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Davidson troupe opens in new home

Think of the Davidson Community Players' move as a progression from “A Streetcar Named Desire” to “The Wizard of Oz.” The company was middle-aged and had always depended on the kindness of strangers – and, of course, loyal friends. But this is the year it has discovered there's no place like home.

“Home” is now a converted brick church at 307 Armour St., which held the sweet scents of fresh sawdust and drying paint two weeks ago. Volunteers and contractors sweated to get Armour Street Theatre ready for “Working,” the musical running now through next Sunday in the first building dedicated to this company.

The 43-year-old troupe will keep its connection to Davidson College, which provides a hall for summer productions that have grown in size. But the 110-seat Armour gives DCP a chance to grow in variety – the 2009 season offers 10 shows – and ambition.

“We want to be faithful to our traditional base, which loves musicals and comedies and probably wouldn't come to Mamet,” says resident director Melissa Ohlman-Roberge. “At the same time, a lot of young people up here want to see newer pieces, edgier pieces.

“We'll do ‘How I Learned to Drive' (Paula Vogel's Pulitzer-winning play about a girl who has a sexual relationship with her uncle). At the end of the same season, we're doing ‘It's a Wonderful Life.' We want a mix of pieces with a decidedly different texture and pieces that make people think, ‘This is the theater I'm used to.'”

Armour is a haven for folks who've traditionally rehearsed plays in three or four spaces, shoving props and set pieces into vans and hauling them around to rooms with taped replicas of sets on the floors.

Though Armour has no interior lobby – patrons can wait outside or sit in the theater during intermission – there's space downstairs for a kitchen, costume storage, a green room for resting actors and children's classes, a crucial DCP component. The group teaches kids from age 4 to high school and will soon mount “The House at Pooh Corner,” the first full production in years to be cast with no adults.

The funding process was as unusual as the building. The Players had pored over real estate ads for two years, considering a renovated school that might have required a $2 million commitment. They almost had to spend $1 million to buy the land under 307 Armour and renovate the church, but they found a better solution.

“We went to banks (first),” says DCP board chairman Jay Butler. “There are low-interest loans for the public good, but what we were asking was too small to fall under those. When we looked at what it would cost to buy and service (Armour) on a traditional loan, we'd have spent an additional 50 percent of our operating budget. So we approached the town about having it acquire the space.

“If Davidson purchased the land at lower municipal bond rates, we'd sign a long-term lease and pay the interest on it. After 20 years, we could do an extension, or they could look at this as a park or greenspace.”

DCP executive director Cindy Rice thinks that proposal was approved because “the town recognizes this is valuable programming. It gives citizens (a performing) outlet, it's a cultural activity for Davidson, and we're a little economic development engine. Restaurants are full on the nights we have productions, especially in summer, when college students and parents are gone.”

DCP took responsibility for $250,000 worth of improvements, including a ramp to make the theater accessible to the disabled and a new heating and cooling system. The company held costs down shrewdly, converting church pews to theater seats, but Lisa Combs leads a capital campaign that still has a third of the way to go.

“I can't imagine a campaign (now) where people are not concerned about the economic climate,” she says. “It may take a little longer, but it's not a hard sell. We'll grow our patron base with parents of children who participate in our (expanded) programming, an enormous market we haven't tapped.

“I've never been in a capital campaign before where the average gift was below the middle of the pyramid (separating the top and the bottom). That speaks of great health for our operation, that a lot of people want to give us $250.”

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