Tuesday, May 01, 2007

stageNEXT: a bridge too far

One of the most fascinating military offensives of World War II has to be Operation Market Garden. In late 1944, the Allied forces in Europe were struggling to maintain the initiative because of resupply issues—all of the men and material coming into the continent were being channeled through the D-Day invasion beaches and the single port of Cherbourg. To address this issue, UK Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery proposed and planned a daring offensive to clear a supply route to Antwerp, a massive port held by British forces. Although military historians continue to disagree on whether the mission could have ever been successful, there is broad consensus that Market Garden failed because of a lack of effective situational awareness and planning. What is most surprising is that Montgomery was known as being a highly methodical (sometimes too methodical) planner. If all of this is ringing a bell in the back of your head, it’s probably because it was the subject of the movie “A Bridge Too Far,” one of the best movies of WWII (my opinion).

Ok, so I’m not comparing myself to Montgomery. But, I have to say that my efforts on stageNEXT over the last 18 months have felt, to some extent, like Operation Market Garden: early successes followed by a stall in progress, then a last-ditch effort to hold onto established positions until reinforcements could arrive. While I won’t implicate my planning for stageNEXT (there are some who would say that I did too much planning), I readily admit that my awareness of the local environment has grown dramatically over the course of my efforts.

What have I learned? I think I can effectively sum it up as follows: Charlotte isn’t ready for locally produced, regional-level, professional theatre. In order for regional theatre to re-emerge here, we need the following:

1) acknowledgement by the community that there is something missing from our cultural landscape;
2) willingness from the community to do something about it.

There is a lot of blame being heaped at the feet of the ASC, the BPAC, and various theatre companies for our current situation; this is (for the most part) misdirected. Until a critical mass of community members takes a stand and gets involved in the creation of a new company, the status quo will prevail. Even the ASC Theatre Task Force recommendations seem to acknowledge this; there is a clear focus on organic development and reticence to strongly back any single initiative.

Now, let me say that Charlotteans are certainly involved in this community—we’re a civic-minded bunch. However, the community doesn’t have a “deep bench” of civic leaders, which means that the leaders we have are all getting pulled 4-5 different ways and being asked each day to get involved in another dozen community efforts. As a Charlotte is a community that coalesces around its leaders, a nascent theatre company has to find the right core group of Charlotteans that will attract people to the cause.

A close associate (and respected arts consultant) told me last year that if a professional company didn’t emerge in the next year or so, that it would be 5-10 years before the window would reopen. I agreed generally at the time, but feel I now understand it better. The farther Charlotte Rep recedes into the past, the less awareness there is of what we have lost in this community.

Nationwide, there are ever-increasing challenges of establishing and growing a new company (e.g., increasing entertainment options, reduced giving to the arts, growing production costs), making it easy to understand why there have been no significant new theatre companies emerge in the US (excluding New York, Chicago and LA) in the last 10+ years. It would seem that the era of building institutions like the Guthrie, Actor’s Theatre of Louisville, Seattle Rep, CENTERSTAGE, Alliance Theatre, etc., may be over.

In Charlotte, the barriers to entry are further heightened by our corporate mentality towards arts giving (the cultural facilities campaign making the environment even more challenging). The regional theatre ideal is also challenged by the great success of the Performing Arts Center. As the PAC extends its programming reach into more traditional regional theatre formats (e.g., the recent tour of Doubt, last year’s highly successful Shear Madness), one has to ask “what could a regional theatre provide that we’re not already getting?” Please recognize that this is not a criticism of the PAC—they would be negligent if they failed to respond to the absence of quality professional theatre. While knowledgeable theatre-goers understand the distinction and its importance, much of our potential audience for theatre doesn’t distinguish between touring theatre and local professional theatre. To much of our community, touring theatre is professional theatre and local theatre is amateur theatre. This is borne out both anecdotally and through market research conducted in our community.

This brings me to the ultimate realization of my 18-month experience; without a strong base of community support (both visible and financial), it will be exceedingly difficult to produce theatre of sufficient quality to reshape community perceptions and create a new distinction (i.e., locally produced professional theatre). However, it will be exceedingly difficult to establish the “strong base” in the short-term without first producing work representative of the quality that an institution would deliver over time. Without such productions, it will take much longer for our community to acknowledge that there is indeed “something missing.” This is, of course, a Catch-22; I now understand that it is also the basis for my friend’s prognostication.

So, all this to say that I am suspending my efforts on the stageNEXT initiative. I know that many of you will be disappointed—I am too. It was a difficult decision to make, but in the end I realized that I would rather not linger too long onstage—audiences dislike belabored endings. I could not find a way forward that addressed the risks and allowed the opportunity to flourish—therefore, it is my responsibility to clear the deck and allow other people and ideas to bubble to the surface.

Many of you met Chris Rennolds, who made several trips here from Los Angeles to see how she might be involved. From Chris, I extend thanks to all who took the time to provide insight and feedback. It was an incredibly useful process—cementing my awareness that now is not the right time to move forward. While Chris is still looking to “come home” (she’s a Durham native), she has determined that the situation here does not lend itself to working independently of a pre-existing initiative. Therefore, Chris has decided to remain in LA while exploring other opportunities in NC.

I want to thank all of you who have been willing to listen and provide input over the past 18 months. I have learned so much from you, and feel like I have established a number of great relationships that will extend beyond the end of stageNEXT. Your support has kept me going as long as I have, and has enabled me to maintain a positive outlook in the face of numerous challenges. Again, thank you.

Finally, if I can be of any assistance to you in the future, please do not hesitate to contact me. I would love to be able to return some portion of the support you have provided to me.