Local Arts

Two Charlotte theater companies launch an unusual collaboration

Charlotte theater companies hire the same playwright to write plays that take place on the same night

Actor's Theatre of Charlotte and Children's Theatre of Charlotte hire Steven Dietz to write plays that take place on the same night and same place
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Actor's Theatre of Charlotte and Children's Theatre of Charlotte hire Steven Dietz to write plays that take place on the same night and same place

You can’t prove something has never happened.

So it’s barely possible that this month’s collaboration between Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte and Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, a pair of interlocking world premieres that will open days apart, isn’t a first in American theater history.

But it seems to be.

The two companies have commissioned playwright Steven Dietz to write plays that take place on the same night, on different floors of the same house, with related events happening to members of the same families.

“The Great Beyond,” which goes into previews at ATC March 14 and opens March 20, has adult characters and targets adult audiences, though playgoers of any age might enjoy it. “The Ghost of Splinter Cove,” which opens March 22 at CTC, has young adult characters and is meant for folks 8 and older. They can be seen independently but will only be fully understood together.

ATC artistic director Chip Decker, CTC artistic director Adam Burke and Dietz, who has written three dozen plays over nearly 40 years, have a century of theatrical experience among them and believe this concept has never been tried. So does Nan Barnett, executive director of the National New Play Network.

“I’m not aware of this type of collaboration – a theater for young audiences and a professional regional company working together on plays that take place simultaneously – ever happening,” she says. “It feels really special, but that’s what happens when you put three creative, talented, dedicated theater-makers together and ask them to play.”

This landmark idea started, as many do, with two guys having a bull session over coffee. Burke came to town in 2013 and soon met with Decker to see if their companies might work together.

“We laughed about it, because we couldn’t see my actors dropping F-bombs on 8-year-olds,” says Decker, thinking of the edgy material Actor’s Theatre likes to produce. “Then we stopped laughing and thought, ‘Why can’t we?’ We both do stories about families, but you don’t always see the other half of that family.”

They contemplated hiring two playwrights to do pieces with a common theme but quickly decided they wanted one voice. Almost inevitably, they turned in 2015 to Dietz, whose plays both ATC and CTC have done over the years.

“They had me at the jump,” says Dietz, who teaches in the department of theater and dance at the University of Texas. “I love a narrative game as a writer, so how those plays might intersect was fascinating to me. I had the gift – and the curse – of a wide-open palette.”

Daring adventures

Dietz likes to solicit input when given a commission. Do his employers want him to handle a specific theme, or set the show in a particular time period?

“We gave him bad examples of what this might look like,” says Burke. “Maybe a divorce seen through the eyes of adults in one play and children in another, or something about reactions to 9/11. We talked about having characters go back and forth between the plays, running from theater to theater at ImaginOn. These were things we didn’t want, but we didn’t know what we did want.”

Dietz quickly drafted a plan that brought the pieces together: His stories would take place in the same house, with adults gathering on the main floor and children having an adventure in the basement. One play would be more realistic in narrative and design, the other more fantastic.

“I have a drawerful of notes and even scenes that I haven’t known what to do with,” says Dietz. “I had been thinking about something to do with a séance, and I wondered, ‘What if the adults conducted one and accidentally sent someone into the other world downstairs?’

“As a kid growing up in Denver, Colo., I went everywhere in the world in the basement of my house. I wanted to write that kind of adventure story.” (That’s all the plot description you get here. Surprises await.)

Charlie Elberson likes to back daring adventures.

So when Children’s Theatre approached the head of the ReEmprise Fund, he contributed $171,000 to cover commissioning, workshopping and production costs for “Splinter Cove,” support marketing efforts and engage researchers from UNC Charlotte to document the creative process, in case other theaters want to reproduce it. The fund was established at Foundation for the Carolinas to encourage entrepreneurial ventures by nonprofits.

“We fund game-changing initiatives from visionary nonprofits, and Children’s Theatre has been visionary for a long time,” Elberson says. “Of all the arts, theater for children has been most important in driving empathy: For two hours, you’re breathing the same air as Anne Frank, as you share her story. Empathy is sorely needed now.”

Burke and Decker say the process went amazingly smoothly, except for the period Elberson calls “Chip’s dark night of the soul.”

Actor’s Theatre lost its Stonewall Street home to urban renewal in 2016 and tried to relocate to Freedom Drive. Unfortunately, a permanent shortage of parking spaces and the need for major renovations made that move a no-go. The collaborators briefly considered doing both “Splinter Cove” and “Great Beyond” at ImaginOn, but ATC signed a five-year agreement with Queens University last year and settled into Hadley Theatre there.

Dietz happily rode out the series of readings and workshops and revisions of the two plays, working on other things during the four-year creative process. He suggested that Courtney Sale, artistic director of Seattle Children’s Theatre and a former student in his MFA directing program at the University of Texas, direct “Splinter Cove.” (Decker will direct “Beyond.”)

And despite praise from Burke – “Steven’s first draft was better than fifth drafts we see from some other people” – Dietz has kept rewriting fervidly.

“It’s my way to road-test as much as possible,” he says. “Nothing gives me more pleasure than solving problems. There are connections between these plays I haven’t found yet.

“I’ll be here the week of opening for ‘Splinter Cove,’ delivering new pages every day. What people see at a school performance Thursday morning will not be exactly what they’d see Friday night.” (That show will get 20 student performances.)

The companies have scheduled these plays so theatergoers can see them on successive nights or, during three Saturdays, on the same day with a dinner break in between.

“Adam’s audience is, hopefully, going to be my audience years from now,” says Decker. “I can’t wait for a 25-year-old to come up to me and say, ‘I went to see “Splinter Cove,” and then my parents took me to “Great Beyond,” and that’s where I fell in love with theater.’ “

“The Great Beyond”

WHEN: March 20-April 6 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday and 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Reduced-price previews at 7:30 p.m. March 14 and 8 p.m. March 15-16.

WHERE: Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, 2132 Radcliffe Ave.

TICKETS: $28-$43, with discounts for students, teachers and military.

DETAILS: 704-342-2251 or atcharlotte.org.

“The Ghost of Splinter Cove”

WHEN: March 22-April 7 at 7:30 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Saturday (no 3 p.m. on April 6) and 2 p.m. Sunday. Also a sensory-friendly performance at 4 p.m. March 31.

WHERE: ImaginOn, 300 E. Seventh St.

TICKETS: $12-$25.

DETAILS: 704-973-2828 or ctcharlotte.org.

This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.