All you need to know about the crazy world of fringe theater played out four summers ago in a Central Avenue parking lot, within a stone's throw of the railroad tracks, in the middle of a rainstorm. James Cartee, founder of Citizens of the Universe, was presenting the company's new stage adaptation of Fight Club, the Brad Pitt-Meat Loaf cult classic, when disaster struck. The downpour knocked out the lights.
Cartee and his company didn't give up. They started Act 2 by replacing the blown kleig lights with headlights from a car and an SUV. The storm had no mercy on the macho theater guerillas — or the audience, seated on folding chairs. Just as our narrator Jack was about to celebrate his birthday with two cupcakes baked in the shape of a woman's boobs, adversity became legend. There had been five rules in the original Fight Club flick — until Cartee popped out of his SUV and pronounced a sixth: "Gotta call it when the scenery starts blowing away."
Flash-forward to 2013. Citizens of the Universe is staging another original Cartee adaptation, this time of the Jim Carrey vehicle Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Instead of folding chairs, we're on cushioned swivel seats, and with good reason. As the action heats up during Act 2 of this beguiling tale of love and mind manipulation, the actors are literally running circles around the audience.
The swirl of activity begins at the back wall of Wine Up, in NoDa, where projectors set the scenes for characters Joel and Clementine's most romantic encounters. Moving clockwise, actors streak past Joel's apartment and the restrooms to the east, then the Wine Up's bar area at the south side, and then the stairway down to North Davidson Street to the west. Once isn't enough for this madcap chase, and the blurry circling begins again. Then it happens: Right near the restroom, there's a thud and a stumble, and I hold my breath because some unlucky actor is either breaking an ankle or careening into the crowd.
Fortunately, scenery hasn't blown away and no one is hurt, so the show continues with hardly a hiccup. This is the same dogged spirit of fringe theater the group performed on that rainy day in 2009, but there are differences: We're indoors instead of braving the elements. In addition to the comfy chairs, there are dinner tables, with wines, beers and sandwiches from Wine Up's menu, as well as restaurant service from nearby Boudreaux's Louisiana Kitchen. Most importantly, there are more people actually watching the show this time than struggling to put it on.
Wine Up is packed, and we're having a great time.
THIS IS THE new NoDa theater scene, and it's already hotter than the arts district's first scene, from 1998 to 2006. New audiences and new theater companies are flocking to see adventurous works in unlikely places.
At Wine Up, just past 36th Street, it started heating up in November. That's when the new PaperHouse company, chockful of moonlighting Children's Theatre professionals, lured fans to NoDa with Penny Penniworth, a comical mash-up of Dickens and Brontë. Momentum built when Citizens of the Universe swiveled the main staging area to the venue's northern wall, and Wine Up owner and managing partner Michael Ford cooked up his new dinner packages with Boudreaux's.
After outgrowing its Plaza Midwood haunt at Petra's Piano Bar, Stephen Seay Productions was able to lure its fan base to NoDa as well, repeatedly packing Wine Up earlier this month with All the Great Books (abridged). Seay, like PaperHouse founder Nicia Carla, is also a Children's Theatre fixture at ImaginOn, and he's signing on to do three of his next four shows at Wine Up. Other theater companies on the fast-filling Wine Up calendar are Three Bone Theatre, Taproot Ensemble, Quixotic Theater and three more servings of Cartee's Citizens company.
Down around 28th Street, the old guard has returned. Sheila Snow Proctor, one of the original founders of Chickspeare in 1998, has brought the banditas back to life. Now NoDa Brewing Company hosts the actresses, who originally got together because they wanted a crack at all the juiciest roles that Shakespeare wrote for men. Last September, Proctor began serving up evenings that were slightly rebranded as ChicksBeer, because their gleanings from Reduced Shakespeare's irreverent The Compleat Works of Shakspr (abridged) were accompanied by NoDa Brewing's signature libation and dinner options from the Tin Kitchen food truck.
