The best breaking theater news this summer comes from Queens University, where minutes-old dramas will be found inside Hadley Theatre and centuries-old comedy will be seen under the stars. Audiences pay what they can for both, so ticket prices won’t keep anyone away.
For the first time in three years, Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte will revive its nuVoices script-in-hand readings of unproduced plays July 11-14, this time with an all-female lineup of playwrights. One script is guaranteed a full production in the 2020-21 mainstage season, though ATC could pick two from a rich crop. (More about this in a minute.)
And for the first time in five years, a Shakespearean comedy will get a full-scale (if abridged) production outdoors in town, on a Queens quadrangle. This concept goes back more than four centuries to London’s Globe Theatre, but it’s so new to ATC that the company hasn’t yet posted information on its website.
“Midsummer Nights@Queens” will run for two weeks in August. It came about in a way almost too casual to believe.
“When we first got here, I spent a couple of days walking the campus and saw all these wonderful spaces,” ATC artistic director Chip Decker said. “I was thinking, ‘We could put up a stage out here. I see a power outlet on that wall.’ And nobody was doing summer Shakespeare.
“I have never cared for Shakespeare. I own that: I haven’t had room for it in my life. But I have always understood the importance of it, and I thought it would be awesome to do a show on this shaded, beautiful campus. I was smart enough to let someone who’s a fount of Shakespearean knowledge and training take it over.”
That’s Chester Shepherd, who now bears the official title “producing artistic associate” for ATC. That means, at the moment, he’s in charge of something no one completely understands.
He’ll direct a 90-minute version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which will take shape in his mind this month and onstage Aug. 12-25. Because Shakespeare conflated Athenian nobles, fairies from medieval myths and Elizabethan rustics, not to mention lovers who belong anywhere and nowhere, Shepherd feels free to interpret “Dream” in a fantastical, timeless way.
The atmosphere around the stage remains equally indistinct as yet. There may be food trucks or artisans selling wares; entertainment could precede the play; picnickers will be encouraged. The trims in text make it family-friendly; Shepherd, who acts at and teaches for Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, knows what kids will sit through.
This outdoor territory has been explored at least twice before locally. The long-defunct Charlotte Shakespeare Company did plays in county parks in the 1980s. Then Collaborative Arts Theatre split an uptown summer series between The Green (outside) and McGlohon Theater (inside) in the late ‘00s, changing its name to Charlotte Shakespeare in 2012 and folding after 2014. But ATC plans a different approach.
“The goal is to grow to a month of shows, perhaps two produced by Actor’s Theatre and two by other companies,” said Shepherd, who added that running a Shakespeare festival can now be checked off his bucket list. (At 30, he has a bucket list.)
“They don’t have to be comedies: ‘Macbeth’ could work, with all its action and tight dramatic structure. We’re wary of mission creep, but we might someday do related shows, like ‘The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged).’
“The goal eventually is to create a carnivalesque atmosphere, where people come early and maybe stay afterward and talk and drink. We want people to make this a whole evening out.”
ATC stands on more familiar footing with nuVoices, which began in 2013 and hasn’t changed its format much. The festival gives two staged readings to each of four plays; audiences see pieces they may never encounter otherwise, and playwrights hear spontaneous but respectful feedback about works in progress.
Funding ran short in 2016, and ATC leadership didn’t have time to search for any. They were too busy looking for a home, after their long-used space on Stonewall Street was sold out from under them. After an abortive move to Freedom Drive, they became a resident company at Queens. Now Decker, who’d never abandoned the concept, could revive it.
“Being here allows us to work long days; each play gets three hours of rehearsal every day,” he said. “Submissions have gotten better, too: The four we narrowed it down to (out of perhaps 450 entrants) are all stronger than the first year.”
The 2019 finalists stack up this way:
“Ghosts of Bogotá,” by Diana Burbano. This Colombian immigrant, who teaches at South Coast Repertory in California, wrote about three siblings who confront family secrets when they return to their homeland’s capital after their grandfather dies.
“Mingus,” by Tyler English-Beckwith. The Brooklyn resident, a recent graduate of the Dramatic Writing MFA program at New York University, depicts the multi-layered relationship between a first-year college student and the powerful professor who mentors her.
“Girl with Gun” by Nora Leahy. The Chicago playwright goes inside the head of Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, who leaves prison in 1987 after trying to kill President Gerald Ford. She attempts to put her life together, possibly with Charles Manson’s help.
“Dembe,” by Amy da Luz with Kamilah Bush. Da Luz, a teacher-director at UNC-Greensboro and North Carolina A&T, collaborated with dramaturg and UNC-G graduate Bush on a drama about two estranged sisters who fight a custody battle over a Ugandan orphan.
When the readings end, a panel of audience members, arts professionals and Actor’s Theatre staff will pick a play for ATC to perform in the 2020-21 season and submit to the National New Play Network.
“Half of the funding this year comes from our first National Endowment for the Arts grant,” Decker said. “It has been a long time coming — we have applied year after year — and we finally broke through. NuVoices had a proven track record, which appealed to them, and we’re confident patrons and sponsors will step forward to help keep it going.”
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