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Charlotte's Angels Flying High... and Away 

Plus, the kitties return

In New York, Nashville and the UK, Charlotte theater artists are making a splash -- and drawing the supportive appreciation they've sometimes been denied here. Three of the Loaf's former Actresses of the Year are taking wing in new surroundings these days, along with a recent Theaterperson of the Year.

Over in Nashville, charismatic Gina Stewart, our 1997 Actress of the Year, is completing a three-week stint portraying Mother Maybelle Carter in the world premiere production of Wildwood Flowers: The June Carter Story. With June's daughter Carlene in the title role, this country-flavored musical is likely to resurface in New York long before it blossoms here.

The show is produced and co-written by Angela Bennett, Loaf's Actress of the Year in 1999. It runs at the BellSouth Acuff Theatre through July 31.

Up in Gotham, Epic Arts Repertory Theatre will be reviving Stan Peal's The Friar and the Nurse for the second straight summer. Peal's script offers an unexpectedly lusty yet empathetic view of two rather stodgy characters from Romeo & Juliet, pairing them in a clandestine romance. After winning Theaterperson of the Year honors in 2003 for his playwriting and acting exploits, Peal and his wife Laura Depta launched the City Stage Fringe Theatre Festival last summer at Spirit Square.

Now they've been invited to perform at the New York International Fringe Festival, a citywide gathering of 200 companies boasting over 1,300 performances at multiple locations from August 12 to 28. The Friar and the Nurse will be at The Players Loft on August 13-14, 16-17, and 19-20.

Barbi VanSchaick is best remembered as the fearsome Angel who hovered menacingly over Prior Walter, prodding the reluctant prophet in Charlotte Rep's landmark production of Angels in America. She'll take wing for the longest, most audacious flight of her career in October. VanSchaick, CL's 1998 Actress of the Year, recently won admission to the one-year Professional Acting Course for Overseas Students at the prestigious Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.

Hundreds apply from around the world just for the honor of making the pilgrimage to New York and London, where the worthiest applicants audition. Callbacks come to Bristol for the final auditions and interviews. Only a handful of hopefuls -- as few as eight, no more than 12 -- succeed in getting one of the precious slots at BOVTS. School alums include Jeremy Irons, Daniel Day-Lewis, Miranda Richardson, Patrick Stewart and Gene Wilder.

VanSchaick is abandoning her day job as a hairdresser to jump at this chance of a lifetime, and she's selling her car to help finance her tuition.

If Hoyle Martin, Bill James and Mayor McCrory aren't calling out for brass bands to trumpet VanSchaick's triumph, colleagues and supporters in the Charlotte theater community are massing together to celebrate. Paige Johnston, a casting director who operates Corrigan & Johnston Casting with Mitzi Corrigan, is tossing a Bon Voyage Fundraising Party at Dish Restaurant in Plaza Midwood on August 7 from 7 to 8:30pm.

"Barbi has been an integral and important part of the Charlotte theater community for many years," says Johnston, "and the opportunity to attend this conservatory is an honor that we should all be proud of -- as friends, as theatergoers and as supporters of the arts."

Now in her late 30s, VanSchaick had auditioned for NYU in her late 20s when, she admits, she was as afraid of succeeding as she was of failing. Afterwards, even when she was acting in Angels or touring with Children's Theatre's Tarradiddle Players, her life was disheveled and riddled with split ends. Hairdressing paid the bills and sustained stability, acting satisfied her soul and saddled her with debt -- even when she landed gigs with Rep.

"I felt like I was being punished for doing what I love," VanSchaick relates. "For a long time, I had felt that I've existed walking through life with one foot in a puddle and one up on a curb. Jump to either side! So I jumped up on the curb. I decided to do the business route, and I got very depressed and was very dissatisfied. Not living in the lane of my heart's desire. Not going with what I'm passionate about."

The turning point came last fall when Barbi participated in Lifegame, where an ensemble acted out the life of a different audience member at each performance -- never knowing beforehand what they would hear from their subject. Or how they would react. Former Rep managing director Matt Olin brought in Lee Simpson, a member of the original London cast, to direct and train the cast in this unique brand of improv.

As the cast "lifegamed" each other in rehearsal, Barbi saw her hopes take on fresh urgency as other actors performed them. She rediscovered the satisfaction of working with other artists, sharing a common vision, and creating. She had her talents validated by Simpson, a brilliant teacher, writer, performer and director -- with a Royal National Theatre pedigree.

"Plus that show for me was about facing my fears and insecurities as an artist," says VanSchaick, "and learning that you're never really an artist until you're willing to fail. You have to be willing to take enough risk to possibly fail and move through that fear."

Still, she almost threw it all away at the last minute when her dad, on dialysis for four years, went into intensive care. He wasn't alone, but she couldn't give herself permission to leave him.

"I went up and saw him," she recalls. "And I said, 'I don't know, Dad, how I feel about leaving. Am I doing the right thing?' And he said, 'This isn't a dress rehearsal. This is it. You got one shot, and don't be ridiculous. You go for it. You've come this far, and if I could go with you, I would. And I want you to do your best, kiddo. Do it. Get in. Live. Love. Have a life. And, most important, have the life that you want to have. Don't just settle.' He was very supportive."

Barbi's dad died on June 12, a week before the acceptance letter arrived from Bristol.

"So I definitely feel like he's working for me on the other side, hopefully putting a good word in. Cheering me on."

There will be plenty of cheering at the Dish on August 7, and many of the most fascinating members of Charlotte's theater community will be dipping into the hors d'oeuvres, bending an elbow at the cash bar and taking chances on a Barbi raffle. Johnston and her co-conspirators also promise to deliver a skit as part of their bon voyage.

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