Little about theater number ten at Durham’s Northgate Mall suggests that it could be a game changer for live performance in the region. The reddish-brown décor, muted runway lights, and 214 plush, rocking seats are typical of a modern movie theater. As the house lights dim and the trailers roll, you might not notice the two modest banks of theatrical LED lights nestled beyond the last pair of speakers on the walls or the unobtrusive gray dais standing eighteen inches off the floor beneath the screen.
But when Bartlett Theater opens its season with The Flick in this room on November 2, both will be unmistakable. In many ways, it’s the perfect venue for Annie Baker’s 2014 Pulitzer-winning drama, which is set in a movie theater undergoing changes in ownership and projection technology. Those shifts influence the relationships and fates of what the Pulitzer committee called “lives rarely seen on stage,” those of three disaffected young adults working jobs at subsistence wages.
But in this case, placing a play about a cinema in a cinema isn’t just another experiment in immersive, site-specific theater, an emerging genre of choice among the area’s younger thespians. It’s also the first trial of an ongoing project to transform this section of Northgate Mall into a regional destination for the performing arts.
As it happens, this project is but one of several initiatives set to roll out over the coming year designed to address a dilemma that has bedeviled regional stage artists for decades: an acute lack of spaces both suitable and affordable to make and present their work.
Across town, The Understudy, a project set in the foundation of The Tower at Mutual Plaza (Carl and Chaunesti Webb’s redevelopment of the N.C. Mutual Insurance Building), will provide studio, shop, and storage space for dance, theater, music, and video artists. Meanwhile, the American Dance Festival recently announced a new subsidy program that will provide choreographers access to its rehearsal studios at $10 per hour, a 75 percent discount from its professional rate.
All of these measures follow the closures in recent years of venues such as Chapel Hill’s Deep Dish Theater and Durham’s Common Ground and Manbites Dog Theater, which has sent cash-strapped artists scrambling for affordable alternatives. The Fruit, Tim Walter’s multi-purpose, multi-genre “arts space and creative playground” in Durham, has picked up some of the slack, hosting recent productions by the Women’s Theatre Festival, Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern, DIDA-affiliated artists, and Snap Pea Underground’s groundbreaking The Banquet. But the need for space—for performance, rehearsal, set fabrication, storage, and offices—among small and emerging performing arts groups clearly outstrips any single initiative or venue.
The Northgate plan involves transforming several of the Stadium 10 theaters and an adjacent storefront into venues suitable for a spectrum of live performances, including theater, dance, and music. For the mall, the impetus is to redevelop at a time when Credit Suisse predicts that a quarter of all U.S. malls will close by 2022.
“Most regional malls are struggling,” says Virginia Bowman, Northgate’s managing general partner. “Retail is shrinking, so we have to look at better uses of our facilities. We all have to change, explore, and try new things.”
Northgate’s transformation is already underway, with a corporate office and professional tenants such as Measurement Incorporated and Duke Medicine occupying central parts of a mixed-use campus. The arts have had a presence at the mall at least since the 2011 opening of the Durham Arts Council’s Clay Studio, and Bowman thought, after the closure of Manbites, that the performing arts could be a part of the redevelopment. She hired regional theater designer Shannon Clark, who has managed the arts facilities at Cary Academy, to draw upon his knowledge of the infrastructure demands of live performance and the local creative ecosystem.
But blueprints and projections can only get you so far. Now Clark and Bowman need hard data from actual productions to convince city government of the project’s viability. At stake are potential grants to help upfit the facility with theatrical tech and lighting, plus an expansion of the arts council’s current facility grant program to help cover rental costs.
“This will have to be a collaborative effort with the city and the arts council,” Clark says.
Even if the Stadium 10 can offer its rooms and resources at $300 per day, that still presents a barrier for small companies. Bartlett Theater director Jonathan Brady says as much when he observes that the projected production costs of The Flick will be no cheaper than they would be if he rented the arts council’s PSI Theatre.
“We’re grateful for the chance to produce there, but financially, it’s a wash,” Brady says. “At present, it won’t be advantageous for groups smaller than us.”
“We haven’t fully solved the problem of affordability yet,” Clark acknowledges. “The project has to be sustainable in order to continue; we can’t just give it away.” Still, he’s confident a solution exists. “If we can get the seats full, I’m sure we can figure out the funding.”
