Charles Phaneuf has a lot to be happy about as he prepares to leave his position as executive director of Raleigh Little Theatre. Since the Raleigh native came home in 2012 to manage the region’s oldest and largest community theater, the major metrics are up: The annual budget has increased from $800,000 a year to $1.4 million, and a successful capital campaign to renovate Gaddy-Goodwin Teaching Theatre concluded last spring. And in an era where theaters everywhere have struggled to hang on to patrons, RLT has added more than six thousand, for a total annual audience north of forty-four thousand people.

All of those achievements are linked to something Phaneuf explored, interrogated, and ultimately revitalized during seven years of service. It can’t be fixed on a flowchart or read on a balance sheet—but it does show up, six times, in the theater’s revised statement of mission, vision, and values. 

It’s community. 

Most community theaters treat the word as a statement of location and nothing more. But upon his arrival at RLT, Phaneuf did something unexpected: He set out to closely examine the implicit and possible relationships in the term. 

“I’m happy that during the time that [artistic director Patrick Torres] and I have been here, we’ve created a lot of points of entry for people,” Phaneuf says. 

Strengthening or creating strategic partnerships has been a part of that. RLT has worked with other arts organizations on initiatives including the Wherefore: Shakespeare in Raleigh festival in 2015 and has co-produced shows with Bare Theatre, Actors Comedy Lab, and the Raleigh Symphony Orchestra. 

Expanding entry points has also meant increasing the diversity of participants, not only in audiences, but backstage, on stage, and in the theater’s classes. Under Phaneuf’s leadership, RLT has pursued cultural diversity across all of these continuums. 

“He came in and did all the right things,” says Beth Yerxa, executive director of the service organization Triangle ArtWorks. “He looked at what was going on at RLT, he looked at the community around him, and he went out and listened and helped the theater respond to the community.”

The theater has hosted sold-out season-preview showcases by Triangle Friends of African American Arts and The Black on Black Project. It has incorporated disabled communities on stage as well as in the audience. After installing Raleigh’s first hearing-loop technology to provide patrons with hearing loss a better-than-front-row audio experience in Sutton Theatre, RLT partnered with Arts Access for “A Series of Fortunate Events,” showcases featuring the theatrical, musical, film, and visual works of artists with disabilities. 

A partnership with the Autism Society of North Carolina resulted in sensory-friendly performances for each family-series production in the last two years. Michael Larson, the lead actor in RLT’s upcoming production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, has autism.

And with productions like The Curious Incident, Perfect Arrangement (about gay and lesbian government workers in the 1950s), What We’re Up Against (about workplace discrimination against women), and the world premiere of Mike Wiley’s Blood Done Sign My Name, RLT’s shows have also demonstrated a commitment to a broad bandwidth of stories that reflect the experiences of the communities it encompasses.  

“To be a community theater, you need all of these things,” Phaneuf says. “You have to be inclusive. You have to have diversity and equity. And you have to do things that really represent the world; your programming choices have to be things that reflect the way the world is today.”

Now, Phaneuf’s efforts turn to an even larger community as he prepares to begin his new role as president of the United Arts Council of Raleigh & Wake County next February. 

“What will it take for us to get a county-wide vision for the arts? Right now, Raleigh has an arts plan. But there hasn’t been a vision for a while about how all the different municipalities and the county work together,” Phaneuf says. “That’s going to be a conversation.” 


Comment on this story at backtalk@indyweek.com.

Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.