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Upstage End Sends Performing Arts Troupes Packing
Picture by Eric Cutchin
October 5, 2016
Photos: (top) The cast of Big Mamma D’s House of Burlesque at Upstage (Eric Cutchin photo); (below) Three Bone Theatre’s "The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence" at Upstage earlier this year (courtesy Three Bone Theatre)
"Happily ever after” is a literary device we’ve come to expect from a Disney movie and little else. Against all odds, the protagonist defeats his enemy, wins the hand of the damsel in distress and sails off into the sunset, the bright promise of tomorrow beckoning him forward. It may all seem naive, relishing the classic fairy tale the way that we do, but then we live in a world where a reality TV show host and serial prevaricator has a shot at the White House. There’s nothing wrong with a little wishful thinking.
So perhaps it’s fitting that the last event on Upstage’s calendar before it closes forever is titled “Disney After Dark”—it’s a little harder to find the happily-ever-after here knowing that the NoDa venue will be no more after Oct. 8.
The show, courtesy of Big Mamma’s House of Burlesque and taking place Saturday, offers a twisted burlesque version of Disney classics like Toy Story and Wreck-It Ralph, as well as a tribute to Labyrinth. “Disney After Dark” is the last event in a weekend of residencies saying goodbye to Upstage, formerly known as Wine Up. On Thursday, Touch One Productions brings its final night of spoken word and live music at the venue after a 12-year run, and Improv Charlotte’s monthly charity show takes place Friday.
Kelly Oyama is the owner of Upstage. She says the venue is closing because the building, which also houses Neighborhood Theatre, Sanctuary, Boudreaux’s and Salud, was sold to new owners, and she wasn’t offered a new lease. Besides that, she says, business has been challenging since the adjacent parking lot was sold to developers, who subsequently built an apartment complex.
In 2012, Oyama handed the reins to Michael Ford, who changed the business name to Upstage and sought to create a hub for performing arts. Because of Ford’s endeavors, smaller theater groups like Three Bone Theatre, Stephen Seay Productions and Innate Productions had a home.
“[Upstage] was a great venue for start-up companies and for companies that were doing edgier work,” says Robin Tynes, founding artistic director of Three Bone, which began hosting performances at Upstage in 2013. “We wouldn't be where we are now without having been able to work in a space we could afford and experiment in.”
Tynes says the layout and size of the 3,000-plus-square-foot space created a “gritty and intimate environment that was great for contemporary pieces.” In their second season, the group was able to put on their first full production of The Vagina Monologues, which sold out several shows.
For its 2016-17 season, Three Bone Theatre has secured a residency at Blumenthal’s Duke Energy Theatre in Spirit Square. “UpStage played a big role in helping us to grow to that point,” Tynes says.
Deana Pendragon, owner of Big Mamma’s House of Burlesque, has been performing at Upstage since it came under Ford’s management. She says the intimacy of the space really made her burlesque shows feel more cabaret than stage show. “When I come out to do my opening song, I immediately leave the stage and make my way through the audience, talking to people, greeting people, flirting with people,” she says. “It’s a part of the show. It’s like being in someone’s living room as opposed to being in a theater.”
With Upstage’s departure, Pendragon says she’ll focus on the other venue she performs in regularly, Visulite Theatre. She also says she’s in talks with Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte—which just recently found a new home on Freedom Drive after its longtime space on Stonewall Street was sold to developers—to possibly do late-night shows in the future.
Last month, ATC artistic director Chip Decker told the Observer that he wants to invite local theaters without permanent homes to make use of one of their property buildings. While that’s good news for up-and-coming theater companies, one problem remains: NoDa, the arts district, continues to not live up to its namesake.
With Upstage gone, “there will definitely be a vacuum created” in the neighborhood, Pendragon says. “When you’re looking for a place to do a live production and really all that’s left there is beer and bands.”
Jaycee Cowan of Touch One Productions, though, says it’s for that very reason that he’s making sure to stay in NoDa. He’s lived there for 16 years—long enough to see the support for arts in the neighborhood swell and now fall short. During that time, Touch One’s poetry night drew poets from all over the country, Cowan says.
Even though “it seems like [the powers that be are] cutting culture out of there so hard and fast,” Cowan says he wants to continue to bring arts to people—even if he ends up being the only one in the neighborhood to do so. After more than a decade with a weekly poetry night at Wine Up/Upstage, Cowan is taking his event down the street to the soon-to-open Caribbean restaurant Mangos. Until then, Touch One will be at Boudreaux’s, not missing a beat.
Despite the incredible opportunity Upstage offered smaller arts groups, in the end, money trumped art at the bottom line. Because of leasing issues, Oyama took back control of Upstage earlier this year, and discovered how hard it was to sustain Ford’s vision and pay rent.
With the sale of the building, she says, the venue’s closing is “just one little piece of the puzzle. I think you’re going to see a lot more [change] in the next two years.”