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Spirited away 

Keep the Sunday ban lifted — and meaningful

Editor's Note: Art On My Sleeve is theater critic Perry Tannenbaum's new monthly column, in which he'll offer up commentary on the arts scene in Charlotte.

All around town, media and bloviators were aghast, agog or amused when news broke that Elevation Church's Pastor Steven Furtick was building a multimillion-dollar home in Waxhaw. On my beat, I've been more concerned that one of Elevation's eight locations, Spirit Square, was infringing upon the local arts. What the hell is Elevation doing at Spirit Square Center for the Arts?

Well, it's paying rent to Blumenthal Performing Arts, for one thing. So Furtick's carny barking and plate-passing may make me giggle a bit — for it is every American's God-given right to be fleeced as he or she pleases — but there's no getting around the fact that Elevation Church is a big-time arts contributor. In a way, its weekly Sunday morning services, held at McGlohon Theatre when no other Spirit Square tenant thinks of being active, were helping to subsidize the resident theater groups who were using Duke Energy Theater and the McGlohon rent-free.

Or so it was, until Elevation added a third service in the afternoon last July. Now the church was beginning to elbow into music and theater territory. Resident groups were told that they could no longer stage Sunday matinees — at either the McGlohon or the Duke. When Queen City Theatre Company was told that posters at Spirit Square for its recent production of Cock would have to be cleansed and retitled "____," it was hard to avoid the inference that Elevation was beginning to throw its weight around.

So I began loading up for an editorial that would call for an Elevation retreat back to its previous Sunday morning hours, where harmony between the arts and the Mammon Church could reign once more. Otherwise, if Elevation couldn't be tamed, I would call upon Blumenthal Performing Arts to evict them so that Spirit Square could retain its cultural identity.

As it turns out, I'm not calling for retreat or eviction after all — because I had the sense to call Blumenthal first, before pounding my keyboard. Instead of demanding that Elevation revert to Sunday morning services and steer clear of the time slot reserved for Sunday theater matinees, I'm reporting that the church has already done exactly that.

"Elevation's third service is not going to continue on past Jan. 1," BPA vice president of programming Douglas Young told me on Nov. 20, "because they're opening a new location up in Lake Norman." Notice from BPA rentals manager Matt Burton went out to eight companies that same night: Sunday matinee performances can now be scheduled as early as 3 p.m. at Duke Energy, beginning on Jan. 5.

The Sunday policy nixing matinees was announced in an email to all affected theater companies on Feb. 22, 2013. Suspension of Sunday matinees had always been considered experimental, says Young, with a trial period running from July 1 through Dec. 31, undertaken to accommodate Elevation's growth — with a chance that the three-service arrangement could become permanent. Restoration of Sunday matinees is similarly short-term, not guaranteed past June 30 if Elevation should experience another growth spurt.

Nor does the new policy reverse the other big change that riled the "big three" companies at Spirit Square, namely On Q Performing Arts, Charlotte Shakespeare and Queen City Theatre Company. Despite their resident status at BPA, On Q and QCTC were forcefully urged to curtail their runs in 2013-14. BPA president Tom Gabbard confirmed via email that the rent-free use of Duke Energy is now limited to two weeks.

But in a conference call with Gabbard, Young and Burton on the line, it was evident that these changes were more nuanced than that. All of the "big three," Burton explained, were offered the opportunity to run at least one of their productions for three weeks rent-free, but an equal number of productions would be limited to two rent-free weeks, with the option to pay for the third week. Whatever the fine points of the offer, the folks with Queen City Theatre balked and walked, declaring the closing night of Cock their farewell to Spirit Square.

Apparently, the $2,885 tab (including their 20-percent resident company discount) for each of the two third weeks they were planning for 2013-14 wasn't to their liking. Charlotte Shakespeare is expected to follow suit, according to BPA, because of the unavailability of McGlohon on Sundays.

Young said that a lack of activity at the Duke and McGlohon on Sundays was a key reason for green-lighting the Elevation experiment, and Gabbard said that attendance figures he'd seen made a poor case for both Sunday matinees and third weeks. More importantly, Gabbard said the point of curtailing runs for the "big three" and charging for third weeks wasn't to raise revenue but to offer more fledgling companies increased rent-free access to the Duke — fulfilling Spirit Square's mission to be an incubator for theater start-ups.

The list of newer companies — including Starving Artist Productions, Shakespeare Carolina, the returning Machine Theatre and the newborn PaperHouse Theatre — who gained greater access to the Duke in 2013-14 had arrived in my inbox about 15 minutes before our phone call. Accompanying the list was a detailed break-out of Queen City attendance figures for its last three seasons. BPA's charts showed aggregate ticket sales daily and weekly as well as percent of seating capacity sold, making it easy to form valid conclusions.

Mine didn't jibe with the Blumenthal's when it came to the relative strengths of various days and weeks. QCTC ran 11 of its 12 shows over the three-year span for at least three weeks, and it ran a Sunday matinee in all 11 of those. Sunday sales were somewhat anemic compared to the overall average, but consistently better than Thursdays — and Wednesdays, too, if you eliminated the occasional pay-what-you-can allure.

As for QCTC's claim that third-week sales feed off the momentum established in the second week, the figures show a slight fall-off compared to Week 2 and an unmistakable edge over Week 1. For the 11 three-week runs at QCTC, the final week was the busiest 4.5 times (including one tie that I've halved), the fat middle week topped the rankings 5.5 times, and the opening week saw victory once.

When you consider that the middle week always contained the anemic Sunday show, Week 2 is even stronger than it first appears. Conversely, because opening week is usually stripped of those pesky Wednesdays and Thursdays, Week 1 is even weaker.

So here's my call to Blumenthal: Keep the ban lifted on Sunday matinee theater at Spirit Square and encourage its development instead of stifling it. Scrutinizing the transcript of our conference call, plus Burton's Feb. 22 email to Spirit Square's theater population, it became obvious that Sunday matinees are still dead in the water until BPA makes further changes.

It's simple: Theater companies were reminded that their week at Spirit Square begins with load-in on Sunday at 2 p.m. and that load-out must happen by 11 p.m. Saturday night when they close. That's the most powerful reason why Queen City Theatre hasn't done any Sunday matinees during its third weeks — and that's why the matinees are now impossible for Week 2 if a company is only running for two weeks.

Fix that, BPA, or Elevation's Sunday retreat will be meaningless.

As for Elevation's burgeoning flock, I'd like some reassurance that its future growth will be channeled somewhere else beside Spirit Square. Can I get an amen from Tega Cay? How about a hallelujah from the ruins of Heritage USA?

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