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Reviving South End Theatre More Than Just a Lark

by John Schacht

March 1, 2015

Photo caption: The braintrust at Donna Scott Productions, featuring (left to right), Glynnis O'Donoghue,   Do    DonnTon  ,             Donna Scott and Tonya Bludsworth.

 

In the early 2000s, attending theatre in Charlotte’s South End could be, no pun intended, a sketchy proposition — but at least it was possible. The area’s warehouse district housed the Southend Performing Arts Center (SPAC), home to the Barebones Theatre Group and, toward the end of its five-year-run there, the Off Tryon Theatre Group. Both troupes specialized in small-scale, independent productions at a cozy venue tucked into the warren of backstreets that bordered one of the city’s more crime-plagued neighborhoods.

Everyone knows what’s happened since — South End’s cheap real estate, funky warehouse spaces and proximity to downtown made it a magnet for gentrification and renewal. Naturally, the Lynx light rail proved a boon to the area. But another key draw was that the South End's rebirth tended to absorb, rather than bulldoze, its arts-friendly past, visible most prominently in its boutique shops, art galleries and music venues.

Missing from the equation, though, was theatre. And it was that absence that sparked Donna Scott Productions and Center City Partners’ Historic South End consortium to team up and bring theatre back to the South End — only with the substantial twist of having the performances put on in one non-traditional venue after another. So, following a successful two-night reading in late January at the Charlotte Trolley museum, Donna Scott Productions presents, Shiloh Rules, a play by Doris Baizley, which will run March 5-14 at the Charlotte Art League on Camden Road.

This latest venue/production collaboration highlights a couple of anniversaries — the Charlotte Art League celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2015, while DSP has hit the 10-year mark. But it’s also a concession that, for now at least, a stand-alone theatre has been priced out of South End.

“It’d be great if we had a permanent home for theatre in South End like a black box theatre, or some kind of shared theatre space,” says Tobe Holmes, director of Historic South End. “But the reality of that, after having looked into it, is that we’d be left in a position to raise a significant amount of money. The shape of the warehouse district as it used to be, in terms of real estate values, and what it is now —  it’d be really, really difficult to put one of those things together. So in the meantime, while we poke around and think of ideas, let’s not wait on bringing a theatre to South End, let’s go ahead and do it in non-traditional spaces — and that became part of the draw.”

Scott and Holmes only met at a Theatre Charlotte production in May, 2014, but the timing was fortuitous. Scott and her two partners in DSP, playwright Tonya Bludsworth and actor/writer Glynnis O'Donoghue, were itching to do something in South End. They were especially keen to bring back the small-scale productions that had once dotted the Charlotte scene at intimate 80- or 100-seat venues like SPAC or the Clement Avenue CAST space.

Within a week of meeting, Scott and Holmes were scouting South End for possible performance spaces. “We looked at the empty warehouses, we looked at the back of breweries, we looked at spaces in the back of businesses,” says Scott, who in January was named one of “15 People to Watch in 2015” by Creative Loafing. “All of this started lining up, and it became clear to Tonya and Glynnis and myself that a door was opening and that we needed to run through really fast.”

It also dovetailed with the Arts & Science Council grant application cycle — a process Scott has been familiar with, and successful at, over the course of her production company’s 10 years. Once DSP landed a $5,000 ASC grant, she and Holmes began finalizing sites, and settled on the Charlotte Trolley museum first.

Fittingly, the museum space provided almost all of the challenges that “homeless” productions encounter. As Scott says, when it’s a non-traditional space, you’re often truly starting from scratch — from the stage, sound system and lighting to the non-existent box office. But she says that’s part of the appeal for the people she chooses to collaborate with.

“They love the idea of figuring it out —  that’s what’s kind of refreshing about all this,” Scott says, citing as one example long-time lighting designer Eric Winkenwerder’s task of lighting in a rigging-free environment. “I’ve had a lot of people ask me, ‘How hard is it to produce in a non-traditional space?’ and ‘How do the artists feel?’ and ‘How do the audiences respond?’ And the answer to all of those things are, they really love it because it’s different.”

Even Holmes says he registered some anxiety wondering how Scott and her co-producers would pull off a reading of the Bludsworth-penned Carrie Ann’s Kiss — which the playwright hired Scott to act in back in 2006 — in the high-ceilinged Charlotte Trolley building. He needn’t have worried, as it turned out.

“I walked in the Trolley museum the Wednesday before opening night, and the place is transformed,” Holmes says. “I think we made mothballing the concept of having a permanent theatre stage kind of interesting by opening it up to non-traditional spaces. It helps the draw out front.”

It also allows for some creative cross-promotion. For the DSP production of Shiloh’s Rules, Baizley’s dark comedy about female Civil War re-enactors, the performance will coincide with the Charlotte Art League’s gallery show featuring photography by locals Marcee Musgrove and Rob Yaeger. And the Friday, March 6 show will coincide with the monthly South End Gallery Crawl and Food Truck Friday.

All the interested parties see this as an opportunity to turn more people onto theatre, which is the big-picture point here anyway. And even though there are currently no concrete plans on the calendar for another DSP production in South End, Holmes says he’s already had discussions with both interested South End venues and people who’d like to perform in them. As for Scott, she sees these productions as a “gateway drug” to all Charlotte theatre, from Blumenthal and the Actor’s Theatre to CPCC productions.  

Of course, any future theatre productions will face the same hurdles that have plagued Charlotte since the turn of the century. Jim Yost, the director of Barebones, disbanded the group and eventually left in 2012 for the greener theatre stages of Chicago; the Carolinas Actors Studio Theatre closed in June, 2014 after a 22-year run, citing "financial pressures, dwindling attendance and difficulty raising money." 

The stakes, in other words, are higher than they may appear for theatre -- and not just for theatre in South End.  

“If we can figure this out, how to produce successfully in different places, then we can produce theatre anywhere,” Scott says, adding that "it's an important thing for us to figure out — and even though it isn’t easy, it’s very worth doing because everything that I’m reading about trends in theatre and the ways you reach new audiences really is headed in this direction.

“And that’s exactly what we’re trying to do — it’s meeting people where they live.”

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Tags: South End, Donna Scott Productions, Shiloh Rules, Donna Braizley, Barebones Theatre, CAST,

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