Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Well, isn't that interesting!

One of my favorite books is Benjamin Zander’s The Art of Possibility. It falls into that deadly category of "personal improvement," but it is one of the most inspirational books I have read (and re-read when I need a lift!). The book is full of Ben's experiences creating life and art as conductor of the Boston Philharmonic. One of my favorite anecdotes is one he relates of a young violinist in his performance class at the New England Conservatory; whenever the violinist learned something new from a mistake during rehearsal, she would smile and exclaim, "well, isn't that interesting!" I have had many such moments over the course of my efforts to establish stageNEXT--opportunities to celebrate and learn from my errors, then move forward.

In a broader sense, it's now time for me to celebrate what I've learned from my experiences of the past year and move forward. Don't get me wrong; my desire to pursue stageNEXT has not been in error. Not only do my efforts continue to be motivated by both my personal passion and my civic commitment, but I remain convinced that Charlotte needs and wants exceptional, local, professional theatre.

What I have learned over the course of the last year is that the approach I have pursued--raising significant funds up-front to build a theatre institution--does not resonate with a "critical mass" of community leaders and donors. I think there are several reasons why I have not been able to achieve sufficient support for this idea, namely:

  • Lack of visible artistic leadership: I have known for some time that there were concerns regarding the lack of a compelling artistic leader, but have been committed to the belief that only when we are able to demonstrate local success as a producer (i.e., building and sponsoring talented teams to tackle specific projects) will we be able to attract the artistic talent necessary to mature and sustain the arts institution Charlotte deserves.
  • Lack of ready funding resources: It has become clear that ASC is not in a position to provide substantial funding. Beyond small grant programs, ASC does not maintain funds or processes for "incubating" promising new ideas--it has no mandate for such activities. There is also no "reserve" of funds; contributions (less overhead) from the annual fund drive are completely redistributed. Further, with the ASC Facilities Campaign and other large donor solicitations currently in play, there is a definite sense of "donor fatigue" developing in the community.
  • Lack of trust for theatre institutions: This is perhaps the most unreasonable of the three, yet also the most difficult for a nascent organization to address. While the visible wounds of the Charlotte Rep debacle have faded, scars certainly remain. It will take time and visible success to create an environment where theatre is consistently respected and trusted as a worthy cause.

So, where does that leave us? According to the arts leaders with whom I've talked, now is the time to "put up or shut up." In other words, I have been strongly encouraged to begin productions under the stageNEXT banner and mission, and gauge the local response. This approach has always held appeal, but I have waited because of my desire to maintain focus on building a strong institution.

I am now working with a number of artists (both local and national) to explore how we might be able to demonstrate the stageNEXT vision on a small scale. This approach certainly makes the institutional component of the stageNEXT vision (i.e., engaging our community and developing new audiences) more difficult in the short term, but there is still much we can do. The key challenge will be in maintaining continuity of presence and "mindshare" on a limited budget.

So, there you have it. The profile of stageNEXT is changing; short-term focus is shifting from institution-building to production-creating. To make the transition successful, I'm asking for your help. I need the involvement of people who want to be "hands-on" in building a young theatre and defining/executing a growth strategy that will result in long-term success. If you or someone you know fits this description, please let me know. Your committed participation is crucial to our efforts.

In addition, a topic I have not previously raised is that we will be seeking donor funding for stageNEXT’s gala launch production (tentatively planned for late September). I am proud of what has been accomplished over the past year without having to "pass the hat," and I hope you are as well. Now, in order to transform ideas into action, I will be reaching out to you and other stageNEXT allies to request your financial support. More details will follow on our gala launch event; for now, suffice it to say that we want it to be the "buzz" of the fall social calendar.

One final word: a perception issue regarding stageNEXT has been brought to my attention. There is a sense that I have attempted to position stageNEXT to somehow monopolize access to resources for creating theatre; and, that stageNEXT will somehow be designated as the leading theatre within this community. Over the past few months, I have developed an appreciation for the misinformation that has resulted in the development of this meme, and I hope I can set the record straight.

Let me state clearly that my intent with stageNEXT has been to develop new resources: to recover funds and attendance that evaporated with Charlotte Rep, and to seek new resources and attendees from individuals and companies new to Charlotte or new to theatre. I have not asked for any special consideration from the ASC or the PAC, and have always expected that stageNEXT would follow the same path to Basic Operating Grants as any other arts institution. While I have asked for ASC's support of my fundraising efforts in the community, their response has always been to provide general support and encouragement--no "stamp of approval" has been granted. This is generally consistent with their treatment of any other Charlotte arts institution.

If you know of potential theatre developers or producers in the community that have considered stageNEXT to be an impediment to action, please encourage them to move forward. After all, the more theatre we have in this community, the better it is for everyone! I am glad to sit down and talk to anyone regarding my hopes and aspirations for stageNEXT, and to seek out ways in which this theatre community can work together.

I want to thank all of you for your support and feedback over the past year. I hope that you will stand by stageNEXT in our journey towards the vision of "creating great theatre, engaging audiences with artistry, celebrating our diversity, and voicing the ideals of a 21st century American city." And, as we embrace what we learn along the way, we can exclaim boldly from the stage: "well, isn’t that interesting!"

Monday, February 12, 2007

Topdog/Underdog @ Davidson

Back in December when I was in a serious rut with regards to stageNEXT, I asked Elise Wilkinson from Collaborative Arts: "How do you do it?" Elise is someone that has found a balance between "workwork" and "theatrework," and I was really struggling to understand how to make the two complimentary instead of combative.

Elise's answer (paraphrased): "Do theatre." She observed that, while I've been trying to build a theatre, it had been ages since I had actually been involved in the creative act of putting work onstage. While this may seem fairly apparent to you, it was a big "aha" moment for me. After all, the ability to do theatre has been my primary motivator for trying to start a new professional theatre here in Charlotte. How better to regain focus than to get out there and get my hands dirty?

So, I accepted the opportunity to design lighting for Davidson College's production of Topdog/Underdog. You may have seen some of the press coverage in the Observer on the two brothers that took on S-LP's script (under the directon of Scott Ripley). It turned out to be a remarkable production, all the more amazing given the 3-week production schedule that we faced. It took a bit to shake the rust off, but I was really pleased by what I was able to contribute to the production; overall feedback has been overwhelmingly positive as well.

It also helped to get my creative energy going again for stageNEXT, and reconnected me to the fundmental reason I started pursuing a new professional theatre in Charlotte in the first place. There is something about great theatre that engages me and activates my perception unlike anything else I've experienced. So thanks, Elise, for the great advice!

(left) Production Photo from Topdog/Underdog: Scene 2, Booth and Lincoln in Booth's apartment.