Lawrence Toppman

Actor’s Theatre jumps toward the future

What will the new Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte home look like?

Architect's renderings of the future space for Actor's Theatre of Charlotte.
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Architect's renderings of the future space for Actor's Theatre of Charlotte.

On a temperate day, you can walk from 650 E. Stonewall St. to 933 Louise Ave. in 35 easy minutes. Yet that 1.7-mile stretch represents the chasm between death and survival for Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte.

The city’s professional theater for adults, faced with a June eviction notice from the site it has occupied for 12 years, plans to stake its future on a new space in the former Kellogg Snack Factory, one block off Central Avenue. The staff announced the news to patrons Saturday night at its annual Backstage Romp fundraiser and unveiled a 2017 schedule, though dates remain tentative (see below).

That dusty Louise Avenue space currently contains the jumbled remnants of a vanished culture: shiny exercise machines, a handsome dining room set with four wooden chairs, faded desks and filing cabinets that must go back to the Reagan years, crates and pallets and unidentified debris.

But theater people are in the imagination business. As they conducted a tour of the place that’s virtually certain to be their new home – a letter of intent has been signed, though not a lease – executive director Dan Shoemaker and artistic director Chip Decker imagined a place where they could put on shows with two-story sets, increase the seating capacity and do work that was impossible in a home they have virtually outgrown.

“I’m looking through different glasses at shows I might do,” said Decker. “Take (the musical) ‘American Idiot,’ which would sell well and fits our mission: You really need that huge wall of social media behind the action, and we can’t do that at Stonewall. ‘The Humans’ (a current Broadway hit) would work for us, but you have to have a basement as part of the set.

“We have always focused on making the experience with actors a good one and just making do with our 10.5-foot set. Now we can make the physical elements count more.”

Size matters in a different way to general manager Martin Kettling, who says 33 performances have already sold out this season in the old 199-seat house. Moving to a space with 252 seats would potentially boost the audience by 26 percent. And because the new building would have two rehearsal rooms instead of one – not to mention a dedicated scene shop and costume shop – a play could run longer without having to make room for preparations on the next production.

A side-by-side comparison gives the edge to Louise Avenue in almost every way. Actor’s Theatre will have room for a 16-foot bar, instead of its current 6-foot concession window. Up to eight men and women will fit into the dressing rooms, rather than four.

The lobby will have cabaret seating for up to 50 people, which means ATC or another theater might use it as an alternative performance space. (Decker said he’s meeting with small groups that need a home where they can rehearse and perform, rather than constantly packing and unpacking shows in their cars.)

Doug Bradley, president and CEO of Bradley Construction group, expects a brewery and a restaurant to join ATC and the current tenants, Advent Coworking and Codescape. Once the nearby Hawthorne Mill finishes renovations, three large apartment complexes will be within walking distance, as will restaurants. Kettling says a survey shows that 20,000 homeowners with properties worth at least $200,000 live within 5 miles, compared to 16,000 at the old location.

The one number nobody likes is the increased cost, which includes raising the roof to a 21-foot height to allow not just for taller sets but for improved lighting and sound grids. “We will be sustainable once we are up and running,” said director of development Bennett Rich. “We need help to cover the move and get established.”

Rich has quietly been conducting a campaign among patrons, but fundraising efforts will rev up through the year. ATC expects set-up costs to be $750,000; Rich did not reveal how much has already been raised or pledged. The company could also ask patrons to put sweat equity into fixing up the new space.

“That’s exactly what we did at Stonewall,” said Shoemaker. “We even had people painting the walls at one point. Getting patrons involved gives them a sense of ownership.”

ATC staff members praise their old landlord, who gave them roughly a year to find a new space before the building was leveled for apartments. At the same time, they note that buckets have to be used now to catch rain dripping from the roof.

When they got the eviction notice, they considered three options: Try to buy a space they would control, become an anchor tenant at someone else’s facility – most likely the Blumenthal – or rent a place that could be upfitted to suit their needs. Luckily, the old factory has plumbing, HVAC and electrical components already in place.

Bradley, whose firm bought the building from Kellogg last year, provided move-in incentive by discounting the rent and offering to do some of the contracting work.

“We have been in the neighborhood a long time,” he said. “We like to save old buildings, and we know that low-cost spaces don’t survive when they get in the way of development.

“When the brewery comes in, and the food-truck guy who’s talking about opening a restaurant get here, this will really become a destination. It’ll all work together.”

Toppman: 704-358-5232

Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte

Because of the chaos involved in moving, Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte has yet to set dates or ticket prices for the season that will begin in 2017. However, it’s planning to do half a dozen shows and create Rock Show Rep, in which popular musicals from the past can quickly be mounted between mainstage productions and put into repertory. Here’s the plan for next year:

“American Idiot” – The hard-rocking Green Day musical follows three young men who leave their hometown for city life post 9/ 11 and find themselves drawn to drugs, a woman and the Armed Forces – none of which bring the happiness they had sought.

“Booty Candy” – Robert O’Hara wrote this semi-autobiographical comedy about a gay black man who searches for identity and understanding in his childhood home, a church, dive bars, motel rooms, even nursing homes. Scenes, sermons and sketches blend together in this portrait.

“Hand to God” – In Robert Askins’ comedy, a recent widow lives in a devoutly religious small town in Texas, where she runs the puppet club for troubled teens at a fundamentalist church. When one of the hand puppets declares himself to be Satan, characters’ lives turn upside down.

“Luckiest People” – Meridith Friedman’s drama gets a shared world premiere through the National New Play Network. It’s about a gay couple who prepare to adopt a son, even as the recently widowed father of one man moves in with them. And what really happened to his wife, anyway?

“The Toxic Avenger” – Joe DiPietro and David Bryan collaborated on this musical inspired by the Troma movie. A guy who wants to clean up New Jersey’s pollution gets dumped in a vat of radioactve waste by politicians and emerges as a mutant with super-strength and a really bad skin condition.

“Stupid F@#%ing Bird” – Aaron Posner’s comedy very loosely adapts Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” adding songs by James Sugg. The inter-generational nuttiness and angst plays itself out against a Hollywood background among actors, a director and a novelist.

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