When Children’s Theatre of Charlotte hired Adam Burke in 2013, both sides thought they knew what they were getting. The company acquired an artistic director committed to reaching young adults and developing new works. The new guy joined a stable organization known for well-crafted, family-friendly productions.
Neither could have anticipated the fireworks that followed.
In Burke’s six years of leadership — really five, as he inherited his first season — Children’s Theatre has achieved a new national prominence. The company went twice to international theater conferences in China, the second time as the only group invited to bring students to perform. It has created partnerships with Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, simultaneously producing interlocked world premieres, and UNC Charlotte, which contributed creative students to a new “Coraline.”
Children’s Theatre launched The Kindness Project to help children understand how to link empathy to action, wrestled with current events in “The Magic Kite” (immigration) and “Grace for President” (female political leadership) and has consistently practiced color-blind casting, most notably with an African-American Mary Poppins.
Shows regularly offer ASL-translated performances for hearing-impaired listeners and sensory-friendly outings for viewers on the autism spectrum. “Afflicted: Daughters of Salem” will go after high school audiences next spring for the first time in one of Burke’s mainstage seasons.
And in a pinch, he’s good with a blade.
“At one time, Adam had many certifications in different fighting styles,“ said director Jenny Male, whose full-length musical “Peter Pan” opens Oct. 4 for a month-long run. “During one rehearsal, he helped me demonstrate several sword-fighting moves. It was a lot of fun!”
Burke hasn’t needed to use techniques learned from the Society of American Fight Directors on his board. It hired him on a one-year basis, then awarded a two-year contract after he and Linda Reynolds (then Children’s Theatre’s director of advancement) entered an unusual partnership in 2016. They became interim co-executive directors, making major decisions jointly. The word “interim” eventually disappeared, and the board recently gave Burke his first three-year agreement at 46.
“It’s like a marriage,” he said. “We mostly agree, and we share values about what’s important for the work we do. I may burst in with an idea I think is brilliant; Linda never says no, but she might poke holes in it with questions or find another way to accommodate it. (I have to keep) listening, trying to understand potential concerns about the impact on our staff or the community. If we stopped caring or compromising, it would fall apart.”
‘A variety of perspectives’
He’s been clear from the start that, while he’ll occasionally direct a show, he prefers to import talent from around the city or even the country: “I want a variety of perspectives. A lot of my colleagues direct more than I do, but my job is not to make every show look like I think it should. When you direct everything, you’re limited by your own imagination.”
“He’s a great collaborator,” Male said. “He brings together an amazing team of designers and staff and allows them to brainstorm for the most creative way to interpret a script. He asks many questions, which help (us) clarify the reasons for (our) choices. Of all the artistic directors I have worked with, Adam has challenged me the most in the way I approach directing.”
Gloria Bond Clunie, who wrote a world-premiere adaptation of “Last Stop on Market Street” for The Kindness Project, said Burke remains helpful whether he has something at stake or not.
“He asks the right questions,” she said. “(He’s) open yet decisive, honest, enthusiastic and can make the tough artistic calls with grace. I value his critical eye, especially in regards to new work. I sent him a play, not for CTC, but one where I needed feedback I could trust. After graciously making time to read it, his response was one of the clearest, most concise and helpful critiques I’d ever received.”
Burke is also open about projects that didn’t work. He directed “The Reluctant Dragon,” with its huge, bewitching puppet by regular Children’s Theatre collaborator Magda Guichard, as a “not in my backyard” parable; it tanked. He dreamed up “Five by Five,” a project where five female playwrights would write scripts about women who changed history; nobody wanted to pay for it, so he scrapped it. (“Someday those values may align with a funder,” he said.)
Not that he always thinks big. He’s developing “toy theater,” where one or two actors could fit every prop into a single trunk for brief appearances at schools or festivals. And sometimes a big project becomes a cash cow: “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: The Musical” has yielded the three highest-grossing shows in Children’s Theatre history since its 2016 debut and comes back in November.
“It may not be on there every year, but it’s a huge benefit to just pull the truck up and unload the sets and costumes,” Burke said. “And it allows us to do a new fall play like ‘The Invisible Boy.’ If we had to pay for a new holiday play, we couldn’t do that one in October.”
You might think world premieres, which can take a couple of years to develop and require Burke to commission a writer and/or composer, burden the budget more heavily. He says not.
“Royalties for ‘Pageant’ are $22,500, and we get a lower percentage for having developed it; other theaters pay $35,000. If we can spend the same amount of money to create a new play, people will often be inspired to give money to that new project.”
Christopher Parks, artistic director of Experiential Theater Company, relishes such challenges: He’s writing “Invisible Boy” and developing “GRIMMZ Fairy Tales” with hip-hop artists for Children’s Theatre this season. (If Burke ever achieves his dream of a playwright-in-residence, Parks would probably be a candidate.) Like Burke, Parks loves board games.
“Being an A.D., directing a staff, is kind of like solving a puzzle or playing a game with lots of moving pieces,” Parks said. “For the right personality, it’s really fun.
“All of us who work at CTC, from the designers (to) the front-of-house staff … do this because we … believe in the mission. Never will you hear someone say, ‘It’s just a play for kids; we don’t have to try as hard.’ This is a statement uttered a lot elsewhere in theaters around the U.S. At CTC, we all love to work at a place where the art we are creating is just as important as the work other theaters are creating for adults — even more so. We are truly shaping minds.”
Burke does that through drama, not didactic plays with a narrative veneer. A show that instills an appreciation of tolerance will do so with layered storytelling. Next year’s “Tropical Secrets,” for instance, focuses on Jewish refugees turned away by the United States who resettle in Cuba.
Said Burke, “(Theaters for children) often try to get funding by saying, “It’s educational. We are teaching children.’ But the louder we talk about that, the more we diminish the artistic value — and the less we do what we should.”
Working as a team
Though Children’s Theatre currently sells $1.2 million worth of tickets a year, Burke doesn’t take much credit for that. He’s proud of the marketing team that instituted “dynamic pricing,” varying levels for shows and packages. Even back-to-back storms during “Matilda” last fall couldn’t keep that musical from getting within 5 percent of its sales target.
Like a quarterback paying respects to his offensive line and coaches, Burke frequently praises his staff and board of directors. “Boards are often dysfunctional,” he said. “Because they’re experts in their fields, they think they could be experts in any field. They have issues important to them that aren’t the same as the company’s mission. Ours isn’t like that. It’s great.”
Two things do seem to worry him. The first is complacency. “The sense of having arrived is the death of any arts organization,” he said. “The tiniest bit of fear is good for artists. The moment I feel I am content to continue with a pattern, I need to leave.”
And the other? The Carolina Panthers. Burke said admissions fall when the team has a good season. No one has done a careful analysis: Maybe playgoers stay home on weekends to watch TV or have less disposable income because they bought football tickets. But he swears it’s true.
“It’s like the weather,” he said. “You have to accept there are some things you can’t control.”
When: Oct. 4-Nov. 3 at 7:30 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Sensory-friendly performance at 7 p.m. Oct. 13.
Where: ImaginOn, 300 E. Seventh St.
Details: 704-973-2828 or ctcharlotte.org.
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