Local Arts

Fondly recalling Pease Auditorium history at CPCC – before the curtain falls for good

When you left the stage, you sprinted around the building outdoors to enter on the opposite side – leaving the audience to wonder, on rainy nights, why your character was suddenly wet.

The proscenium measured an enormous 64 feet around its front curve, but the ceiling was just 12 feet high. A six-foot actor “upstairs” on an interior set lived in fear of clonking his skull on a hanging light.

Yet when Pease Auditorium falls to the wrecking ball this autumn, tears will fall too.

Central Piedmont Community College has planned a reunion for people who’ve worked there over 46 years. It’ll come at the dress rehearsal for “Music of the Night: An Andrew Lloyd Webber Revue,” which runs Oct. 26-Nov. 4 – the last theatrical performance ever at the venue. If all eligible actors, directors and technicians showed up, the fire marshal would have to shut the joint down.

“We call it six degrees of separation from CPCC,” says Tom Hollis, drama instructor and chair of the Visual and Performing Arts Division. “You can’t go onstage locally without finding an actor, a costume or maybe a prop that hasn’t had some connection with CPCC.”

The Central Campus Library, which Pease partly supports with a load-bearing wall, will topple with it. A new form of both will appear by 2022 (the optimistic estimate) or later, with a new student life center attached.

The cast sings “Masquerade” during rehearsal at Pease Auditorium. After more than 40 years, Central Piedmont Community College’s Pease Auditorium is hosting its last theatrical show, “The Music of the Night: An Andrew Lloyd Webber Revue” from Oct. 26-Nov. 4. John D. Simmons jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

In the meantime, CPCC will put all productions and as many rental performances as it can accommodate in Halton Theatre across Elizabeth Avenue. A few small shows could be farmed out to the Georgia Tucker Performance Space, a black box instructional theater being built at CPCC’s Levine Campus in Matthews. (It’ll open in spring 2019.)

When Hollis arrived 35 years ago, Pease had been running for a decade.

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A play rehearsal in the early 1970s at Central Piedmont Community College’s Pease Auditorium. CPCC/Tom Covington

Only Theatre Charlotte, Ovens Auditorium and Dana Auditorium at Queens University hosted public events when Pease opened in 1972, and none competed with it in June, July or August. The college began to run five shows – three musicals, two straight plays – in summer. Though the musicals have since moved to Halton, CPCC remains the only local company to do so many in so short a time.

Carey Kugler, who worked at the theater as a teenager in its first season, says the producing team of Tom and Jean Vance built a cadre of CPCC Summer Theatre fans so loyal that “we put extra chairs in the aisles – completely illegally – to accommodate sold-out crowds.”

Pease Auditorium is an intimate, 13-row venue where the cast is up close with the audience. Ron Chisholm, left, director and choreographer, and Payton Dills, production stage manager, watch rehearsal for Pease Auditorium’s last theatrical show, “The Music of the Night: An Andrew Lloyd Webber Revue.” John D. Simmons jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

The odd thing is, audiences flocked to a building that wasn’t meant to be a theater.

“It was designed to be one large classroom or three smaller ones that could be separated by movable walls,” says Hollis. “The stage could be folded up for more space. Community colleges back then were meant to teach people to fix cars or air conditioners; drama classes and plays were an afterthought. The chairs were the kind where you smashed your leg into those little desk tops that swung up from the side, and they weren’t taken out until the ’80s.”

The cast sings “Masquerade” during rehearsal at Pease Auditorium for “The Music of the Night: An Andrew Lloyd Webber Revue.” John D. Simmons jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

Kugler, who now teaches part-time at CPCC, recalls all three phases of Pease’s metamorphosis. The first had a wooden front curtain “that took half an hour to cross the stage,” no backstage crossover and no scene construction shop: “We had this little shed at the end of a fire lane that held four people. We had to build everything in it, assemble sets outside in the parking lot – in July! – and haul them into the theater.”

Pease Auditorium is an intimate, 13-row venue where the cast is up close with the audience. John D. Simmons jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

The best-kept secret? “Holes in the ceiling where the smallest students crawled up (retractable) ladders to manipulate lights. They went up before the audience came in, stayed the length of the show and came down after everyone left, so I assume they took a bottle with them for… emergencies.”

Phase two came in the 1980s, as CPCC abandoned the classroom concept.

Pease became a full-time theater with backstage space; the stage extended forward in a modified thrust format and acquired an orchestra pit. (Until then, audiences in the front rows watched actors through a small forest of musicians.) The college paid for a more sophisticated lighting board and more comfortable seats. Phase three, begun in the 1990s, was mostly cosmetic: The color scheme changed from mauve to green as carpets and seats were replaced, and lighting improved.

The stage, however, remains just 20 feet deep, 50 feet across and 12 feet high. Says Kugler, “If you see Act 1 from the far left of the theater and Act 2 from the far right, you see completely different shows. So you have to direct as if you’re working in the round, with actors constantly moving, so one-third of the audience isn’t staring at their backs. If you can solve the problems Pease gives you, you can direct anywhere.”

Ron Chisholm, director and choreographer, jokes with Payton Dills and cast members prior to rehearsal at Pease Auditorium. John D. Simmons jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

Hollis now faces a different set of difficulties. He’s shifting dramas, comedies and mysteries to Halton, which has more than twice as many seats as the 400-plus in Pease. A set that seemed homey in the small hall gets lost in the bigger one.

He hopes to avoid Pease’s absurdities in the new Central Campus facility.

He says members of the music, dance and theater departments have explained to the architects what a purpose-built theater needs to be. The new space will apparently hold the same number of seats in rows less wide and more steep; the set will have more traditional proportions.

Brittany Harrington and other cast members sing “Jesus Christ Super Star” in Pease Auditorium, part of its last theatrical show, during a rehearsal for “The Music of the Night: An Andrew Lloyd Webber Revue” from Oct. 26-Nov. 4. John D. Simmons jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

And, Hollis says, the ceiling should be significantly higher: “To build a set with a second story, instead of a few little steps that are obviously a staircase to nowhere – that’ll be a good thing.”

Music of the Night: An Andrew Lloyd Webber Revue

WHEN: Oct. 26-Nov. 4 at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Also 2:30 p.m. Nov. 3.

WHERE: Pease Auditorium, CPCC campus, 1201 Elizabeth Ave., Charlotte

TICKETS: $10-$21.

DETAILS: 704-330-6534 or tix.cpcc.edu.story