Trashy musical pieces, irreverent spoofs and trendy new works from black and feminist playwrights aren't the only things Actor's Theatre of Charlotte has done well for the past 29 years. Around the country, when artistic and administrative staffers from Actor's Theatre attend national conferences with colleagues, they find that a big part of the company's reputation rests on its commitment to nurturing new plays.
After two years of instability and uncertainty — and two full seasons without reviving its NuVoices Festival — Actor's Theatre is getting back on track. This week, it opens Meridith Friedman's The Luckiest People, part of a rolling world premiere that began in Denver. In May, the company will be part of another rolling world premiere, presenting David Valdes Greenwood's The Mermaid Hour.
Both plays were previously presented in reading stage productions at NuVoices 4 in January 2016, with all of the actors performing with scripts in hand — no scenery, no costumes and with limited rehearsal.
NuVoices 4 was one of the last events on East Stonewall Street, ATC's last permanent home, before developers' wrecking balls demolished the site. After a misadventure in the Belmont neighborhood near Plaza Midwood, the company was slated to reopen on Freedom Drive in late October of 2016.
Instead, Actor's Theatre had to move Toxic Avenger a block away to the City Center Church, the first of four sites where ATC staged its 2016-17 season. Until last fall, when it launched its current season with American Idiot, subscribers never knew where the next production would crop up.
That's when ATC announced that Freedom Drive was still on hold and that its next two productions would remain at Hadley Theater on the Queens University campus.
But what about after that? Now we know.
Luckiest People, Mermaid Hour and The Mountaintop all will be at Hadley. More importantly, ATC executive director Chip Decker and John Sisko, dean of Queens' College of Arts and Sciences, have just inked a deal that will keep ATC on campus as the university's resident theater company for the next five years.
From necessity to desperation to near-relief, it's been quite a rollercoaster for Decker, his board members and ATC's loyal fans. "We're off life support but still in ER," Decker quips. "In a better hospital."
Sisko arrived at Queens in the summer of 2016, when all seemed to be going smoothly with ATC's relocation. After the abortive opening in October and a subsequent revival of The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical at the McBride-Bonnefoux Dance Center — a horrid acoustic mismatch for a live musical — Sisko wasn't hearing any signs of life, so he reached out.
Down on Freedom Drive, one hurdle followed another. Parking had to be upgraded to satisfy the city, and architects' drawings kept getting sent back for tiny inaccuracies. Think about this one the next time you walk through the flat concrete of a parking lot to find your car: Decker and his company had to shell out thousands to get an engineer to certify that the concrete slab — one that had held up a mechanic's shop and the building itself for 50 years — could support an audience.
"We were slowly bleeding money to death," Decker says.
After Bootycandy ran at Mint Museum, Stupid Fucking Bird was staged at the Hadley last spring, a clear signal that Sisko and Queens University brass were unfazed by ATC's edgy fare. Decker quickly recognized that this was the finest venue his company had ever performed in. By far.
The lightbulb came on, and Decker invited Sisko out for coffee and a chat about the future.
"It took me a long time to quit beating my head against the wall to make Freedom Drive happen," Decker recalls. "Having the passion for something and wanting it so bad, I kind of started being blind to the writing on the wall. We were at the point — and I shared this with John — I said, 'We're do or die. We're either going to close, or something different is going to work.'"
When Sisko saw how well Stupid Fucking Bird went, concern about ATC's struggle gave way to recognition of the opportunities that bringing the company on board could open up at Queens. ATC could offer technical support for its theater department productions during the academic year; it could offer internships to graduating students; it could oversee a summer theater festival with performances on the quad under the stars, and it could teach courses about theater production and administration.
"ATC is the backbone of the Queens theater program, and it's a mutually beneficial relationship," Sisko says. "We have parents who are a little worried about their children being an arts major. But when they're an arts major and they have 30 credits on the business side of the arts as well, then they are in better position when they face post-graduation."
Talks are under way on the possiblity of reviving the NuVoices Festival as early as this summer, and Decker is already salivating at that prospect. At previous festivals, the four playwrights, four directors and their casts had to rehearse and perform on a single space at Stonewall.
On the Queens campus, there will be multitudes of classrooms at ATC's disposal; playwrights will be able to interact and talk shop, or simply do rewrites — on the quad, in some greenspace, or in a classroom instead of a hotel.
"They can all come together and talk about the process of playwriting, what it takes to get it produced," says Decker.
"Queens can bring in their MFA creative writing students for master classes with the playwrights on how do you get seen, how do you get published, how do you get your word out there, what it literally takes to become a professional writer on the scene," he adds.
With the opening of The Luckiest People this week, ignition for the process gets revved up again, because NuVoices is one of very few festivals across the country that promises a full production for every winning entry.
Dennis Delamar, a longtime actor and director at ATC, is doubly excited: He's reprising the central role of Oscar Hoffman two years closer to the irascible old SOB's actual age, and he's performing for the first time at the Hadley knowing the company has a permanent home again.
NuVoices gives his role an extra charge, Delamar says. "Being on the ground floor of a new piece of theater is pretty thrilling — a professional collaboration that offers one an opportunity to offer one's own unique interpretation while the playwright is still in the 'making it better' stages," he says.
Participating in NuVoices gave Delamar the opportunity to meet playwright Meridith Friedman and learn first-hand how she drew the character of Oscar from her own Great Neck, New York, grandfather.
Thanks to Facebook, Delamar stayed in touch with Friedman, conferring with her when she made further revisions.
"I felt quite comfortable to write to her about a significant moment for Oscar I noticed had been changed," Delamar says. "Taking time to explain to me the history and logic of the change, Meridith reminded me how much I appreciate working with this gifted and open-minded writer.
"She listens. She is wise," he adds. "I agreed with the change and loved that we could confer so openly about it."
Yes, the thrill is back at ATC — with new plays and new hope.
"All the signs from this last year together suggest that it's going to work out extremely well," Sisko says.