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A Review Of Theater, 7 Years After Rep's Closing

The Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance is a collaborative effort of WFAE, the Charlotte Observer, WCNC-TV, QCityMetro.com,

The Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance is a collaborative effort of WFAE, the Charlotte Observer, WCNC-TV, QCityMetro.com, Charlotte Viewpoint and UNC-Charlotte to enhance arts coverage in our region. An audience waits for a play to begin. It's been nearly seven years since the Charlotte Repertory Theatre shut down. The theater gained national attention and controversy in the late-90s for its production of Angels in America because it had seven seconds of male frontal nudity. But the "Rep," as it was called, was so much more. It was the linchpin in Charlotte's theater scene for nearly 30 years until leadership problems, dwindling community support and financial struggles forced the Rep to shut down. As a result, Charlotte is now one of the few large cities without a full-time professional theater. When the Rep closed in 2005, actor Stephen Ware had to make a decision if he was going to continue acting full-time: He either had to move or go on the road. He decided to stay in Charlotte, but he's often out of town. "(I'm) currently in High Point with the N.C. Shakespeare Festival, with Flat Rock Playhouse, with Blowing Rock Stage Co. which is currently in hiatus, I hope they come back soon, N.C. Stage Company in Asheville," Ware said. These are full-time Equity theaters, or theaters that regularly use Equity talent in their productions. Equity refers to the Actor's Equity Association, the union for professional actors. For most actors in Equity productions in North Carolina, the base salary is between $566 and $882 a week, plus health and pension benefits. That's according to the union. If Ware decided to stick around Charlotte, he would make much less. Take Actor's Theatre of Charlotte, for example. The group's artistic director, Chip Decker, says the theater pays, on average, a flat rate of about $1,100 per show. That's with all the rehearsals and performances and doesn't include benefits. While Charlotte has great theaters staging quality productions, the loss of an Equity company has left a hole in the local theater scene, says Julie York Coppens. She's a former theater critic for The Charlotte Observer. "What happens is those artists who made that commitment, they can't live in Charlotte anymore," Coppens said. "They have to go elsewhere. So you lose the guest artists program in schools, the acting tutors that go to the high schools and do workshops. You lose an entire community of artists. They go away and there is a tremendous loss." Theaters in Charlotte will bring in Equity talent for productions as needed. In those limited cases, they only bring in one or two actors. The rest of the actors in the production don't get the same benefits. "Without a resident Equity company, there's only two or three other theaters in town that go through Equity to write a guest artist contract," Ware said. "It's infrequent that I work in Charlotte." Actor's Theater of Charlotte has a budget of about $750,000. An Equity production just isn't feasible, says the group's Chip Decker. But the theater tried in 2007. "We loved the productions; it was just very expensive. We would like to move back to Equity. But we really have to be financially on really, really, really, really excellent ground," Decker said. And it's a challenge to get that kind of support in Charlotte. "You look at Minnesota. It's 40-below, there's snow on the ground, the traffic's not moving, but every show will be sold out at capacity, because they have such a solid support community for the arts," Decker said. "Charlotte's not quite there yet." Well, it depends on the production, says Charlotte Observer theater critic Lawrence Toppman. Mainstream shows, like "Jersey Boys," are well-attended at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center. But something edgy is going to have a tough run. "When they take a risk and bring in a show like "Next to Normal," which is a challenging show about a psychologically-disturbed woman, one, it goes into the Knight Theater instead of the Belk, and, two, there are empty seats, because that simply isn't going to reach a wider audience," Toppman said. Toppman says the Rep was the company that pulled all the strings in the fabric of local theater together. "We get bits and pieces of what Charlotte Rep did, but the main thing they did was to get people thinking about theater in a broader context," Toppman said. So what would it take to have an Equity theater in Charlotte again? "At least one person with the drive to start from nothing, deep pockets in order to pay for the loss and to anticipate very little financial help for the first three years, and a repertoire that wasn't being done just as well or better, and in more familiar place around the city," Toppman said. In other words, the city would need some angels.