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Charlotte Theatre - Money Flatters - But Substance Matters

by Matt Cosper

October 9,2010

Charlotte loves money, growth, and all things new and shiny. We often obsess about surfaces without giving too much thought to substance. The preoccupation with money is so pervasive that it has even infected our theatre scene. And yet, amidst the obsession, inferiority complexes and fretting, Charlotte is still essentially a city without professional theatre. We can’t seem to make it happen, and it is driving us crazy! I think we need to chill out and re-assess. Make no mistake; I wish fervently that Charlotte, as a city of its size, would decide that it needs a professional theatre producing classics and new works on a large scale. That kind of organization is an asset to any community, economically and culturally. But it hasn’t happened yet, and I don’t see it in the near future.

Still, there is a large and thriving theatre scene in Charlotte. A lot of theatre is being done, and some of it is quite exciting. Much of it is underwhelming though, and I think a lot of the blame can be laid on an obsession with size and money that far outstrips a potentially more useful obsession with quality.

The amazing growth and success of Children’s Theatre of Charlotte has convinced many theatre makers in Crowntown that bigger is better, and that superior production values are a substitute for innovative, engaged, and skillful storytelling. The irony is delicious, as Alan Poindexter, the city’s reigning master of grand spectacle and CTC’s Artistic Director, made his name and his reputation creating work with nearly non-existent budgets. His work for Children’s Theatre’s Ensemble Company had literally no budgets. But those plays were fierce and engaging, and for local audiences they were events. The work was good, and people spread the word, hungry for strong art. Children’s Theatre grew to become the champion of local theatre by telling stories that mattered with a distinctive voice. The budgets came afterward. And now I feel local artists and other smaller companies straining to create spectacle in lieu of telling stories well. This is a misdirected strategy doomed to failure.

Find a way to make the work good. Straining to find money to tart up your lackluster work won’t fool anybody for very long. A pretty set impresses audiences, but if you aren’t directing the action with insight and leading your actors towards truth, you’re going to lose your audience pretty quickly and they won’t come back. Those who have ears please hear: Substance Matters.

There is good news though: there are warriors out there who are making something out of nothing, and putting their energy into making work that matters, and making it well. I can’t name everyone doing good work but I would like to plug two companies that I hope you will support. I am so encouraged to see the work that Mark and Meredith Sutton are doing with PlayPlay! Theatre, introducing the joy of storytelling and the magic of live theatre to the very young and their families. Their original production Uh-Oh! was easily the best piece of theatre I saw last season, and was performed to an audience of toddlers. They are playing with a new audience and always with an eye to quality and substance first. Also, Jimmy Cartee and his Citizens of the Universe put up raw boned and exciting theatre experiences aimed directly at audiences who largely scorn the theatre, and as Jimmy imposes more and more rigor on himself and his actors, the work is growing into something very exciting.

It’s awesome – and more is coming! I hear rumor and see evidence of more local artists girding their loins and heading once more into the breach, hopefully dedicating themselves to doing it right, because local audiences deserve it and are hungry for it. I feel them asking themselves and their community some truly important questions. What are the stories we need to tell each other? How can we tell these stories with more urgency and more truth? What are the ways we can connect? It all becomes very simple when you get down to it: a group of people coming together in the dark to share a story, to breathe the same air, to remember that we are human. It is simple and it often lacks the glamour to which we are addicted, but it is real, and it resonates.

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