Lake Norman & Mooresville

Her passion brings theater to community

The moment Marla Brown knew she had made the right choice in opening a Cornelius theater was simple and heartfelt - much like the Warehouse Performing Arts Center itself.

An English octogenarian was reading his memoir from World War II to an audience that included his grandchildren. There was a moment when his granddaughter looked at her grandfather and realized, for the first time, that he had an interesting life before her.

"You saw a connection," said Brown, "and that's when I thought, OK, this can stay open."

Brown opened the theater in 2009 as a literary salon and renovated it a year later, adding more space as it grew and shifted to a more theatrical focus, becoming an understated "black box," or experimental, theater.

Brown, 42, who lives off Langtree Road in Mooresville, has produced six plays since, selecting shows with alternative and unique subjects and themes. Two of the plays were original, but for the most part the Warehouse produces award-winning shows.

"They're really well-known plays but they're not often done in community theater because of the subject matter," she said.

Brown recently worked on the theater's first play festival, Grave Comedies. With a comedy genre and a graveyard setting, it is different from what people expect and what other small theaters produce.

"This is not an award- winning play, but it's good," she said, "and it's new."

The festival's co-director, Cat Rutledge, 50, who lives on Grey Road in Davidson, called the shows "real comedies that have heart."

"I think it's going to be fun to see the audience's reaction," she said.

Rutledge and Brown have spent months working on the festival, narrowing more than 40 original submissions to seven 10-minute plays, featuring 13 actors.

"I'm excited for the whole thing," said Brown. "I'm excited for these performers - some of them haven't been on stage before. It's exciting for the playwrights.

"It's like a collective excitement, and I'm hoping the community will match that with interest."

The festival, with its thought-provoking, unusual material and community talent, represents the Warehouse in general. It survives through profits earned from the writing classes taught at the theater and from ticket sales. The Warehouse seats 50 and typically sells 35 tickets per performance.

The small budget is manageable, but don't expect flashy, showy sets or props.

"By focusing on the meat of theater, we don't have the expenditures a lot of theaters have," said Brown.

Producing high-quality, thought-provoking performances is the Warehouse's main goal - a much higher priority for Brown than expansion, despite the logistical challenges that arise from the Warehouse's size.

"Theater is a lot of behind-the-scenes, but we don't have a behind-the-scenes," she said.

Actors are asked to put up with the tight spaces, even waiting outside for cues or going around the building for the bathroom.

"People put up with it because they love what they're doing," said Rutledge. Theater "kind of consumes you; it makes you feel very alive. There's a passion there. It makes people a little more rich in their lives."

The passion is what drives Brown and Rutledge through the tedious administration and the nightmare of scheduling rehearsals that accommodate 15 busy lives.

Both women are mothers of two, so juggling personal lives and work with the Warehouse can be a challenge.

"You have to be flexible," said Rutledge.

"And laugh," Brown finished.

There are plenty of perks that make up for it. One of Brown's favorite parts of working in a community theater is getting to experience the talent of her neighbors.

"You open four walls, get some lighting, and suddenly you meet (talented people)," said Brown. "Within our community, there are so many talents."

Brown appreciates the investment in time audience members make to come to a production. The Warehouse tries to create a memorable experience with every show.

"If nothing else, theater should be entertaining," said Rutledge.

As director and occasional playwright and actress, Brown has worked to ensure the Warehouse remains a venue of artistic integrity and continuously produces high-quality performances that have meaning. She has not yet produced a show she has written because of a potential conflict of interest, but every show performed in the Warehouse carries her mark in some way.

"Marla is the Warehouse," said Rutledge.

"No, no, no, I'm not the Warehouse," Brown said. "The Warehouse is a community of people. I just own it."