Local Arts

The man behind Shakespeare Carolina forged his own eclectic path to the stage

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Charlotte Arts Guide 2019-20

Here’s all of our stories on the new arts season. We’ll introduce you to the diverse group of people making vital contributions to the arts. You’ll find them in museums, on stage, in studios and even outdoors. And you’ll get our calendar listings for theater, dance, music, museums, literary events and visual arts.

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A conversation with Chris O’Neill bounces from life at an English Air Force base to the eerie music of a theremin to Shakespeare.

From near-fatal boredom in Tallahassee, Fla., to seeing Bruce Springsteen jam with the reggae band Jah Love and the Survivors to Shakespeare.

From being a 30-year-old freshman at Winthrop University to becoming a filmmaker in his 50s to founding a theater company that does ... Shakespeare. And “Cyrano.” And postmodern drama where “The Simpsons” inspires cult worship, decades after an apocalypse.

Shakespeare Carolina, now a resident company at Duke Energy Theater when not performing in Rock Hill, has been an ever-changing experiment. So has O’Neill’s life.

Young Christopher O’Neill spent the first half of it figuring that out. He grew up with a dad who’d been in the Navy and a stepdad who’d been in the Army, and he enlisted in the Air Force after one semester of community college. He found himself at RAF Fairford, a base in Gloucestershire, for his term of service.

“As an Irish kid growing up in North Jersey, that seemed like a sensible choice,” he recalled. “I’d been in high school drama club and loved it, but theater and music — that didn’t seem to make sense.”

He started to change his mind when he came stateside and settled at Hilton Head, where his remarried mother lived. “Everything good in my life comes from theater there,” he said.

His military haircut made him ideal casting for a production of Neil Simon’s “Biloxi Blues.” He gained experience as an actor and director at Hilton Head Playhouse and South Carolina Repertory Theatre. And he fell in love during “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Chris played Flute, the bellows-mender; Jill, his future wife, played flute in the production. (They celebrated their 25th anniversary this August.)

Jill went to Florida State University to get an advanced music degree. He followed her to Florida’s capital. “I stayed eight months,” Chris said. “They were the longest 10 years of my life.”

‘Let’s put on a show’

But he learned that grit and audacity get a drama company off the ground. The Monticello Opera House half an hour away had a restored theater but no plays to put in it. He wrote a grant to support another “Midsummer,” yanked Opera House Stage Company to its feet and assembled a board.

“It was very much Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland: Let’s put on a show! A hardware store owner let us borrow anything we could use. Somebody donated bedsheets we could paint to make a forest. I had the feeling, ‘This is what I need to be doing.’ “

He acted on that feeling again after settling at Winthrop, where Jill got a job teaching flute. Chris enrolled as a 30-year-old freshman in 1995 on a small theater scholarship. Two years later, the Mickey-and-Judy itch plagued him.

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Shakespeare Carolina artistic director Chris O’Neill (right) is now paring down theatrical pieces with smaller casts. Courtesy of Chris O'Neill

He’d directed a show for Rock Hill Community Theatre and been on its board briefly, and some of his friends there wanted to start a new company. They completed 501 (c) 3 nonprofit paperwork for Shakespeare Carolina, and the bardolatry began: “Much Ado About Nothing,” “Midsummer,” “Othello.” Shakescar, as it became known, performed outdoors and indoors around Rock Hill, then made the jump to Charlotte in 2010.

Along the way, O’Neill collected not only a B.A. but an M.A. in arts administration. He became facilities manager and technical director for Winthrop’s music department. He acted in other people’s shows, including the bucket-list role of McMurphy in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” at Carolina Actors Studio Theatre. He did freelance lighting, sound or stage management for touring acts as diverse as Yanni and Ozzy Osbourne.

And he produced and directed for his company, which might as well have adopted the motto “The Bard and Beyond.”

It staged Tony Wright’s “Queen Margaret,” retelling Shakespeare’s War of the Roses plays through the eyes of Margaret of Anjou. It did Judith Malina’s translation of Brecht’s “Antigone” and Jo Clifford’s “Ines de Castro,” about the execution of the politically dangerous Portuguese mistress of a Spanish prince.

Making art

ShakesCar opened at Duke Energy Theater in Spirit Square with “Macbeth.” Today it gets a rental waiver from Blumenthal Performing Arts as a resident company, but then it didn’t. “Sustainability has always been a problem,” O’Neill said. “I have found a couple of good donors, but in the early days, the major donor was me.”

Occasionally, the company mounted a slightly more conventional production for Charlotteans unfamiliar with it. But O’Neill was likelier to import a punk band such as Mall Goth or turn Jill loose on flute, theremin, timpani and other percussion. “She always knows what I want,” he said “She’ll listen to a rehearsal and set the pace and moods with her music.”

Shakespeare Carolina can justify almost any choice with its mission statement: “To do works from the classical canon and contemporary works inspired by it.” This summer’s “Mr. Burns,” which riffed off “The Simpsons,” hearkened back to religious dramas of the ancient Greeks.

O’Neill’s currently most interested in stripping theater down to its essence with smaller casts: “Titus Andronicus” with seven actors, this month’s commedia dell’arte “Cyrano” with five. He created a 30-minute “Romeo and Juliet” for five actors and a puppet that toured Rock Hill middle schools, presenting four condensed scenes.

“I don’t have the patience to direct 35 people in Shakespeare any more. I’m getting old, and I don’t want to be juggling egos all the time. When I’m in the room, there’s enough of an ego already.” He laughed. “I do wish I were 25 again to dedicate myself to new, different directions.”

At 54, he’s newly drawn to the idea of directing films. His short “Touching in Texas” made the festival rounds last year and awakened a desire to explore that medium further.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do in the future,” he said. “All I know is, I want to make theater — or any kind of art — I would want to see.”

Obvious cool/Hidden cool

We asked artists and arts administrators interviewed for the Fall Arts preview to talk about their favorite piece of Obvious Cool art in Charlotte and their favorite Hidden Cool art.

Obvious Cool art: The Milestone Club, the original punk bar in Charlotte. “An amazing lineup of iconic bands have played there.”

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Hidden Cool art: Concerts at the Courtroom is a yearlong series of shows, presented by Mike Gentry, in the Gettys Art Center in Rock Hill. It’s an “eclectic mix of indie, punk, altcountry and art rock.”

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Ashley Peeples with the band Gasp performed at one of the Concerts at the Courtroom this year in the Gettys Art Center in Rock Hill. Alexis Howard

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