The numbers have looked encouraging: no less than 18 separate shows running, simultaneously, on stages across the area as we’ve headed into the largest regional theater and dance season in years.
That metric, along with the five new companies we reported on in preview coverage of the fall season, speaks to significant new growth as artistic communities return to active practice after two years of fluctuating levels in social and artistic lockdown.
But even as the newest of the new, including LGB Productions and Firebox Theatre, opened their first works, disquieting developments were unfolding offstage with the potential to affect not only their long-term health and survival but that of fledgling companies like them.
As the season starts, three venues that in the past have dependably provided a home for such groups—Pure Life Theatre, North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre (NRACT), and the Renaissance Centre in Wake Forest—have either seen their spaces close or signaled that they are unable to host groups at the levels they previously have.
Why is that a big deal? Over two-thirds of the region’s 90-odd theater and dance companies are itinerant, with no permanent rehearsal or performance spaces of their own. Before they can develop and place new works in the public eye, they have to find a place that lets them show up in the world.
Since demand for affordable, reliable spaces that can also serve as functional theaters has always outstripped the available supply, new arrivals in the numbers that we’re seeing are likely to place further stress on a performance ecosystem already ill-equipped to handle the artists here at present.
“It’s extremely, extremely difficult,” says David Henderson, cofounder of Honest Pint Theatre. “Venues for small itinerant companies are hard to find.”
Since its inception in 2013, the independent group has regularly won superlatives as one of the region’s strongest companies. While planning its current season, it has also struggled to find a viable space in which to present its work to the public, after Pure Life and NRACT, the two companies that had hosted the group in recent years, both unexpectedly flashed the “no vacancy” sign.
At NRACT, a full season of eight productions precludes presenting other companies through next June.
“We’ve got to recoup what we lost from COVID,” says managing artistic director Timothy Locklear. Paying top-dollar rent during the lockdown on a retail space in a tony North Raleigh shopping center burned through most of the company’s savings and donations. “We’re just trying to get back to a place where we can continue,” says Locklear, who hopes to resume hosting groups next year.
The people at Pure Life certainly didn’t think they would join the ranks of the nomadic themselves this fall. Since January 2020, the group had shared office, rehearsal, and performance space with a collective of itinerant companies including Sips & Scripts and Seed Art Share, and hosted groups including the enigmatic Other Only Windows at its base of operations in Raleigh’s Royal Bakery building.
But when faced with a significant rent increase on top of intractable noise issues from an adjacent event space, the group made plans to transition to a new venue by midsummer. After those plans fell through at the last minute, “we had to literally move the theater twice,” says company cofounder Deb Royals-Mizerk, as the group put its office and theatrical equipment in storage. “It took a huge toll on us, both physically and on our psyches.”
Then came the challenge of finding new locations for the five productions Pure Life had already planned. Its season opener, a notable August production of August Wilson’s Fences, landed at William Peace University. A Motown cabaret sold out last Friday in Wake Forest; subsequent shows will play this winter and next spring in Durham, Raleigh, and Cary.
Royals-Mizerk stresses that the company is still actively searching with real estate brokers for a venue “where we can share space with the emerging companies we’re already committed to working with.” Until it does, the nine companies named in its collective must look elsewhere for places where they can be seen.
Whatever solution they come up with will come too late for the fall season at Forest Moon Theater. The company canceled the season after learning it could no longer secure its longtime presenters at Renaissance Centre, a performing arts venue run by the city of Wake Forest, for a two-weekend run for its shows—the minimum booking that almost all itinerant companies believe they need to stay sustainable.
(Conventional wisdom and company track records across the region suggest that theaters come close to breaking even after family and friends attend a show’s first week and usually only make a profit from word-of-mouth ticket sales in the second week.)
That hadn’t been a problem in the venue’s early years. From 2015 to 2018, Forest Moon ran full seasons of four multi-week shows at Renaissance Centre each year. But in 2019, the center asked them to cut back to three—the last of which was canceled at the start of the pandemic. Given the struggle everyone was experiencing attempting to return from lockdown over the last year, Forest Moon acquiesced to a two-show season, with a single-weekend run of The Odd Couple in October and a February production of The Diary of Anne Frank, which the company then canceled with the advent of the Omicron variant.
Push came to shove in a meeting last month in which Forest Moon board members told management at the center that they couldn’t survive on single-weekend shows—and were offered only a single-weekend slot in the fall and spring seasons.
The company’s counter request for a single production running two weekends was also rejected.
When Forest Moon subsequently went dark this fall, the move surprised and saddened center manager Debbie Dunn.
“I didn’t realize we were moving in that direction,” she says.
Both sides acknowledge that space has gotten tighter as demand for private and public bookings at the center has increased in recent years. It’s also agreed that Forest Moon has never sold out the center—deliberately, according to company director Bob Baird, since sightlines in the room make viewing a stage play difficult beyond the fourth or fifth row.
“We’ve tried to limit our house to a maximum of 100 seats,” Baird says. “I’m sure we’re not a money-making proposition for them.”
Though the Renaissance Centre’s mission statement includes presenting community theater by name, such bookings involve “a delicate balance,” according to Dunn. Since the venue is funded by the city, it has to critically consider and favor bookings that generate larger audiences.
At the same time, Dunn acknowledges that problematic sightlines have kept theater houses small and says the venue is testing a staging technology this fall that might help solve that problem and permit theater groups to mount productions that would be visible to full houses. Even if it works, though, with growing demand she’s uncertain if Renaissance Centre will have room in their calendar going forward to accommodate Forest Moon’s traditional four-show seasons.
Still, she says, “We are huge fans of Forest Moon Theater and have worked very hard to help them be successful,” Dunn says. “At the end of the day, we’re all trying to do the same thing—which is bring art to our communities.”
As it turns, others are making concerted efforts to loosen the space squeeze in the region this fall, and not a moment too soon. Stay tuned.
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