After scoring a palpable hit with their insane abridging/fast-forwarding/rewinding of Hamlet, Proctor and her Chickspeare renegades returned to comically massacre Romeo and Juliet just before Valentine's Day. If you missed those indoor ChicksBeers, a "Shakespeare in the PARKing Lot" event at NoDa Brewing is on tap for September.
Though the NoDa surroundings have changed — fewer art galleries and a bumper crop of new condos — Proctor hears echoes of 1998.
"It's the same type of passion," Proctor enthuses, sizing up the new crop of guerilla groups. "Being willing to strive to present an audience with what you feel artistically you want to do, whether it means making your own costumes or staying up all night. It's theater that can be very, very rough, and the willingness to do whatever it takes to get it up is part of the excitement."
NoDa Brewing's craft beers are also on tap at Carolina Actor's Studio Theatre, where the whole new theater boom and its funky restaurant garnishings began less than two years ago. CAST broke out of Plaza Midwood and returned spectacularly to its NoDa roots with a landmark production of August: Osage County — appropriately enough in August 2011. CAST doesn't do dinner theater, but it became the first independent theater company in Charlotte to get a beer license while it was still in relative obscurity on Clement Avenue, a back street off Central Avenue, and its free Fuel Pizza Friday nights became a long-standing tradition in its lobby.
If you slept on CAST while it was buried in Midwood, you need to know that its new digs — at the far corner of the building at 2424 N. Davidson that also houses Amelie's French Bakery — boast two of the most exciting theater spaces in town. The first, as you leave the lobby, is a thrust stage (surrounded by the audience on three sides), where the three-story August: Osage County was presented. Further back is the arena stage (surrounded on all sides) where, appropriately enough, CAST took us into the world of pro wrestling with The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity.
Along with the beers and other beverages, CAST allows patrons to bring their munchies to their seats. With folks sipping, munching and maneuvering pizza slices, it added a whole extra dimension to watching the vaunts, the taunts, the muscles and the action of Chad Deity and his grappling rivals.
While 2424 N. Davidson isn't the funkiest address in NoDa, it's a very groovy location — a 24/7 hub of activity that includes an open atrium in addition to the cozy den at Amelie's. And CAST has generated considerable foot traffic of its own.
WITH TWO live spaces, CAST has become a magnet for other theater companies, too — for productions, auditions and rehearsals. In the past year alone, the space has hosted productions by Treehouse Acting Company (a phenomenal youth group), 700 Miles South (moonlighting pros), NoDa School of the Arts and Dysfunctional Figurines, a sketch comedy group, plus premieres by local independent filmmakers. In April, the new Urban Autumn company will debut with Thanks for Calling Customer Service! while CAST's Miss Witherspoon opens this week.
Recently, CAST has doubled up performances with a new Second Stage series. While Chad Deity wrestled in the rear arena over the past two months, the rap-infused How We Got On played on the thrust stage. In January, CAST offered a variation on that double-bill idea when the spooky Very Still and Hard to Find followed Frost/Nixon late on Friday and Saturday nights.
Compounding all this activity, Charlotte Shakespeare and Starving Artists have held auditions at CAST's bustling new site, Shakespeare Carolina is doing sword-fight training there, and the more mainstream Theatre Charlotte has signed up for rehearsal time.
All this has CAST executive artistic director Michael Simmons' head spinning. "One day," he says, "if we aren't careful, we're actually going to have to find another space because of all the other groups that want to use our space!"
Simmons got his start in the Charlotte scene at about the same time Proctor was co-founding Chickspeare, and both played leading roles in the first NoDa theater wave. Simmons and his son Robert Lee Simmons were among the first to revive the old Neighborhood Theatre in 1998 with a production of Eric Bogosian's subUrbia. They initially called themselves Another Roadside Theatre, but became Victory Pictures while the elder Simmons was partnering with Ed Gilweit, the man who established the first serious acting school in Charlotte.
