A gym’s a good place to commune with friends, exercise old muscles and develop new ones, and test mental and physical limits. But unless you’re ready for what you’re attempting, a setback will sideline you for a long time.
So it was with The Actor’s Gym, the theater company Tony Wright created in 2000 after moving to Charlotte from Atlanta. Wright produced and directed (and sometimes wrote or acted) to keep that idea afloat, despite difficulties finding a permanent home, enough capital and faithful audiences. Eventually, he let the reins drop.
Yet he refused to bury his dream while working with other theater companies. A dozen years later, he’s reviving Actor’s Gym with Noël Coward’s “Fallen Angels” Nov. 29 at Duke Energy Theater. It’s the first of two comedies – he hasn’t chosen one for the spring – he’s approaching with new confidence.
“The first version of this company did 12 plays: three hits, three that broke even, six that lost money,” he recalls. “We had a five-year plan, and we just weren’t where we needed to be, so I had to stop. But things are different now.”
In the first place, he has a home. No more borrowing space from Barebones Theatre or Off-Tryon or renting a room from Johnson Beer Company. Actor’s Gym will become one of the resident companies in Duke Energy, along with Three Bone Theatre and Brand New Sheriff Productions. (Wright will be at home there: He works for Blumenthal Performing Arts as production manager for Spirit Square.)
In the second place, he has less competition. Barebones, Off-Tryon and other groups that flourished in Charlotte’s theatrical mini-boom 15 years ago have died. In recent years, Carolina Actors Studio Theatre (CAST), Queen City Repertory Company and On Q Productions have folded or stopped mounting full seasons.
In the third place, Wright’s more grounded. He plans to proceed one production at a time. After a lifetime of careful saving, he could cut back on work hours and spend more time at the Gym if he chose. He believes local actors and designers, too often deprived of chances to show their skills, will come out for shows of high quality.
“The question is, can I find (audiences) receptive to what I want to do at a price point that’s not intimidating?” he asks. “I think so.”
Wright’s optimism springs from 35 years in show business. He grew up in Chicago during the 1970s outburst of theater that made it America’s second-most-important drama center. He was especially drawn to the outrageousness of Organic Theatre’s “Warp,” which inspired a lifelong love of fantasy and escapist plays.
After graduating from Columbia College there with a degree in film, he took part in the Georgia film/TV boom of the ’90s. He found steady work in movies and theater, especially at The Shakespeare Tavern in Atlanta, and wrote science-fiction pieces such as “Time in a Battle” (you read that right) and “Time Masters.” (“They were mostly to have fun and throw in some stage combat,” he says. “I’ve always liked physical theater.”)
When business in Georgia cooled, he did a mental coin flip between Denver and Charlotte. He moved here “partly because I could live in town and not be a millionaire,” settled in a house off Central Avenue on three-fifths of an acre and never looked back.
When his own company drooped, he worked with CAST, Shakespeare Carolina and Theatre Charlotte, often as the likes of Dracula or the outrageous title character in his adaptation of Percy Shelley’s novel“Zastrozzi.” (Wright most recently played King Henry II in Central Piedmont Community College’s “Becket.”)
For his new Gym workout, though, he’s producing and directing the local premiere of a play that startled London audiences in 1925. He says it’s the only English-language farce he knows with two female characters at the center.
The Manchester Guardian described it then as the spectacle of two middle-aged women slowly getting drunk while awaiting the arrival of their mutual lover; the Lord Chamberlain considered censoring it but found it too farcical to be a threat to English morals. Wright knows it won’t have the same shock value 93 years later but trusts Coward’s wit to hold its three acts together.
Local theater veterans reinforced his belief that they’ll show up for a good play. Jennifer Barnette and Karina Caporino head the six-person cast; Tim Baxter-Ferguson (who regularly designed for Queen City in the same space) will do the sets, and Davita Galloway of Dupp&Swat will design costumes.
“The point (of reviving the Gym) is to have fun,” Wright says. “Producing independent theater is a huge amount of work, and it can be frustrating. If I’m going to deal with that, I want to have fun while I’m doing it.”
This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.
WHEN: Nov. 29-Dec. 8 at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Also matinees at 3 p.m. Dec. 2 and 2 p.m. Dec. 8.
WHERE: Duke Energy Theater, Spirit Square, 345 N. College St.
DETAILS: 704-372-1000 or blumenthalarts.org.