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Theater in Charlotte: A year in review 

You may have heard about it: Arts funding was tight in 2009. Just because a new president took office, discretionary spending didn't skyrocket, and the economy -- even in Banktown -- kept losing jobs. Opera Carolina postponed the beginning of its season, and Symphony teetered on the brink of extinction as basic operating grants from the Arts & Science Council plummeted 40 percent. On top of everything, I did not issue any of my annual pontifications with the annual Creative Loafing Charlotte Theater Awards.

Surely the sky was falling.

No, as I gazed upwards late last May during an outdoor performance of Twelfth Night, from where I sat on The Green, the sky was studded with cranes. Construction of the new Mint Museum, the new Bechtler, the new Knight Theater and the new Gantt Center was proceeding on schedule. Our arts organizations and artists may have been starving, but we were still bringing our A-game to putting up our arts buildings.

Accustomed as it is to underfunding, disrespect and neglect, the Charlotte theater scene -- besprinkled with groups that get mere crumbs from the Arts & Science Council and others that don't expect shit -- kept on rolling, remarkably unperturbed. True, Epic Arts Repertory was delivering its valedictory production at precisely the same moment that Charlotte Shakespeare Festival was launching its fourth season on The Green, and BareBones Theatre Group, comatose since April 2008, didn't revive in 2009.

But BareBones founder James Yost did resurface, turning his day job at Providence High School into the Chaos Ensemble and bringing a strong production of Columbinus to Spirit Square in December. Meanwhile, Off-Tryon Theatre refugee Jimmy Chrismon (Jeffrey, All About Eve) had developed a similar concept as theater director at South Pointe High in Rock Hill -- and evolved it a couple of steps further. Teens and adults beyond the student body and faculty were welcomed into the talent pool for seven productions last year, including Geography Club, Rent, Bare and The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later.

Edge was part of another new reality: Fringe theater isn't strictly an urban phenomenon in Metro Charlotte anymore. Further off the radar, Warehouse Theatre sprang up in Cornelius with a couple of audacious projects, An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf and 'night, Mother. Edge and Warehouse both continue vibrantly in 2010.

Inside the Beltway, the fringe got funkier, establishing a new nerve center along Central Avenue. Chronologically, Citizens of the Universe predated The Warehouse in reviving storefront theater -- a concept that had been dead in Charlotte for decades. COTU founder James Cartee brought his one-man show, Gonzo: A Brutal Chrysalis, to The Graduate, and more brutally, took a dramatization of Fight Club out to a Central Avenue parking lot, near the railroad tracks. Cartee quickly became a Charlotte theater street legend, lighting the show with automobile headlights after an opening night downpour short-circuited his conventional rig.

Later in July, when Fight Club was in its second week, an artistic consortium spearheaded by Matt Cosper established Machine Theatre up the hill at another storefront, Century Village. In an inner sanctum christened the Patchwerk Playhaus, they presented Ionesco's The Bald Soprano, and in September, Machine alighted down at Carolina Actors Studio Theatre, where it unveiled the first act of Cosper's ThomThom, a wicked absurdist sequel to Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. With music. The whole two-act shebang, if you haven't heard, gets its premiere at Spirit Square on July 8.

By the time ThomThom opened at CAST, the new Central Avenue synergy was complete. On July 30, former Charlotte Rep artistic director Mark Woods welcomed key members of the local theater scene to 1401 Central Avenue for the opening of Story Slam! and outlined the freewheeling, incubating, fun-loving purpose of what I called "the front porch conspiracy" in a blog that was posted the same day. Since then, Story Slam! has served up a Bohemian brew of music, spoken word, movie and playscript readings, artist model pose-a-thons, theater, and something named the Ta-Ta Fantasia.

The catalytic effect Story Slam! was having on the theater scene culminated on October 12, when Slam! -- partnering with Edge Theatre in their first Charlotte appearance -- became part of a nationwide hookup for a live reading and discussion of The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later. Four of the eight nominees for CL's Theater Event of the Year award sprouted on Central Avenue, and this powerful investigative piece -- which put homophobes and journalists equally to shame -- was the worthiest of them all.

Another part of the synergy completed by the arrival of Story Slam! was the fact that it serves as a signpost for good ole CAST, which is tucked behind it at 1118 Clement Avenue. In fact, with parking accommodations so spare at Slam, you're likelier to find yourself in the CAST lot than in front of 1401 Central when you lock your car.

CAST provided abundant reasons to check out their work on the way to their second Company of the Year award. Funded in part by a Tourism Marketing Fast Track grant from the ASC and Visit Charlotte, CAST recreated the mythical waterworld of Mary Zimmerman's Metamorphoses, building a pool into its larger theater space. Until then, productions in CAST's larger room paid lip service to being thrust stagings. Few people really sat on the sides. But Metamorphoses was such a tourist attraction that those seats filled regularly. The same hot-ticket ambiance prevailed for the second-best drama of 2009, Marat/Sade, as fierce and wicked as Metamorphoses was sensual and beautiful.

Such sterling efforts were necessary to keep Actor's Theatre of Charlotte from wresting its sixth title. Their world premiere of Eric Coble's Southern Rapture, revisiting the notorious Angels in America kerfuffle of 1996, dominated our comedy category. The production, commissioned by Actor's Theatre on the angelic wings of a whopping $50,000 gift from Michael Lakoff, also lifted the company to a higher stature. On the strength of Rapture, Actor's Theatre was invited to join the National New Play Network. The first fruit from that new affiliation, a slot in the "rolling world premiere" of Steven Dietz's Yankee Tavern, yielded one of the best dramas of the year.

And make no mistake, in a year of continuing economic gloom, drama was the dominant mode of theater expression among Charlotte companies. On the other hand, so many companies leaned more toward musicals that, for the first time in the Loaf Era, more musicals were eligible for awards than comedies. Not too long ago, you could assume that CPCC Summer Theatre would scoop up most of the musical honors. Nine other companies were in the sweepstakes for 2009, another encouraging trend in a surprisingly promising year.

It's good to be back with the Charlotte Theater Awards. Here are the winners.

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