That fledgling school that Victor hatched was the Carolina Actor's Studio Theatre. Together with Chickspeare and Off-Tryon Theatre Company, Victory completed a grand alliance that took up residence in a squat little warehouse tucked away on 3143 Cullman Ave. That configuration of the Cullman Street alliance was short-lived, ending abruptly early in 2001 when Gilweit died of esophageal cancer shortly after winning Creative Loafing's Theaterperson of the Year Award for his exploits in 2000.
With BareBones Theatre Group replacing Victory in the triumvirate, the alliance reached its zenith when a special grant from the Arts & Science Council allowed the companies to brand themselves as "Charlotte's Off-Broadway" and offer a 17-show schedule for the 2001-02 season.
Proctor was prominent in that apotheosis, moving from her earlier Chickspeare frolics to leading roles in Les Liaisons Dangereuses and The Baltimore Waltz. Meanwhile, blindsided by Gilweit's sudden death, Simmons made a new beginning in Matthews, staging a fine production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. But the tastes of Matthews and the work Simmons liked to do were a bad fit, so he moved to the edgier pastures of Plaza Midwood after one season.
Though the roof leaked and Clement Avenue looked like a dark alley when you turned off Central, Simmons and his son discovered the charms of arena staging during their Plaza Midwood years — along with the advantages of juggling two theater spaces. They didn't revive Gilweit's school, but its name became their name in 2004 when the new signage at the venue proclaimed that Victory was now the Carolina Actor's Studio Theater, or CAST.
By 2009, CAST could claim dominion over the entire Charlotte theater scene, winning CL's Theater Company of the Year honors for the first time. One astounding production, a Marat/Sade that gave audiences the harrowing experience of a madhouse, followed another: the amazing Metamorphoses. Back on Cullman Avenue, though, the old alliance had gradually weakened, ending with the whimper of Off-Tryon's production of The Vagina Monologues in 2004. By 2006, the NoDa theater scene had faded, officially giving up the ghost when the daring hybrid group, Moving Poets Theatre of Dance, threw its final Surprise! Surprise! party at the old Hart-Witzen Gallery.
So when Simmons began searching for a new home, NoDa and Ballantyne were among the possibilities. He couldn't make up his mind until he literally became the man on the street. Standing at the corner of 28th and North Davidson Streets one day, Simmons watched the foot traffic, and felt the vibe.
"We just went in there and hung out in the atrium, just quietly observing to see what the feel was," Simmons says. "We are in there, and there's people dancing and people playing guitars, and artists are painting. That's really the final element for us that swayed us into thinking this is the place we want to be. It's a mini-Mecca for the artistic community in Charlotte, so here we are."
AFTER WINNING Actress of the Year honors in 2001, Proctor went on to numerous triumphs at Actor's Theatre and Collaborative Arts (now Charlotte Shakespeare), but her road back to NoDa wasn't through her theater pals from these companies or her Chickspeare cronies. Once again, the path to NoDa wended its way through Plaza Midwood, where Proctor had given a searing performance in 2000 at Johnson Beer, an upstairs venue on Central Avenue, as Hotspur in the Bard's Henry IV.
That's where Proctor met her future husband, Anthony. "My husband is very involved in the craft-beer world," she says, "and when I met Suzie [Todd], the owner of NoDa Brewing, she found out what had happened over at Johnson Beer, and we decided to start up again."
The guerilla uprising upstairs at Wine Up began literally underground while the NoDa theater scene seemed dead. Michael Ford was still managing the Roux, a wee stage hewn out of the cellar at Boudreaux's — and that's where he brought Cartee to do his signature version of Paul Addis's one-act, Gonzo.
In that performance, Cartee channels the late gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson from the time he skulks onto the stage, oozing paranoia and bellowing phantasmagoric prose. Brandishing weapons and a cigarette holder, downing bottles of high-potency pills with lusty gulps of booze, maniacally trashing the stage and demolishing an IBM Selectric at every performance, Cartee strives to be larger than larger-than-life and never fails in his military mission.