Meanwhile, Bowman and Clark are soliciting more productions to test and refine their experiment.
“Please approach us,” Clark says. “We need more shows.”
Affordability is also on Carl Webb’s mind regarding The Understudy, as he contemplates the historic role the N.C. Mutual Insurance building has served in Durham.
“The reason there was a cafeteria and an auditorium in the building was because those public facilities were not available for the black community,” he says. “We pay respect to that fact in making it a place where all of the community can connect and engage with it.”
The Understudy is planned to include 4,500 square feet of variously sized studios, with green-screen technology for video production and a recording studio. When it opens in the first quarter of 2019, it will offer multiple membership tiers and day rates to keep it accessible and affordable. Putting a creative space in an office building with leaders of business and industry is important, Webb says.
In cities across the country, the arts have repeatedly been driven out of communities they’ve helped make desirable. The Understudy and the Northgate project represent detailed and systematic plans to counter the squeeze play underway in local live performance.
“We know downtown Durham has transitioned in a very, very dramatic way, and the core of the growth has been driven by creative artists and entrepreneurs,” Webb says. “We’re trying to make sure, as we continue to grow our downtown, that they’re still there when it’s all done.”
EDITOR’S PICKS: SEVEN FALL STAGE WORKS
By Brian Howe
Nrityagram Dance Ensemble & Chitrasena Dance Company: Samhra Ancient movement traditions from India and Sri Lanka converge in this sublime collaboration between Nrityagram, called one of the world’s greatest dance companies by The New York Times, and Chitrasena, which led the way in opening Sri Lanka’s Kandyan dance to women. Sep. 22 & 23, Reynolds Industries Theater, Durham, www.dukeperformances.duke.edu
Curve of Departure In the debut production from Bulldog Ensemble Theater, which formed from the ashes of Manbites Dog, Thaddeus Edwards directs Rachel Bonds’s “little gem of a play” (Washington City Paper) about the sorrows and secrets reverberating through an African-American/Jewish family convening at a funeral. Sep. 27–Oct. 14, The Fruit, Durham, www.bulldogdurham.org
Skeleton Crew The conclusion of Dominique Morisseau’s acclaimed “Detroit trilogy”—which has earned her comparisons to Arthur Miller, August Wilson, and Tennessee Williams, but with her own “seductive, poetic, comic, tough” voice (The New York Times)—at once brings to life and memorializes the workers of the city’s last automobile plant at the start of the Great Recession. Oct. 10–28, PlayMakers Repertory Company, Chapel Hill, www.playmakersrep.org
Hamilton The mega-musical that freshened up Broadway, gentrified hip-hop, or both, depending on how you see it, is finally beat-boxing its way into Durham on its first national tour. Little more needs to be said about the rapping-forefather musical that rocked the nation, except that if you fail to secure a ticket (or don’t want to spend $78.50 at minimum for one), NC Theatre has cleverly come up with a consolation prize by booking In the Heights, a prior Lin-Manuel Miranda musical—this one centering on a community in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood—at Raleigh’s Memorial Auditorium October 16–21. Nov. 6–Dec. 2, Durham Performing Arts Center, Durham, www.dpacnc.com
Bassem Youssef: The Joke Is Mightier Than the Sword Middle Eastern TV’s most popular political satirist was like Jon Stewart in a place where being Jon Stewart could get you in serious trouble. Now he’s based in California and sharing his story with American audiences. Nov. 7, UNC’s Memorial Hall, Chapel Hill, www.carolinaperformingarts.org
Camille A. Brown & Dancers: ink This year, Duke Performances will stage the entire trilogy on black identity by the endlessly exciting New York choreographer Camille A. Brown. Packed with a variety of community events, the series begins with ink, in which Brown palpates the spirit of black men with a characteristic blend of pop-culture punch and ancestral power. Nov. 9 & 10, Reynolds Industries Theater, Durham, www.dukeperformances.duke.edu
Hilton Als: Lives of the Performers Who could resist a first look at the in-progress first play by The New Yorker‘s influential, Pulitzer-winning theater critic? Als will be in Chapel Hill to stage The Lives of the Performers, “a provocative work that explores race, the self (and those forces that threaten to destroy it), and sisterhood,” with director Peter Born and actors Helga Davis and Okwui Okpokwasili. Nov. 16 & 17, Current Artspace & Studio, Chapel Hill, www.carolinaperformingarts.org