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More South End Theater by Enterprising DSP Company

by Kimberly Lawson

More South End Theater by Enterprising DSP Company

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Picture by Weldon Weaver Photography

August 1, 2015

Photo: The cast of Donna Scott Productions' show, The Book of Liz, by Amy and David Sedaris (from l-r, Tania Kelly, Matt Corbett, Field Cantey, Donna Scott and Tonya Bludsworth

It’s a mid-July Tuesday evening, and inside Charlotte Art League on Camden Road I find Glynnis O'Donoghue, one-third of the Donna Scott Productions team, taking charge of a small group of people. As she welcomes me into an expansive lobby, the others make jokes amongst themselves, their voices bouncing off the tall ceilings. White walls and gray cement floors offer a blank canvas for the hanging works of art.

It turns out that canvas serves well for live theater as well. These folks are here for a rehearsal of their upcoming production The Book of Liz, and I’m the proverbial fly on the wall.

While theater rehearsals are commonplace in Charlotte, this one’s a little different: Charlotte Art League is by no means a performing arts venue. There’s no stage, no set lights, no box office. But for now it’s an answer to a serious cultural gap in South End.

For their 10-year anniversary, O’Donoghue and her DSP cohorts Donna Scott and Tonya Bludsworth have made it their mission to make a theatrical splash in South End this year, and so far, they’ve done just that. In a neighborhood that’s home to a monthly gallery crawl and weekly food truck rallies, what’s been lacking for some time are the performing arts.

That’s why DSP partnered with Historic South End to find nontraditional spaces to perform in. In January, they presented a two-night staged reading of Carrie Ann’s Kiss at the Charlotte Trolley Museum. In March, they took on the challenge of doing a fully staged production – Shiloh Rules – at the Charlotte Art League.

This month, with O’Donoghue donning the director’s hat and Bludsworth in the title role, DSP brings the comedy The Book of Liz, written by siblings Amy and David Sedaris, for a three-week run  Aug. 6-8, 12-15 and 19-22

The Book of Liz tells the story of Sister Elizabeth Donderstock, who is Squeamish (think Amish) and makes a killer cheeseball, and her foray into the outside world after leaving her community. She finds work at a family restaurant run by recovering alcoholics, and her biggest flaw is that she sweats profusely. (It’s something O’Donoghue reminds the cast during rehearsal: “In general, when you touch Liz, she’s wet.”)

As I watch the cast practice their lines and entries, it’s not hard to become captivated by the storyline, despite the lack of set and costumes. Chairs are placed in the center of the staging area, but little else provides an outsider like me any context. Yet I find myself smiling at some great one-liners by Bludworth’s Liz, even as they rehearse scenes over and over.

A couple of times, O’Donoghue tells the actors – Bludsworth, Scott, Matt Corbett, Field Cantey and Tania Kelly – to speak “in full voice, articulating your lines.” She mentions the stuffiness in the space and says the air conditioning will be on full blast during the show. I’m reminded once again that this is decidedly not a theater space.

In an interview later, Scott tells me the biggest challenge they’ve had in working in a nontraditional venue is simply “adapting and learning to embrace the space” for what it is.

“And of course it means physically bringing in everything,” she says. “In addition to lights and chairs, we provide our own box office, any platform staging, we have to drape areas to create back stage spaces and entrances/exits. We have to bring it all in and that's before we bring in anything that has to do with our actual play (props, costumes, set pieces). It's also a trick to choose how to stage the/a? play – we have to embrace the space and the fact that it's a gallery and we want people to see the artwork.”

DSP’s willingness to bring attention to the works inside the gallery has worked out well for CAL. Board member and treasurer Cindy Connelly says the partnership has provided a much needed “bump” for the gallery. “During Shiloh Rules, we sold 18 pieces of art just during that timeframe, and they only went for two weeks. So we made over $2,000 in commission, and CAL takes 20 percent. So there was a big jump in sales. We had eight patrons come back, said they were here during Shiloh Rules and they came back to the gallery and purchased more art. It was really good exposure for us.”

For further exposure, DSP has included an intermission in Book of Liz, which does not originally call for one. The break gives patrons a chance to peruse the gallery, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and get a closer look at the artwork. DSP also tapped one of CAL’s artists, Ráed Al Rawi, to paint part of the show’s set. And on gallery crawl night, the performance will start later, at 9:30 p.m., so CAL can get as much foot traffic as possible before closing the doors for the show.

“Some of it is like throwing the spaghetti against the wall and seeing what works for our partnership,” Scott says.

The reception certainly has been positive. Scott says South End has embraced what they’re doing, and as a result, DSP is involving other community partners for Book of Liz. “A good example is our cheeseball contest for opening night,” she explains. “We've asked five local businesses to contribute a cheeseball for judging, and our opening night audience will get to try them as well.”

Next month, DSP is partnering with Theatre Charlotte to bring an afternoon Backwards Broadway cabaret style show to CAL, as part of the Arts & Science Council's Connect with Culture Initiative on Sept. 19. They also hope to partner with an improv group for a holiday show later in the year. “We want the South End audiences to get a taste of all of the diverse types of live theatre going on across Charlotte,” Scott says, “and think this is the perfect way to give them a really fun experience in their own backyard.”

As O’Donoghue offers praises and criticisms between scenes, I realize the work the cast is putting into their performance is not unlike the work that many of the artists have put into the paintings that hang on the wall behind them. What started out as a blank canvas, with some ingenuity and determination, became complex works intended to incite a reaction. And while one set of artwork is two-dimensional and the other has breath and movement, both are worthy of an audience

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Tags: David Sedaris, Charlotte Art League, Donna Scott Productions, theater, South End, Arts & Science Council, Ráed Al Rawi,

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