As it happens, Ford had a taste for Thompson's manic tirades. So when he heard that Wine Up was up for grabs around the corner, he grabbed both the prime NoDa real estate and Cartee. Two of the first theater pieces performed at Wine Up after Ford took over last summer were Citizens of the Universe products, Gonzo and Marx in SoHo, presented in tandem during the Democratic National Convention. Word began to spread.
"What brought me back to NoDa was actually Michael Ford," Cartee says. "His space is extraordinarily versatile. He's doing a bunch of great stuff, from Penny Penniworth last year to my show, and bam, bam, bam, right after that, show after show after show. PaperHouse and Machine Theatre have shows in the works there right now."
Like Simmons at CAST, Ford has found that interest in his Wine Up space has skyrocketed.
"This area has morphed into a destination district, and I wanted this to be one of those destinations," Ford says. "It's nice to see that both performers and patrons want something like this, and it's nice to find that I'm really filling what I perceived to be a niche in the market."
Ford was already trying to coax Stephen Seay Productions into NoDa when he was still managing the tiny Roux and Seay's company was beginning to sell out performances at Petra's in Plaza Midwood. But back then, it didn't make sense for Seay to bury his work at such a small venue, so he politely declined Ford's entreaties.
Wine Up was a game-changer, with a bigger stage and audience capacity than Petra's, and Seay has been happy there since Day One.
"My set designer and I pulled up his truck and my car," Seay recalls, "and Michael put on a pair of gloves and started carrying stuff up the stairs! Essentially, he's a theater kid at heart. I know he's a business and bar owner, but I think if you were to ask him to do anything for a show, even if he didn't know how to do it, he would learn really quickly, because he's really involved." So involved that he plans to change Wine Up's name to UpStage.
Simmons bought into NoDa when the economy was drooping and rents were low and now, 19 months after opening his new CAST with August: Osage County splash, he's feeling lucky to have come in on the ground floor. Occupancy of the condos near the venue has risen from zero to 100 percent since he signed his lease two years ago, while the upsurge of business tenants at the 2424 atrium has spiked nearly as sharply, choking the parking area and turning the search for an empty spot into a bloodsport.
The presence of light rail in the area could change things just as dramatically again. At a recent NoDa business meeting, Simmons learned that the long-anticipated Red Line will begin construction early next year, with stops earmarked for 36th Street and between 26th and 28th streets.
"We're in a situation where things are about to really blossom," Simmons says. "When the train comes, I will never drive my car to Charlotte again, ever. That's what's going to take NoDa to the next step, and when that happens, I think that the word explosion of growth will be accurate."
Given all the seismic stage activity, even that outlook might not be bullish enough for the future of theater in NoDa.
NoDa Arts Calendar
April 12-13, 19-20, 7 p.m.: Three Bone Theater presents The Vagina Monologues $15
May 2-5: COTU presents Gonzo
May 15-25: COTU presents Night of the Iguana
July 26-27, Aug. 2-3, 7 p.m.: Taproot Ensemble & The Wake Project present Ophelos (a variation of Hamlet)
Aug. 16-17, 23-24, 7 p.m.: Stephen Seay Productions presents Vanities
Oct. 18-19, 25-26, 7 p.m.: Quixotic Theater presents Fat Pig
Nov. 15-17, 22-24, 7 p.m.: Stephen Seay Productions presents History of America: Abridged
Dec. 4-15: COTU presents a new play by Neil Gaiman
Third weekend of each month, 9 p.m.: Robot Johnson Sketch Comedy
Second Friday of each month, 9 p.m.: Mon Frere Sketch Comedy
March 28-April 27: Miss Witherspoon
April 11-13: Thank You for Calling Customer Service // Urban Autumn
May 9-June 1: Proof
June 20-July 13: Assassins
No dates set for: Elemeno Pea, Recent Tragic Events, Good People, The Other Place, Botanica, The Children's Hour
NoDa Brewing Company
Sept. 20-22: Chickspeare presents Shakespeare in the PARKing Lot