Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Spirit Square and the Mecklenburg County Commission

<The following message was sent by stageNEXT to the County Commission as input to the public forum on the future of Spirit Square to be held on 07 March.>

Legitimacy…it’s a basic building block to the success of any business. Any company, whether multi-million dollar corporation or small proprietorship, must first establish legitimacy with its intended customers. If not, the consequences are dire as those same customers look elsewhere for institutions perceived as more reliable, more trustworthy…more legitimate. Consider two companies offering identical widgets at similar prices; the company that wins the most customers is the one better able to convince customers of its overall consistency and quality.

Although a theatre company exists to create art, it is (at a fundamental level) a business. In this regard, theatre producers face the same basic requirement as any other company: to establish legitimacy. That’s why performance space is such a critical issue; theatre companies can achieve great heights of artistry in their performance, but may never gain sufficient momentum to grow beyond their roots. This results from their inability to establish appropriate legitimacy in the eyes of their potential audience. Why? Because just like every other “bricks and mortar” business, location and quality of space are critical to young performing arts companies in attracting and sustaining a customer base.

While this is true everywhere, the issue is even more critical in Charlotte. Cultural participants in this community are highly place-conscious. While other cities (such as New York, Chicago, Seattle) have, through time and effort, developed experienced cultural audiences that evaluate theatre and other artforms based primarily on the quality of the end product, Charlotte audiences are still highly sensitive to the environment in which the product is presented. So, for instance, in Chicago a large and diverse audience might trek into transitional areas to see great theatre produced in non-traditional spaces; while in Charlotte, our community expects that legitimate theatre will be presented in safe, familiar venues. This is not to criticize our Charlotte performing arts audience; it is simply to say that this audience is at a much younger stage of development. However, the net result speaks volumes to the importance of spaces like the Duke Power Theatre in the ongoing development of theatre and other performing arts (with their inherent, well-documented community benefits—cf. Richard Florida) in Charlotte.

Without the ready availability of spaces like the Duke Power Theatre for use by developing performing arts companies, great performances are relegated to warehouses, cafes, parks, hotel rooms, grocery stores, etc. While these spaces are often invaluable in the creation of specific works, theatre companies struggle to create a public identity and sense of legitimacy without a location that their audiences perceive as “home.” In addition, the very areas where performing arts companies might establish a safe, welcoming, “storefront” performance space and attract a diverse Charlotte audience are experiencing rapid increases in rental costs, effectively pricing most young performing artists interested in establishing new companies out of the community. South End and NODA both come to mind in this regard.

In order to support the continuing growth of theatre and other performing arts in Charlotte, more spaces like the Duke Power are needed, not less. The Duke Power provides an important transitional space from community-based work (e.g., cafes, parks, warehouses) to self-managed production space (e.g., Actors’ Theatre’s Stonewall St. theatre). Without Duke Power, small theatre companies lose the imprimatur conveyed by being able to produce in Uptown Charlotte, in a well-known facility, using a reasonably well-equipped production environment. These factors are critical in establishing the legitimacy of theatre and other performing arts in the minds of Charlotte cultural audiences, thereby creating the opportunity for these audiences to develop a deeper appreciation of performing arts (independent of their physical location). Without Duke Power and similar spaces, the basic challenges of establishing legitimacy and developing audiences will overwhelm most young performing arts companies, reducing the diversity and energy of our arts community and (as a consequence) our community in general.