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Donna Scott: The Nonconformist 

Theater is coming to South End

Donna Scott makes friends with our resident firefighter hand-puppet.

Kimberly Lawson

Donna Scott makes friends with our resident firefighter hand-puppet.

An '80s-era photograph shows a trio of third-graders on an elementary school stage. A Sharpie-drawn arrow points to one, in a huge hat, fake beard and mustache, with a scrawled accompanying note: Donna is dressed as a boy.

Donna Scott, with partners Glynnis O'Donoghue and Tonya Bludsworth, is taking the starch out of traditional theater by staging shows in nontraditional spaces. Scott says she didn't grow up in an artsy family, but they always supported her theatrical forays. Her father captioned and saved that photograph decades before Scott followed her love of the stage and founded Donna Scott Productions. But first, she had to try to be normal.

"I was the first person in my family to go to college; I was a business major at Winthrop, not because I loved it but because I thought I was being responsible. All my electives were in theater and they were my only A's," the 46-year-old says. A theater professor said she should audition for productions, but Scott was juggling two jobs at the time so she didn't.

Still, she carried that encouragement inside like a seed, and although she graduated and became a sales executive for a department store, she continued to support the performing arts. Finally in the late '90s, she enrolled in some acting classes, for film and commercials, which she calls "a special sort of torture, because you have to watch yourself on film. You learn you have some tics or weird stuff that you do to your hair when you're nervous, and on film every little thing shows up bigger."

Then, in the middle of watching a miscued performance by a classmate she had gone to support, Scott had something like a panic attack. "It was live, not a 'let's go back to one and tape again' situation. There were live people in the audience reacting in real time. And I thought, 'Do you really think you can do that?' Sitting in the audience is one thing, but the doing of something is another," Scott says. "I had thought about it for so long, done it at intermittent points, held onto glimmers of hope of going back and then came the scary moment. Had I spent all this time on something that's not for me?"

She pushed through the fear, and now when she gets that feeling in the pit of her stomach, she recognizes it for what it is: a moment of anxious hopefulness. As the founder of Donna Scott Productions, she's had 10 years to get used to that feeling. It came again over the summer when DSP took up the challenge of producing a series of theatrical shows in South End — in museums, galleries, warehouses and even breweries.

Perhaps due to her non-artsy rearing, Scott's perspective on taking performances outside of theaters has something of a Robin Hood vibe. "Maybe a traditional theater is intimidating to some people," she says, "but you're willing to go to the bar down the street from you. The world is changing; we need to go where the people are. If the crowds are down in South End walking around for the gallery crawl, we want to be there."

Scott partnered with Center City Partners, Community Trust and South End Historic District to facilitate the effort, and won a grant from the Arts and Science Council to offset some of the associated production costs. "Historic South End told us they would love to offer theater and there were spaces we could use if we were willing to use nontraditional spaces," Scott says. "It's a different type of entertainment. People get excited about this type of thing because it's fresh and new and kinda different. It's more relaxed."

DSP's first in a series of nontraditional theater performances kicks off at the Charlotte Trolley Museum with a reading of the comedy Carrie Ann's Kiss. There's always a hint of excitement around theater in an unexpected place. It can be tricky to pull off, depending on the limitations of the place. In nontraditional spaces, production companies have to bring everything in: the lights, sound, stages and sometimes seating. To showcase the versatility of the space, Scott says the actors will incorporate more movement and audience involvement than a traditional staged reading.

Surprisingly enough, Scott says, audience reception is often more positive than one might think, especially if you adapt the show to fit the vibe of the venue. Scott cites the success of Chickspeare, the all-female Shakespearean troupe that performed at NoDa Brewing in 2012. The 45-minute comedy was perfectly suited for the bar situation, and sold out two shows.

In early March, DSP will bring a full production of Shiloh Rules, a comedy about female Civil War re-enactors, to the Charlotte Art League, another South End location with enormous live theater potential.

Every venue has its own challenges, and is a little different from the last. "That's the great part about live performances; things can go wrong. It is live theater," Scott says. "Not that we're shooting for that."

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