By Bernie Petit
There’s a misconception about Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte that artistic director Chip Decker wants to clear up.
“A lot of our programming tends to be a little edgier, which some people say is ‘controversial.’ It’s ‘controversial’ you’re talking about homosexuality, AIDS, race or whatever,” Decker said. “We don’t do controversial work – we do conversational work.
“‘Controversy’ means we stop talking. ‘Conversational’ means we’re sparking something in people to have the conversation.”
For the past 25 years, Actor’s Theatre has led those conversations in Charlotte-Mecklenburg. Founded in 1989 on “the idea of bringing bold, new and innovative works to Charlotte,” the theatre remains relative because it doesn’t shy away from getting the community to talk about uncomfortable subjects.
A past production of “Clyburn Park” tackled race relations and neighborhood gentrification. “Next Fall,” which the theatre performed a few seasons back, took aim at the lack of rights granted to those in domestic partnerships.
The theatre’s current season includes a commentary on how the silver screen has treated black actresses (“By the Way, Meet Vera Stark,” Feb. 20-March 15); and explores political stereotypes, family dynamics and suicide (“Other Desert Cities,” April 17-May 10).
“The conversation changes. It changes from week to week,” Decker said. “In the 80s, it was big on HIV and AIDS. We didn’t know what was going on, so the plays reflected conversation wrapped around those topics. Now you’ve got (Nelson) Mandela just passing, you’ve got Trayvon Martin – the conversation doesn’t stop.”
Neither does the theatre’s commitment to producing new works. Two seasons ago it launched its nuVoices play festival, which solicits entries from up and coming playwrights. The first two years brought a combined 582 submissions; Decker hopes to top 300 submissions this year alone.
Entries are whittled down to the top four, which are roughly staged at Actor’s Theatre. A panel of judges, theatre staff and the audience vote for their favorite, with the theatre committing to a full production of the winning play on its main stage.
“This is an unknown playwright, it’s an unknown play nobody’s ever heard of and we’re committing to putting it in our season,” Decker said. “So while we may do an Edward Albee or a new (David) Mamet or whoever is the playwright du jour that people know, we’re also committed to the new upcoming playwright that nobody knows about yet.”
The theatre can make that commitment because of the East Stonewall Street location it moved into 10 years ago – another milestone being celebrating this season. Before moving into the facility, the theatre performed at the old Afro-American Cultural Center and Spirit Square in Charlotte.
Having its own space helps patrons better identify with the theatre, Decker said. Back in the day, theatergoers would assume any play that took place inside Spirit Square was an Actor’s Theatre show, which wasn’t the case. The building also provides the theatre financial flexibility – it controls its own ticketing and concessions, rents parking during the day (parking is always free for patrons) and rents the building between shows.
“We’re able to do the shows that we want to do, the set design we want to do, the lighting, the feel that we want to create,” Decker said. “We can do everything because it’s under our own roof.”
Like bring back cult favorite “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” for its anniversary season. The theatre first produced the glam rock musical, about an internationally ignored rock goddess who fell victim to a botched sex change operation, in the 2002-2003 season at Spirit Square. It brought the show back after moving to its 199-seat home in 2004 and again in 2007.
“It’s opening right now in New York with Neil Patrick Harris playing Hedwig,” Decker said. “It’s a popular show and it’s a good show and it’s offbeat and quirky.”
The fourth production, which runs Jan. 8-25, is the result of a theatre subscriber vote last year. It’s the theatre’s gift to the community for supporting it the past 25 years.
“In the arts world, going a quarter of a century is no small feat, especially considering the turmoil over the last 25 years – the economy, two wars, everything that’s gone on,” Decker said. “For any company to weather that time period and come out on the other side fairly unscathed is pretty remarkable.”