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Body Image

by Karen Martin

March 5,2006

Later this month, a group of strong, committed and talented women are storming the McGlohon Theatre stage in Spirit Square to dissect the cultural myths of beauty and body image. I invite you to join us, to experience the magic and passion of locally-produced theatre.

I say “us” because I am honored and excited to be the first actor onstage in “The Body Chronicles,” performing Maya Angelou’s poem “Phenomenal Woman.” “The Body Chronicles” is the brainchild of Charlotte producer Donna Scott, who for years has advocated that women break free from social ideals of bodily perfection in order to celebrate their inner beauty. I am proud to be part of the show and, even more importantly, part of an event that reminds us of the power of theatre as an art form to promote thought and dialogue in our community.

Much ink and gossip have been devoted to the demise of Charlotte Repertory Theatre, the area’s only member of the League of Resident Theatres (LORT). What this means, in non-theatre-person terms, is that Charlotte no longer has a local full-time theatre company for grownups that can afford to pay its professionals – actors, directors, costumers, set designers, etc. – a living wage.

My non-theatre friends don’t get it. “But I saw ‘Annie’ at Ovens Auditorium!’” they say. “That’s local!”

Well, no, it wasn’t. It was a troupe of performers from elsewhere in the country that stopped in Charlotte for a few days while on tour. Sort of like the Rolling Stones: they set up a show, provide an evening or two of entertainment – the content of which, their audiences more or less expect – then hit the road for their next destination.

“I saw Cabaret at Theatre Charlotte,” my friends say. “That’s local!”

Yes, but unpaid. The gifted triple-threats you saw onstage are volunteers. They, and many of the people behind the scenes, gave their time and energy over a four-to-six-week rehearsal period because they are passionate about theatre. (Some production and technical assistants do receive a few hundred dollars for their hard work.)

Rest assured, there are talented theatre professionals in Charlotte producing significant shows with more than a half-dozen “fringe” theatre companies. Their productions have incorporated humor and drama and pathos to spotlight some very real issues, including mental illness, racism and messy relationships. (Talk about a hard-knock life!)

Yet these theatre companies, producing shows that may be unfamiliar and uncomfortable to wide audiences, often struggle to pay the heating bills, much less their actors and staff.

The homegrown talent often is forced to choose between living their vocation or making a living; without the prospect of a living wage in theatre, most work jobs that curtail the amount of free time that they could spend honing their craft. Many give up, pulling up roots from Charlotte and heading for places like Chapel Hill, Nashville and New York.

I understand the argument that it’s a matter of supply and demand: if theatre companies simply would produce what audiences want, they would sell plenty of tickets. Which begs the question: how could we theatergoers know what we want, unless we’ve seen it before? Should we not vacation somewhere exotic even though we heretofore have traveled only close to home? Should we not try to understand mental illnesses (or racism or messy relationships), even if we never before have confronted them?

With grace and thoughtfulness, “The Body Chronicles” tackles such issues as eating disorders, media ideals of body image, and social and parental pressure. Not palatable or comfortable topics, but important nonetheless. (For more information, go to www.thebodychronicles.com.) Proceeds benefit Charlotte-based Girls on the Run, the national nonprofit heralded on “Oprah” for promoting healthy living and self-image among pre-teen and teenage girls.

Perhaps this show doesn’t sound like your cup of tea - and that’s okay. One of the beautiful aspects of art is that each work is different. One work may hold more appeal for you than others.

I only hope that we as a city will continue to sample the dramatic arts offered by our local companies. Otherwise, these organizations will wither and take a piece of Charlotte’s elusive “soul” with them.

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