Charlotte's community theaters had a challenging 2021. Next year may be another tough act.
The coronavirus pandemic in 2020 was devastating enough for Charlotte's small stable of community theaters, and for many of them, 2021 wasn't much better.
Not only did the pandemic continue to limit their ability to stage shows and draw in audiences, but the number of theater spaces available for community productions also shrunk, leaving some companies scrambling to find new spaces.
Most notably, Theatre Charlotte has spent a full year without a space of its own after an early morning fire on Dec. 28, 2020, badly damaged half of its historic auditorium on Queens Road.
A year later, the auditorium is still a long way from being fully repaired. The theater's executive director, Chris Timmons, said it may not be until fall 2022 before the auditorium is ready to reopen. Until then, the theater will have to keep looking for temporary performance spaces.
Also this year, Spirit Square in uptown Charlotte shut down for a major redevelopment that will take years to complete. Many local theater groups had relied on the arts complex for its two performance spaces — the Duke Energy black box theater and the historic McGlohon Theater — but with those spaces gone, groups including Three Bone Theatre had to uproot themselves and look for performance spaces elsewhere.
On top of that, the pandemic continued to wreak havoc on plans to restart in-person shows, and it cut at least one show's run short — Actor's Theatre's "Rock of Ages" — when some cast members tested positive for COVID-19.
Still, local theater groups were largely able to improvise and get through the year with new, pandemic-friendly approaches.
One of the trends that emerged early in the year was virtual shows. Actor's Theatre of Charlotte produced a weekly variety show called ATC's Neighborhood that ran through April 2021. Theatre Charlotte streamed a social-justice-minded production of "Unarmed and Dangerous," in March, and Children's Theatre of Charlotte offered a number of virtual shows early in the year.
While the streaming shows successfully brought actors and crew back to work, they generally under-performed in ticket sales. Chip Decker, executive director at Actor's Theatre, said "ATC's Neighborhood" only brought in a couple of hundred dollars in total. By comparison, he said, a pre-pandemic mainstage show could typically generate tens of thousands of dollars in ticket sales.
"It was terrible," he said, "There was no money made. A couple hundred bucks, maybe."
And while his group was very experienced at staging shows for a live audience, they didn't necessarily have the skills needed to produce quality content for the screen, and the content didn't always translate well over a live stream.
"I feel like, as theater producers, we have no business trying to create television," Decker said. "It's crazy that we were trying to make things for broadcast."
Later in the year, as coronavirus cases began to decline in the spring and summer, some local theaters began exploring outdoor shows. Theatre Charlotte staged an outdoor production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," and Actor's Theatre staged two outdoor shows at a farm in Monroe. The two shows, "Rock of Ages," and "The Rocky Horror Show," saw modest success, Decker said, with the latter nearly having a sell-out run.
Still, the outdoor productions at Actor's Theatre and Theatre Charlotte didn't pull in as much revenue as typical pre-pandemic shows, the theaters said, and they came with their own set of technical challenges.
The companies had to figure out how to pull off outdoor sound and lighting. Actor's Theatre had to rent and manage Porta-Potties for audience members, and unpredictable weather was perhaps the biggest challenge of all.
"Where we pulled our hair out was looking at the weather and wondering if we were going to have to cancel shows because it wasn't like we could just move inside," said Timmons, executive director of Theatre Charlotte.
The final performance of "Midsummer" was nearly canceled due to the rain, but Timmons said they were able to move indoors at the last minute.
The year wasn't a complete wash, however. Many actors, crew members and theater-goers were happy that theater was happening at all after a year in quarantine.
Also, one of Charlotte's smaller theater groups, Three Bone Theatre, celebrated its 10th anniversary. The company is known for staging contemporary adult shows, such as the much-acclaimed "Protective Custody: Prisoner 34042," which was filmed and live streamed in April.
Three Bone's executive director, Robin Tynes-Miller, also celebrated a milestone in October as she became the company's first full-time employee.
"Which is huge!" she said, "Up until now, the first 10 years of our life as Three Bone, we've all had day jobs."
Still, Three Bone had to scramble to find a new performance space after the Spirit Square shut down, and although they've temporarily set up at the Arts Factory on West Trade Street, it's unclear if they will remain there.
Looking ahead to 2022, the pandemic will likely remain the biggest challenge for local theater groups. The directors of Actor's Theatre, Theatre Charlotte and Three Bone all say they would like to fully return to indoor, in-person shows, where they're more comfortable and have more control over the environment — but only if pandemic conditions allow.
The stakes are high. Each theater group in Charlotte is its own small community hub, where actors, crew members and audiences gather in a special kind of fellowship. If the pandemic keeps stretching on, it's something Charlotte may stand to lose.