Any stage manager will tell you: the real drama’s always offstage.
Such was the case at the start of a roaring fall season here, when 39 separate productions over its first three weeks pushed local venues to their capacity.
But that triumph came just as the area’s itinerant theater and dance companies—the groups with no rehearsal or performance space of their own, which constitute more than two-thirds of the region’s performing arts community—got a nasty shock. As the INDY reported last week, three prominent venues either closed or signaled that they were cutting back, a move that left the largest demographic group in live arts here with even fewer places and opportunities to show their works.
Then, in a Shakesperean plot twist, four venues across the area began stepping up to give stage artists a place where they can be seen and audiences a place to come for live theater and dance.bull
As we talk, Jack Reitz surveys his surroundings with a bemused eye: a 1,600-square-foot cube inside the Warehouse building at Golden Belt, nestled between Hi-Wire Brewing, Urban Tails Veterinary Hospital, and Cugino Forno.
At the moment, the decor around a mid-room cherry picker poised to hang theatrical light and sound rigging is nothing if not industrial: Sheetrock and construction dust coat the floor, a table filled with blueprints, pizza boxes and coffee cups, and stacks of carpet squares and uninstalled bathroom fixtures off to one side.
Still, Reitz is confident that by late October, the 60-seat theater will be ready for a soft opening as the new space for the award-winning improvisational comedy collective Mettlesome. That in itself is a welcome change of fortune for a group including founder Ashley Melzer and comedians April Dudash, Lauren Foster-Lee, Jonathan Yeomans, and Hillary Yonce, who’d schlepped a truckful of chairs to venues across the region before a yearlong residency at the late, great Geer Street coworking space, The Mothership.
“Programming that space for a full year taught us that we were able to do this,” Reitz recalls. “Then, when we went dark for the pandemic, there was not a doubt that we would be back.” Over 200 patrons contributed $41,500 to a Kickstarter fundraiser to build a theater for Mettlesome, which the group supplemented with savings it had accrued since its start. Golden Belt property management also chipped in on the upfitting necessary to make the new digs a functional performance space.
When it opens, Mettlesome will present signature company acts including Hush Hush and Golden Years, as well as a selection of local improv comedy troupes on Friday and Saturday nights. It will also host regional theater and dance groups; after opening, the company is installing a sprung floor to accommodate dancemakers as well as other stage artists.
Bulldog Ensemble Theater, an edgy group with a taste for present-day scripts, will stage an urban comedy called The Garbologists at Mettlesome November 3–13. And choreographers Alyssa Noble and Chris Strauss from Barriskill Dance Theatre will produce Recital, an odd, original variety show of embodied performances, the weekend of November 18-19.
“So many of the Triangle’s art worlds are siloed,” Reitz says. “We’re really hoping we have a space where artists of different disciplines can come and show each other their work in a way that’s inspiring for everybody. We’re hungry to host other artists.”
While putting the finishing touches on the main stage at Theatre Raleigh, producing artistic director Lauren Kennedy Brady has been quietly adding to what she now calls the company’s “campus” on Old Wake Forest Road. A studio space one block away has hosted children’s theater groups, a five-star late summer production of David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face, and readings by the North Carolina Playwrights Lab.
The company is now gearing up to present a lot more local groups. It’s hired rental manager Allison Dellinger Hopfer to administrate not only the studio but two new spaces it’s bringing online in January 2023: a 99-seat studio theater adjacent to its main stage and a cabaret-style theater at the end of its present lobby.
“In essence, we’ll have four performance spaces in the footprint we have right now,” Brady says.
The drive to open up new spaces is more artistic than it is economic, Brady adds. “I love a creative space where different artists from different companies and backgrounds are working. You feed off each other’s creativity and the enthusiasm and excitement of what’s happening.”
In the fall and spring seasons, Theatre Raleigh will host companies including Honest Pint Theatre and Pure Life Theatre, groups that were both unhoused during the space squeeze this year. “We’re extremely excited to be there,” says Honest Pint cofounder David Henderson. “We have a good feeling for what we’re getting.”
The demand for the new spaces has taken Brady by surprise; at this point, only a handful of weeks remain available for the four rooms through 2023. “It’s taken off faster than I expected,” she says.
Memorable theater can happen in nontraditional spaces. In August, a cast of local independent stage royalty including Marcia Edmundson, Lenore Field, and Thaddeus Edwards staged a production of David Lindsay-Abaire’s dark comedy Ripcord at Lanza’s Cafe, a cozy neighborhood coffeehouse in Carrboro.
When producer Edith Snow had gone looking for a place to break the pandemic’s long theatrical fast, Catherine Coley and Christina Vad, co-owners of Lanza’s Cafe, said yes.
“They were fantastic from the start,” Snow says. “They made it very clear they wanted to be the hosts of an artistic community.”
The town has been all but a theatrical desert in recent years, but during Ripcord’s one-weekend run, crowds filled a hodgepodge of vintage love seats, couches, and upholstered chairs at the café.
Such settings are no problem when the acting, directing, and script are all top-rate. At night’s end, enthusiastic applause—and queries about future shows—arose from the audience. In addition to coffee, tea, and baked goods, Coley and Vad’s funky venue also offers a robust menu of weekly events across the arts, including open mic nights, monthly poetry jams, and an independent short film series for regional filmmakers to show their works.
They’re also accepting proposals for further theatrical productions.
First through the doors this fall will be theatrical gadflies Ian Bowater and Paul Deblinger, who bring their unique version of the improvised two-person drama, Ian and Paul’s One-Man Show, to the café in free performances and workshop sessions on their techniques on October 8, November 11, and December 10.
“I never knew that space was that much of a challenge for local artists,” Vad notes. “But the arts need to be more expressed in community spaces that are free and accessible.” Co-owner Coley concurs: “It’s part of our mission to provide a safe space for people to gather and express creativity, collaboration, communication, and community.”
Most recently, Back-to-One Acting Studio hosted Scrap Paper Shakespeare’s debut production of Julius Caesar last weekend in its dance and acting studio classroom space on Capital Boulevard.
A room-length mirrored wall was draped, as were skylight windows on the opposite wall for the Sunday matinee; a modest array of general theatrical lights hung from the room’s suspended ceiling. Even if the sight lines in the narrow 75-seat room weren’t the greatest, the venue was available and affordable—the two things a starting company needs the most.
“We’d love to be able to help produce maybe four shows a year,” co-owner Daryl Ray Carliles says. “You’ve got to start somewhere; we just want to give companies that want that beginning step a working performance or rehearsal space before they go to bigger places.”
So do these developments solve the space squeeze for local performing arts groups? Hardly, says longtime arts administrator Devra Thomas.
“Because just so many amazing artists want to do their work here, even if you added five more venues, there will still be more work than available space,” Thomas says. “The question is, How do we as a community try to accommodate that? How do we make sure people are able to get their work seen?”
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