engagement.

ATC’s next show is “The Luckiest People,” running Jan. 31-Feb. 17 at Queens’ Hadley Theater.