Local Arts

Her toughest career challenge: drawing teens to Children’s Theatre of Charlotte

Arlethia Hailstock of Children’s Theatre of Charlotte on the upcoming season

As the new Community Initiatives leader at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, Arlethia Hailstock is working hard to bring more teenagers to the theater. She’s especially proud of the Teen Studio Series, which helps students make theater directly.
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As the new Community Initiatives leader at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, Arlethia Hailstock is working hard to bring more teenagers to the theater. She’s especially proud of the Teen Studio Series, which helps students make theater directly.

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Charlotte Arts Guide 2019-20

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Arlethia Hailstock has overcome TV opponents on “Pictionary,” a dolphin that wanted a piece of her at Sea World and the childhood nickname “Fluffy,” especially ill-suited to an intelligent 45-year-old woman with a light orange mohawk.

So she may well be able to meet the toughest challenge of her career: Bringing teenagers to Children’s Theatre of Charlotte.

CTC, one of America’s leading producers of theater for young adults, has done better with the adjective in that phrase than the noun. Hailstock says its programming sweet spot falls between ages 5 and 8, somewhat higher when aiming a play at fifth- or sixth-graders. Students ages 13 to 18 rarely stray through ImaginOn’s doors.

Children’s Theatre has done two things to change that. Next April, it will produce “Afflicted: Daughters of Salem,” a disturbing drama about girls whose testimony triggered 17th-century witch-hunting hysteria. (The website recommends it for ages 12 and up.)

And in January, it created a job underwritten by the Thrive Fund: Community Initiatives Leader. That position can address any underserved part of the community, from poor families to racial or ethnic groups. But it’s meant to draw middle and high schoolers into the fold, and she already has faced challenges.

Says Hailstock, “I’m working with a Teen Advisory Council. All nine members told me, ‘I don’t see things here, unless I know someone in the show or my parents bring me along with my little brother or sister.’ We want to change that.”

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Arlethia Hailstock of Children’s Theatre of Charlotte faces her toughest career challenge yet: getting more students ages 13 to 18 through the doors at ImaginOn. She’s especially proud of the Teen Studio Series, which helps students make theater directly. Joshua Komer

Making a career of it

Theater didn’t become an integral part of her own life until her 20s. She’d dressed up as characters in youthful pretend games, sung in the school chorus, delighted in a tour of “Cats.” (Her family dubbed her “Fluffy” in the womb, after her grandmother made her a natal dress covered in ruffles. They still call her that.)

But the shy girl from Winston-Salem didn’t see theater as a career, so she majored in communications at Wake Forest University (class of ’96) and took a job in Los Angeles with a paper manufacturer.

She won $1,900 on the game show “Pictionary” the next year, then married a banker who works for FICO. (After he proposed, they went to Orlando, where that over-stressed dolphin clamped onto her fingers at a petting tank. Attendants extricated those digits without injury.)

They were living in Denver, Colo., when their first child died soon after birth. “I hadn’t had any jobs I really loved,” she recalls. “After losing her, I said, ‘Life is too short to keep working just to get a paycheck. I want to focus on acting.’ ”

That meant a job with the educational department at Kaiser Permanente, performing in workshops for children’s organizations and team-building sessions.

A different road

“That work fed my heart,” she recalls. Then a 2006 move to Charlotte, which brought their two tiny sons closer to extended family, took her down a different road.

Once T.J. and Jeremiah (now 15 and 13) entered school, Hailstock coordinated concession stands at Bank of America Stadium, which are staffed by volunteers from nonprofits. She did that from 2010 to 2015, then jumped to Children’s Theatre to become school performance sales coordinator. She’d gone from recruiting and herding volunteers to recruiting and herding students and teachers, and she liked it.

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Arlethia Hailstock, far left, listened as director Chanel Blanchett, far right, talks with Actor’s Theatre cast members about “Nina Simone: Four Women” at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte last year. Hailstock sported a switchblade and spouted insults as Sweet Thing, a man-stealing prostitute last year, in the production. Observer file photo

She has acted a little, most recently in “Nina Simone: Four Women” at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte. She sported a switchblade and spouted insults as Sweet Thing, a man-stealing prostitute: “I was happy to be cast as a hooker, a departure from the roles I usually play.”

But her drive to perform must now take a back seat to her job, if she’s to carry off four programs.

Focus on teens

Project Teen Loft engages teens who use ImaginOn’s public library, giving them backstage tours or tasks on CTC-sponsored projects.

The Teen Advisory Council meets six times a year “to tell me what stories they want to be told and how they can be made more interested in theater. We’re trying to create job-shadowing and internship opportunities for them.”

Community Meals and Gatherings didn’t succeed as she’d hoped. Hailstock realized “most working parents don’t want to chat with strangers at the end of the day (in community centers). That morphed into me bringing folks here, especially those who may have seen school shows but don’t think of theater as a viable job. They come in, see a woman create a puppet from scratch, and a light bulb goes off.”

Theater fans for life

She’s especially proud of the Teen Studio Series, which helps students make theater directly. She partnered last semester with North Mecklenburg High School, where CTC regular Nicia Carla was the newly hired drama teacher. Sixteen students, most of them African-American or Latino, chose the cutting-edge “This is Modern Art,” a play about the real-life graffiti bombing of the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Imaginon_2005 Observer file photo
Arlethia Hailstock is working with a Teen Advisory Council, who all told her they don’t see Children’s Theatre of Charlotte shows in Imaginon, the children’s library, unless they know someone in the show or their parents bring them and their younger siblings. “We want to change that” and attract more teens. Charlotte Observer file photo

“They liked feeling unchained,” she said. “We brought them to ImaginOn for a reading, and they felt that energy of being on a stage (used by professionals).” She’ll return to North Mecklenburg and start at East Mecklenburg High this year with a big goal: Helping them to produce musicals that could someday compete for Blumey Awards, which recognize excellence in high school theater productions in the Charlotte area.

Her work benefits not only kids but her employer. Revenues will increase if students keep coming to CTC productions after sixth grade, and they might become ticket-buyers and theater fans for life.

“We want to place all children at the center of the work we do,” Hailstock declares. “With teens, that means you have to go out and get their opinions and give them some agency over what you’re doing. That’s my job.”

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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