Lawrence Toppman

Little Warehouse PAC makes a bigger impact these days

Warehouse PAC founder Marla Brown has established a rhythm that will keep her facility busy every weekend through June.
Warehouse PAC founder Marla Brown has established a rhythm that will keep her facility busy every weekend through June. rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

When you have a living room that seats 55, you might as well entertain. And when it has a full-sized movie screen, concert-quality acoustics and room for a small troupe of players, you want to have company every weekend.

Warehouse Performing Arts Center isn’t literally Marla Brown’s home, though she’s spending more time there these days as a presenter and producer. Yet the comfy room off Westmoreland Road – which will be in use every weekend through the end of spring – seems more like a salon than a showplace.

Six years after opening quietly, Brown has announced her second full season of productions, running through November. It opens Friday with “I’ll Eat You Last,” John Logan’s one-woman play about infamous Hollywood agent Sue Mengers. (Anne Lambert will take the role.)

Robert Maier has moved his Studio-C Cinema into the facility, where he screens alternative films and teaches classes. And Brown has now freed herself up to think about importing musicians, poets or anyone else who can make use of north Mecklenburg’s only full-time public performance space.

“This place is the other side of the Blumenthal,” says Brown. “Rather than spectacle, largesse and critical distance, you experience us very differently. An actor has to do an excellent job to transport you somewhere, if you’re sitting right next to him. That intimacy factor is our main strength.

“But you have to strive to get the highest quality productions. If someone’s not experienced or confident or prepared, you can’t mask that. If it stinks, they can’t hide.”

The partnership with Maier, who has curated a remarkable series of foreign, alternative and classic films, has raised the bar for quality. Their relationship, which could have been a landlord-tenant pairing, has turned into more of a partnership.

“Marla and I had to get to know each other,” says Maier, broadcasting and production technology coordinator for Gaston College. “She didn’t want to discourage me or give me too much to do, and I didn’t want to barge in and take over.

“We don’t seem to disagree about anything, and neither of us seems to have an idea the other doesn’t like. I feel like Studio-C will stay here – or it won’t go anywhere.”

Brown has learned a lot of lessons in six years. The biggest? People need comfort, and the butt-breaking chairs she first owned had to go. Shows need to fit the space; though the screen can retract to the ceiling, Brown encourages set designers to restrain themselves and suggest, rather than depict.

And she’s learned “not to work with people who have huge egos. We’re between a U-Haul renter and a chicken sandwich restaurant. We’re not on Broadway.”

The most crucial thing, she says, is to “make sure you have spare batteries and a sense of humor. Audiences are kind. They want you to succeed. If you meet problems with a smile, they’ll go along with you.

“We were doing ‘Wonder of the World’ (last year) when the computer froze, and the lights went out. I was walking around with a box of red in one hand and a box of white in the other, saying, ‘Who’d like a glass of wine?’ An audience member volunteered to carry the wine around and hand out mints. We fixed the lights, and the show was wonderful.”

In an ideal world, she’d have 10 more feet of ceiling space for lighting, the ability to use rear projection and a path backstage for actors to cross without being seen: She remembers the day an actor left the building to come around to the other side and found herself inside a locked fence. If she ever raises the money, she’ll tear down a wall to increase the lobby size and put a green room (where actors get ready to go on) behind the stage.

Right now, she and Maier have technical work to do: figuring out a new joint brand, redesigning a joint website, combining mailing lists without bombarding either of their constituencies too hard.

“This is still an experiment,” he says. “Will people burn out on the number of films we are showing? How large is the art film audience? Will people who’ve packed the place for ‘Meet the Patels’ and ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ see a Jean-Luc Godard film?

“We’re not in Cambridge or Greenwich Village or even Winston-Salem. All we really know is that attendance is going up gradually, and we get a lot of anecdotal praise from people who say, ‘I just moved here from Syracuse and found this place.’ 

Says Brown, “It’s not a question any more of ‘How will we fill it?’ The level of talent and cool stuff out there is not a problem. Marketing is the problem, getting the word out to audiences who might like to come if they knew what we were doing.”

Toppman: 704-358-5232

Warehouse PAC

Studio-C Cinema

All shows and screenings take place at 9216-A Westmoreland Road in Cornelius. At the moment, the partners have their own websites and phone numbers: warehousepac.com or 704-619-0429, and studioccinema.com or 704-996-7724.

“I’ll Eat You Last” runs Feb. 26-March 12; tickets are $20 for adults, $15 for seniors/students. You can buy tickets to the entire Warehouse season, which includes Nick Payne’s “Constellations” (April 29-May 14), Evan Linder and Andrew Hobgood’s “5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche” (Sept. 9-24) and Michael Brady’s “To Gillian on her 37th Birthday” (Nov. 4-19). Season tickets cost $64 ($48 students/seniors) for opening weekends, $68 ($52 students/seniors) for flex passes.

Studio-C will next show “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” Marielle Heller’s coming-of-age story about a San Franciscan, Feb. 19-21, and “Big Significant Things,” described as a “Catcher in the Rye” for millennials, Feb. 29. Movie admissions generally range from $8 to $11 but can be higher for special showings.

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