Monday, April 14, 2008

In Praise of NCStage Co.

As anyone who has read this blog for long knows, I live in Asheville, NC, the home of several professional theatres including the North Carolina Stage Company.

Yesterday, I attended their latest production of Underneath the Lintel: The Mystery of the Abandoned Trousers by Glen Berger, a one-man show that apparently ran Off-Broadway for over 400 performances. I was there not only to see the show, but also to facilitate what I have called a "cafe-style" discussion after the show, in which the spectators who stay meet at tables of four to talk about the show.

The production was wonderful -- both entertaining and thought-provoking, and I enthusiastically encourage anyone in the area to see it before it closes April 20th. And if you do see it, go with someone you enjoy talking to and after the show go up the street to Old Europe Bistro to have a cup of coffee and talk about the ideas in the play.

I'd like to take the rest of this post to praise NCStage and the approach that Artistic Director Charlie Flynn-McIver and Producing Director Angie Flynn-McIver have taken since their arrival in 2002 in making their theatre a vibrant and important part of the theatre scene in Asheville. While NCStage is not a theatre tribe in some important aspects, I think that there is much to admire and learn from what NCStage has accomplished.

First of all, Charlie has made a strong effort to become active in the local and regional community. He is active in local politics, in the Asheville HUB project that is looking at the economic future of this community, and in other local organizations as well. He joined the North Carolina Theatre Conference and became active in coordinating a state-wide theatre festival in Asheville that brought performances from around the state for over a week of non-stop performances. When the NCTC Managing Director stepped down, Charlie chaired the search committee for a new one.

Charlie has also been very active forming partnerships, which has led to more employment opportunities for regional actors, directors, and designers. He teamed up with Flat Rock Playhouse to exchange actors for various productions, and in the process he formed a fantastic comic partnership with Flat Rock actor Scott Treadway. For the past couple years, there seems to be a Charlie Flynn-McIver and Scott Treadway slot" in the NCStage season that regularly sells out because local audiences have come to know that when these two actors work together the show will be wonderful. Their performances in Stones in His Pockets led to sold out houses for what was certainly not a "name" show. He has also formed a strong partnership with the University of Tennessee's Theatre Department and the Clarence Brown Theatre. Students in the MFA program in lighting are given the opportunity, as part of their education, to design at least one production at NCStage. In addition, there seems to be a regular rotation of actors and directors between Asheville and Knoxville. Terry Weber, who plays The Librarian in Underneath the Lintel, is an Associate Professor at UTenn, and has also served as Dialect Coach for several NCStage productions.

NCStage has also taken on the responsibility for nurturing and encouraging smaller local theatre companies by making its mainstage -- not a second stage, but the mainstage -- available for a series of performances throughout the year. Thus, Asheville audiences have a place to go to see productions like References to Salvadore Dali Make Me Hot, Twelve Treatises on Memory, Jingle Taps, Harm for the Holidays, Would You Like Yoga With That?, The Only Thing Worse You Could Have Told Me, bobrauschenbergamerica, and many other avant-garde pieces. They do not rent the space to these groups, but instead split the box office, which makes it much easier for these smaller theatres to afford to produce. The benefit to the theatre community is plain: a real, established venue to produce their work. I'm certain that NCStage doesn't make much money from these productions, and there are probably times when it would be more convenient to have the space to themselves, but they have committed to developing the Asheville Theatre scene.

NCStage seems to be committed to a sustainable economic model that allows them to also do plays that are not simply mainstream retreads. Of course, their season contains plays such as The Compleat Works of William Shakesepeare (Abridged) and It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, but they have also produced The Syringa Tree and Home and Hedwig and the Angry Inch, as well as a Shakespeare production almost every year of their existence. They do so in a 99-seat theatre tucked in an alley in downtown Asheville (they've had the alley officially renamed Stage Lane) with a small stage and a minimalist aesthetic that serves them well. At yesterday's performance, during the curtain speech, Charlie indicated that ticket prices accounted for "only" 60% - 65% of income, an admirable percentage compared to many larger regional theatres who operate at 50% and below -- far below -- of earned income.

Recently, Charlie and Angie wrote and received a $50,000 grant from the Asheville Merchant Fund to develop a "branding and marketing" plan for Asheville arts. Not just for NCStage, but for all of the artists -- theatre and otherwise -- in Asheville. Why is NCStage doing this, and not the Asheville Arts Boucil? Well, the AAC has been a bit rudderless for a while, and so NCStage stepped up and got the ball rolling. The first meeting about this is scheduled for tomorrow, and already 57 different artists have indicated that they will attend. Very impressive.

Organizations such as NCStage, and theatre artists such as Charlie and Angie Flynn-McIver, are the type we should be looking to as a model for theatres across America. They are leading the way in exploring how professional theatre can be successfully produced outside of metropolises.

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