Christy Pleasant stands in a private room at Queens University of Charlotte. With a soft yet intentional stare, she says “we are pleased” a few times to perfect her British-tinged accent. With each word she is transformed. She stands straighter, purses her lips, and places her delicate hands against her heavy gold gown. As she looks out on the courtyard she is no longer Christy. She is Queen Charlotte Sophia of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, who goes downstairs to greet guests at an arts reception.
Queen Charlotte enters the formal parlor of Burwell Hall to gasps and smiles. People ask among themselves whether they should stand in line to greet the regent of England and patroness of the fine arts. The queen prefers a less formal approach, talking to each person with her dry humor and punctuating her sentences with regal words like quite and rather, which seems to charm everyone she meets.
“I can only be here because you have conjured me with your royal showing and support of the arts and science,” Pleasant said as Queen Charlotte in a heartfelt speech.
Pleasant, who has been acting since she was 14, has reinvented the namesake of the city. She blends her background in cultural art with her acting experience, including her expertise in dialog, to bring the monarch to life. Her goal is to spread awareness about the historical figure – and bring back performance art – in Charlotte.
“Charlotte is a city that I think of as being enlightened and modern and progressive, but also conservative, family-oriented, and yet a city devoted to the arts,” said Pleasant. Queen Charlotte “hopefully gives people something to think about.”
Pleasant hoped re-creating the well-known historical figure would motivate people to learn more about the arts in Charlotte. She drew on her dialect and experience as an actor, puppeteer and playwright to perfect the role. She hopes people will be as drawn to Queen Charlotte as she was – if for nothing else but to admire her royal gowns. The costume “is a bear to get into,” said Pleasant, but once dressed, “You just feel like a shinier penny.”
The Charlotte arts community is taking notice of Pleasant’s hard work. Kate Newton, development officer for the Arts & Science Council, featured Pleasant as Queen Charlotte for the 2012 Make Your Mark Campaign, the ASC’s annual fund drive, at Queens University. “She has a presence where she’s really able to transform into this queen figure,” said Newton. “She has a way of capturing Queen Charlotte and who she was. She never, ever breaks character.”
Discovering her craft
Pleasant’s acting career started in her teens. At 17, she starred as Susannah Barnett, a daughter of the Revolution, in the period television film “Of Quilts and Sabres” on WTVI. Even though she was young, director Donald Devet, who later filmed her as Queen Charlotte for Charlotte Viewpoint, felt she could play Barnett at ages 14, 19 and 90.
“That was the first moment when I realized I knew what I was doing,” said Pleasant, 48. “What I had inside of me is not what everyone walks around with.”
Alongside her in the film was actor Jonathan Hadley as her brother William Barnett. Hadley would later become one of the original cast members of the Broadway musical “Jersey Boys.” The two became lifelong friends and studied together at the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem. There Pleasant met and married fellow acting student Henry Cabaniss. The two performed and lived in New York for three years and eventually returned to Charlotte in 2006.
When Cabaniss left full-time acting to earn his law degree, Pleasant stayed home to raise their two sons, Emory Cabaniss, now 19, and Greyson Cabaniss, 15, and put her acting career on the backburner. She still took workshops, including one in Oxford, England, in 2001 as part of the British American Drama Academy with John Barton, an authority on Shakespearean acting. Well-known actors like Alan Rickman performed alongside Pleasant.
“It’s a craft thing,” she said. “You have to learn from good actors.”
Inspiration from puppetry
While she was considered a classically trained actor, Pleasant’s methods were not always academic. Of all things, puppetry gave Pleasant the inspiration for performing as Queen Charlotte.
Charles and Jane Hadley, professors at Queens University and Jonathan’s parents, hired Pleasant to teach their puppetry workshop, where she made a miniature replica of Queen Charlotte. That’s when she started playing with the ideas of monarchs and celebrities.
“I was just so curious about how Charlotte might like to see Queen Charlotte,” she said.
Becoming a queen
Pleasant heavily researched the monarch. The wife of English King George III, Queen Charlotte Sophia of Mecklenburg-Strelitz of Germany was born in 1744. She never actually visited the town of Mecklenburg that Carolina settlers named for her in 1762. Instead, she lived in England and raised 13 children.
The cousin of Marie Antoinette, queen of France, the monarch was a great supporter of the arts and then 8-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who, according to Pleasant, dedicated six sonatas to her. Today, Charlotte is still known as the “Queen City,” which is reflected in landmarks like Queens University.
In October 2011, Pleasant reinvigorated her acting career with a new muse. Since her children were older, the time was right to craft her persona as Queen Charlotte. Pleasant built an authentic wardrobe with the help of local costumer Jamey Varnadore, Morris Costumes, and local theater friends.
In Spring 2012, the hair department of “Jersey Boys,” then touring in Charlotte with her friend Jonathan Hadley, made her a professional wig. The new ‘do topped off her increasingly authentic look. Guests who saw her at arts and community events took notice.
“It does seem to be very fun for people,” she said. “They seem to get a little flustered.”
Stacey Kammerdiener, who hosted the ASC campaign on behalf of Queens University, can attest to such reactions. People “talked about (meeting Queen Charlotte) for days after,” said Kammerdiener. “It’s definitely a unique thing.”
Supporting the arts
This past March, Pleasant returned to WTVI and filmed public service announcements as Queen Charlotte for the financially flagging station. In late March, the Mecklenburg County Commission voted on merging WTVI with Central Piedmont Community College to prevent the station from going off the air on June 30.
The queen’s speech, which included her working on a needlepoint while espousing the values of public television, appeared on the station and the front page of its website. Her plea may have swayed the commission vote – the deal passed on March 20.
Pleasant plans to educate people about the arts in schools as Queen Charlotte. She will also appear at the Democratic National Convention, possibly welcoming delegates to the city.
She is paid for her public appearances as the monarch and has a home décor design business called A Perfected Palette. She is looking to expand Queen Charlotte’s empire – particularly her wardrobe – and her role as an ambassador of the arts in Charlotte. After a day wearing the crown, she wonders what Queen Charlotte may have thought about her.
“I think she would like me,” Pleasant said.