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CL's 18th Annual Charlotte Theater Awards 

Year of Rep's demise glows with promise

So maybe you're looking ahead to the 2005-06 season and wondering what the local theater scene will look like, now that Charlotte Rep has taken its final bow. Without the city's flagship Equity company, who will come to the fore in the years ahead? You can get a pretty clear picture of Charlotte's future without Rep by looking at the year that just passed. Charlotte Repertory Theatre sent its last artistic director packing in November 2003. Without Michael Bush at the helm providing artistic leadership, Rep was no longer inclined to play a leadership role in the community. Artistically, Rep was treading water throughout 2004, hoping for a financial lifeboat.

It never happened.

Meanwhile, the companies with artistic vision and direction weren't moaning "Ain't no sunshine when she's gone" while Rep capsized. There was more theatrical activity in Charlotte — at more venues around town — than ever before. To preside credibly over the 18th Annual Charlotte Theater Awards, instituted at the dawn of the Loaf Era at the end of 1987, I was obliged to attend over 70 new productions.

That doesn't include the flock of revivals that hovered over the scene in the summer and fall. On July 8, the fringe theater infiltrated the Uptown at Spirit Square, where rental prices had been prohibitive for a decade. Suddenly there was a funky vibe at 7th Street as the City Stage Fringe Festival brought Epic Arts Repertory, BareBones Theatre Group, and the Chickspeare banditas to Duke Power Playhouse for the first time ever.

More revivals were on the way from Epic Arts and the new king of Charlotte's theater scene, Actor's Theatre. Loud and in-your-face, Hedwig and the Angry Inch took its encore late last summer, with another Actor's Theatre fave from 2003, The Santaland Diaries, home for the holidays. Actor's Theatre also enfolded Epic Arts under its wing, hosting revivals of Halloween at the Poe House and A Mad, Mad Madrigal at its strategically perched site on East Stonewall Street.

With revivals of two scripts that catapulted him to Theaterperson of the Year honors in 2003 — plus the unveiling of Scratchy Scratcherton's Revenge — Epic Arts co-founder Stan Peal stood head-and-shoulders above all other playwrights in town as the most produced. He was also the most honored.

Continuing to reign at Creative Loafing as the creator of The Friar & the Nurse, our Best Original Show of 2003, Peal raked in Best Original Production honors at the first-ever Metrolina Theatre Awards at McGlohon Theatre last September (for A Mad, Mad Madrigal). At last, the leadership of the Metrolina Theatre Association had mobilized its far-flung membership of theater companies, forming panels to judge comedy, drama, musical, college and regional productions.

You think we give a lot of awards? MTA distributed 61 different citations, recognizing work from here to Salisbury.

No wonder things looked so rosy when the limo pulled up to the red-carpeted entrance of Spirit Square for the celebration. City Stage had been a success, MTA had finally gotten its act together, Actor's Theatre had welcomed the city's hottest new company into the hottest new venue, and even the wayward Rep showed promise of sailing out of its doldrums: on August 8, they announced that company founder Steve Umberger would return in February as guest director for Rep's regional premiere of The Exonerated.

From those glowing equinoctial days when the new season was rolling to the launching pad, the sunny outlook headed south. Way south.

In a December to remember, the local scene was buffeted with bad news:

¨ Rep spurns all life rafts. Umberger pulled out of The Exonerated after Rep's clueless board rejected his offer of help for the 2005-06 season. Former managing director Keith Martin, who had previously piloted the company to a surplus, had also offered to return.

¨ Epic Arts takes shore leave. After the revival of Madrigal, Peal's company went on indefinite hiatus, presumably suffering from artistic neurasthenia.

¨ Vance overboard. After 31 seasons as the heart and soul of CP Summer Theatre, the venerable Tom Vance was unceremoniously asked to clean out his office at CPCC.

¨ All hands on deck. A front-page story in the Observer on December 5, "Fringe theaters hanging by threads," read like a sky-is-falling alarm.

It was definitely suspenseful as the clock struck midnight on December 31. Yes, the Rep would soon announce that their month-long run of I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change! was their second-highest grossing show ever, eclipsed only by Angels in America. Then eight days before shutting down forever on February 20 (and taking subscribers' money with them), Rep ballyhooed PART (Professional Actor Repertory Training) Acting Classes to begin in March. Their parting fantasy.

But guess what? Vance has already formed a new company, Charlotte Summer Theatre, and will be back in the saddle at Queens University in June. After canceling shows in November and December, Carolina Actors Studio Theatre (CAST) is back in business in their eponymous theater off Central Avenue — with Actor's Gym as their tenant piping in additional programming. CAST will be represented Uptown this summer at the encore edition of the City Stage Fringe Festival.

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