If you crave show business fame, try to stand near Ron Law.
He played Vinnie to Michael Keaton’s Speed in “The Odd Couple,” when both had barely left their teens. Later, Keaton got Tim Burton’s “Batman” and an Oscar nomination for “Birdman.”
John de Lancie went through Kent State University alongside Law and became an icon on “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
Law taught Andrew Rannells in a freshman theater class at Marymount Manhattan College. Rannells soon landed on Broadway in “Hairspray,” “Jersey Boys” and “Book of Mormon.”
Last year, Renee Rapp starred in Law’s production of “Spring Awakening” at Theatre Charlotte. This year, she sprang to Broadway as supercilious Regina George in “Mean Girls.”
Theatre Charlotte’s executive director has never acted, directed or produced on Broadway or in films and TV. Yet when he quits his job next summer at 72, after 15 seasons — his longest tenure anywhere and the second-longest in company history — he’ll have left a mark.
Sometimes it’s a local one. He’s currently overseeing his 89th show at the venue, the Student Theatre Guild production of “Young Frankenstein,” which ends Sunday.
Sometimes it’s more widespread. Since 2008, Theatre Charlotte has won three statewide awards from N.C. Theatre Conference (NCTC): Its Community Theatre Award (the troupe’s third), Constance Welsh Theatre for Youth Award and Herman Middleton Distinguished Service Award, presented to Law personally.
Through a heart attack and a hip replacement, through the first 14 years of daughter Chloe’s life, Law has steered Charlotte’s only full-time community theater out of financial trouble and into a repertoire with non-traditional casting, many new actors — including one who’d never seen a play, let alone performed in any — and edgy shows such as “Hair” and “Rent.”
“Ron has prioritized diversity, equity and inclusion,” NCTC executive director Angela Hays said. “The company has made great strides in diversifying its audience, as well as its performance companies, volunteer base and board.
“I think of the incredible pride volunteers feel for the organization. I see this pride when volunteers are giving curtain speeches, making popcorn and welcoming people through the doors …. (They’re) as proud of 501 Queens Road as they would be if they were welcoming folks into a billion-dollar performing arts center.”
Those three words — “volunteers” and “community theater” — inspire a sense of ownership in participants but a mild sense of frustration in their leader.
“At the first meeting with the staff in 2005, I told them, ‘Community theater doesn’t mean a lesser form of theater,’ ” said Law, sitting in his perennially cluttered office at the 78-year-old venue. “If somebody’s Aunt Mary is in a play, that doesn’t mean she’s not a very good actress.
“Our student shows are modeled on (professional) summer stock, not summer camps. We hire student interns and pay them $600. We rehearse seven hours a day, five days a week for two weeks, then have two days of tech before opening. The thing I’m proudest of in my time here is this development of young talent.”
Half a century ago, Law might have been among them.
“I was 8, doing a summer theater show called ‘King of Hearts,’ and I said the first line after my entrance,” he recalled. “I got a huge laugh on the punch line, 400 people just roaring. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh. Look what I can do!’ “
He went from Eastlake, Ohio, a northeastern suburb of Cleveland, to Kent State, honoring his grandmother’s desire for a history major. (She was putting him through school and wanted him to be a lawyer.) When she died, he added theater to that major. But the May 4 shootings of four protesters sent this self-described “hippie kid” out of his orbit in 1970.
“My mind was just not there anymore,” he said. He didn’t finish his education until 1983, when he sprinted through the end of a B.A. program at UNC-Greensboro and collected a master’s degree in acting and directing.
By then, he had run a dinner theater in a restored barn in Clemmons, giving up when the owner refused to air-condition it; helped start Kernersville Little Theatre in 1977; managed a disco band for two years (“Let’s not talk about that”); and organized U.S. tours for overseas visitors through International Theatre Institute. His degree from UNC-G propelled him into teaching, first at High Point University (where he met wife Chase), later at Marymount Manhattan and East Stroudsburg University.
