Local Arts

‘There’s a lot to do.’ The new Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte boss feels right at home

Laura Rice of Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte on the upcoming season

Laura Rice is the new general manager at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, the region’s only year-round professional company for adults. She took over July 1 and has big plans.
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Laura Rice is the new general manager at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, the region’s only year-round professional company for adults. She took over July 1 and has big plans.

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Charlotte Arts Guide 2019-20

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You need guts to apply to run a theater where you haven’t seen a single show.

You need even more guts to hire someone to run a theater where she hasn’t seen a single show.

So the union of Laura Thaisen Rice and Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, the region’s only year-round professional company for adults, has been based not only on her skill set but on mutual trust.

ATC’s new general manager took over a job July 1 that she describes as “a lot of fingers in a lot of different pies.

“My first priority will be to design a savvier, more technologically accessible website. We need to grow financially. We need to grow the staff a little bit and pay staffers competitive wages for their services. There’s a lot to do.”

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Laura Tyler Rice was recently named general manager of Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte. She now heads the region’s only year-round professional company for adults. Joshua Komer

Feeling at home

Rice had already packed plenty into her schedule when she got the gig. Both she and Rachel Thaisen Rice, her wife of four years, took on new jobs this year: Rachel’s an emergency veterinarian who has signed on with Carolina Animal Referral and Emergency. They’re raising a son, 1-year-old Indiana (named for Indiana Jones), in a household with two dogs, three cats and an array of house plants.

Yet she is confident that she’s in the right place at 31. Soon after getting the job, she saw ATC’s version of the Tony-winning musical “Fun Home.” She had fun, and she knew she was at home.

“I was thrilled by the high caliber of the production,” she says. “That show really strikes a chord with me: When (Alison Bechdel) comes out of the closet and falls in love for the first time in college, that’s me. When she sings ‘I’m changing my major to Joan,’ if you change the name, you have my story.”

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Last year Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte staged “The Moutaintop” by Katori Hall, a re-imagination of events the night before the assassination of the civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King. Pictured here are King (Gerard Hazelton) and Camae (Erica Truesdale). Courtesy of Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte

Actors’ advocate

Unlike graphic novelist Bechdel, however, Rice has always found herself drawn to the spoken word rather than the written one.

She started at Minnesota State University-Mankato (where the mascot is, aptly enough. a maverick) as a self-described science geek planning to major in geology. After one semester, she told herself, “You only live once, and theater is what you want to do.”

She’d never lost her belief that “theater was where I found people I was at ease with, people I could be silly around without being bullied or taunted. I was a pretty sickly kid, and theater was a place of acceptance.”

But she’d suffered from severe stage fright through high school. So although she auditioned for a couple of shows, she found herself to be a natural stage manager, keeping productions from running off the rails.

“You have to be patient, organized, amenable and know how to talk to people,” she says. “You have to be the actors’ advocate with the director and creative team. My style was to be more humorous and loosey-goosey than regimented, but I was still efficient.”

Sure enough, after getting a degree in theater with an emphasis on stage management, she got freelance gigs around Minneapolis’ theater-rich scene. Then love intervened. She and Rachel married in 2015 — these two fans of dinosaurs went down the aisle to the theme from “Jurassic Park” — and, when Rachel got a veterinary job in Charlotte, moved here in 2016.

Now Laura decided to make a different kind of operation run smoothly. She became a barista at the original Amelie’s, then its bar manager. The South End restaurant Lincoln’s Haberdashery recruited her to head its coffee program, then had her oversee wine and beer. But theater never quite left her thoughts.

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Robin Tynes-Miller, left, and Tania Kelly, in “The Great Beyond.” Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte collaborated with Children’s Theatre of Charlotte earlier this year to commission playwright Steven Dietz to write a pair of interlocking plays. Courtesy Fenix Fotography

Returning to theater

She worked briefly for Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, both in house management and the box office, and on Blumenthal Performing Arts’ original production of “First Date,” because it required a union stage manager. Finally, she found herself looking at job postings on the Arts & Science Council website and applied in May to ATC.

“I knew I was qualified but wondered if I was mentally ready to get back into the industry,” she admits. “The thing I was really looking for most was a work-life balance. For the first three years of the marriage, Rachel and I hardly saw each other. When we had a child, that had to stop.

“One thing that attracted me to Actor’s Theatre was that it has a family dynamic in a good way. People aren’t afraid to fight things out and come together at the end of the day, despite conflicting views. They also told me, ‘If you have to make the curtain speech for a show, your wife’s working late and you can’t get a babysitter, bring Indiana along!’ Not everyone would do that.”

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This is a scene from Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte’s 2016 version of “The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical,” which is a perennial favorite. George Hendricks Photography

Rice immediately went to a board retreat to introduce herself and get a head start on her new tasks. She says she’s “just beginning to think about cleaning up the organizational structure of the company.”

She’s also still learning to navigate the complicated connections between ATC and Queens University, where it performs in Hadley Theatre, and between ATC and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, because Hadley sits in Myers Park Traditional Elementary School. (That affects not only scheduling but programming.)

Pursing other passions

None of this leaves much time for the non-occupational passions she wants to explore: going to other companies’ shows, hiking in national parks — she and Rachel hope to visit every one — and especially reading, including nonpartisan, comprehensive biographies of every U.S. president.

“I’ve also asked my wife for a unicycle three Christmases in a row,” she says, laughing. “Maybe this will be the year.”

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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