Law followed Chase, an Asheboro native, to her home state when she got a job with Community School of the Arts in Charlotte. He became executive director of Carolinas Concert Association in 2003.
“I love classical music, but I told them, ‘The only orchestra I know is Electric Light Orchestra. I have been a theater person all my life.’ They said, ‘We just need an administrator. Someone else will select the artists.’ ” But when the chance to take over Theatre Charlotte arose, he seized it.
Law inherited a company with a traditional, middle of the road approach and an audience that was, to paraphrase Vera Charles in “Mame,” somewhere between 50 and death. He has brought the median age down from 62-plus to between 45 and 54 — “a good spot to be in.”
He did that in three ways. First, he changed the makeup of the play-selection committee to encourage new programming. Second, he added the youth component every summer, which made kids and their parents aware of Theatre Charlotte’s offerings. Third, he began to import directors from across the region.
Billy Ensley, a veteran of many troupes who directed “Spring Awakening,” said Law “is not afraid to try new things to … enrich the community’s theater experience. If something doesn’t work, he is secure enough to make the necessary changes so that perhaps, in the future, it will.
“He’s an intuitive leader, comfortable enough with people … to allow them to work independently. When I direct a show there, if I see him at all in the evenings, it is typically more social in nature, as opposed to him asking for a report on how the process is going …. I have always appreciated the fact that he trusts others’ artistic visions without trying to manipulate them to work in a way he may prefer. I also admire that Ron has been fearless in standing up for artistic freedom in all forms.”
That extends to casting one white family and one black one in “You Can’t Take It With You,” where two patrons left because of an interracial kiss, or doing Arthur Miller’s uncut “Death of a Salesman,” where a few patrons complained because of “four G—D----s” (as Law delicately describes the profanity). When a protestor wanted money back for “Avenue Q,” the puppet-driven show she insisted “promoted the gay agenda,” he returned it. Others cancelled season subscriptions that year, but still more applauded the choice of that Tony-winning musical.
The company first turned an artistic corner in 2008 with “The Full Monty,” a crowd-pleaser about unemployed male metalworkers who become strippers.
Law thanks Blumenthal Performing Arts president Tom Gabbard “for telling us, ‘You need to do this show. It’s a traditional Broadway musical, it has a lot of heart, and it will sell a lot of tickets.’ He was right, and it opened the door to (unconventional) shows in the future.
“If we feel we can’t do a show as written, we’ll pick something else. I waited to do ‘Spring Awakening’ for years, because I didn’t think we were ready — either in being able to cast it, or audiences (accepting) it.”
He also revamps familiar pieces. Theatre Charlotte has done “A Christmas Carol” 12 times, but he and associate artistic director Chris Timmons reinvented it last year as a disturbingly dark story. The result? “We had people screaming, and it was our best-selling show ever. Who expected that?”
Retirement will mean a chance to read more – he knocked off 65 books last year, aided by that hip replacement – and write, particularly screenplays: He said producers optioned one years ago about the infamous Tom Dula, but the box-office death of “Cold Mountain” cooled their ardor for stories about Confederate soldiers from North Carolina. He may also direct or act. He has stayed out of his own productions, though he stepped into the arduous role of George when an actor funked it just before “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
He’ll depart, he said, with one major regret: He never moved the company into a building with more production space and better facilities, including an adequate number of bathrooms.
“That has been on my wish list since I started,” Law said. “We’ve had studies done, an architect has done pro bono work…. We own this valuable piece of Myers Park property and get offers for it all the time, but we have no place to move to.
“We’ve talked to (developers of) Eastland Mall and South End about building a theater from scratch, but you need soundproofing, a certain amount of height to build (multi-story) sets, one parking space for every four people. I’d hoped to accomplish that before I retired, but I’ll have to leave it for somebody else.”
WHEN: July 18-21 at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Friday, 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday.
WHERE: Theatre Charlotte, 501 Queens Road
TICKETS: $17 ($10 students or children).
DETAILS: 704-372-1000 or theatrecharlotte.org.
This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.
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