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Out of the Margins 

City Stage brings indie theater uptown

A thriving fringe theater scene in Charlotte? At the dawn of the Loaf Era in 1987, the idea was ludicrous. The really big shews weighed anchor out on Independence Boulevard at Ovens Auditorium. Uptown on Tryon Street, Spirit Square was the hub for both Charlotte's Equity theater company and its guerrilla theater movement.

But the opening of the North Carolina Blumenthal Performing Arts Center in 1992 turned the local entertainment scene upside down. Suddenly the big shows like Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon were a stone's throw from The Square at Belk Theater. Upstairs at Booth Playhouse, Charlotte Rep was building its stature as the PAC's resident company with Equity productions of Angels in America, Six Degrees of Separation, and the world premiere of Beth Henley's Signature.

Rental rates -- and something called the CEC -- gradually squeezed Charlotte's guerrilla groups out of Spirit Square. When Actor's Theatre of Charlotte signalled their intent to open the 2003-04 season at their own free-standing site on Stonewall Street, the exodus from Spirit Square was complete -- and Charlotte's fringe theater movement had a new kingpin.

Ah, the irony! When Charlotte's guerrilla groups were clustered uptown, there were few local residents to drop in. Now that the heart of the city is throbbing with new condos, bustling with new nightlife, and bracing itself for an influx of Johnson & Wales collegians, the funky gang has fled.

Right on cue, enter the new City Stage Festival, sponsored by Charlotte Center City Partners and Creative Loafing. Playing at Spirit Square through August 1, City Stage showcases a generous sampling of Charlotte's blue-chip fringe companies at their best.

Everybody wins. New residents and out-of-towners get convenient access to a galaxy of Charlotte's star thespians while participating theater groups bask in a marketing-publicity bonanza.

Since the new City Stage is hosted and produced by the lordly PAC, a full-color brochure ballyhooing the festival was circulated to thousands of PAC patrons as part of their larger Summer Sensations promotion. That means City Stage stood shoulder-to-shoulder and hype-to-hype with Rent, Mamma Mia!, Robert Goulet, Tim Conway, and Les Miz. Heady company for the likes of BareBones Theatre Group, Chickspeare, Epic Arts Repertory, and Charlotte's Off-Broadway.

A four-page insert, exclusively for City Stage, appeared two weeks ago in the Loaf, the largest block of arts advertising in CL's illustrious history. No doubt the fringe theater groups will take advantage of their Pied Piper opportunity at Spirit Square, using their appearance at City Stage to lure theatergoers to productions already scheduled for their 2004-05 seasons.

That's the thinking behind the convenient map that appeared on the backside of our insert. Missed it? You'll find more of those colorful guides to City Stage and the fringe scene -- by the thousands -- at the festival.

Performances begin at 8pm on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays with 2pm matinees every Sunday. Individual tickets are $19.99, with festival subscriptions for all four plays available for $69.99.

On the Marquee

July 8-11: [sic] by Melissa James Gibson (Charlotte's Off-Broadway) -- Produced brilliantly on a shoestring budget last summer at Off-Tryon Theatre, this Obie Award comedy introduces us to three quirky young urban neighbors who haven't quite found themselves. Possibly because they've forgotten to look. Directed again by Allison Modafferi, [sic] offers the delightful interplay of three comedy standouts, Nicia Carla, Aaron Moore, and Peter Smeal.

July 15-18: Drift by Jon Tuttle (BareBones Theatre Group) -- We've heard that Columbia, SC, playwright Tuttle will be among the witnesses in the house for this revival of his grim satire on marital infighting among three couples. Cynically looking on is a private eye whose eye is mostly on the cash returns of manipulating his clients' passions. The cast is very different from the 2001 ensemble that opened BBTG's season and now includes Beth Pierce and Jerry Colbert. BareBones founder James Yost still stars and directs.

July 22-25: The Friar and the Nurse by Stan Peal (Epic Arts Repertory) -- Peal and his wife Laura Depta return to perform the title roles in this thought-provoking two-hander, which won CL's award for Best New Play of 2003. While the star-crossed Romeo and Juliet were falling in love, agonizing, and dying, we find that Romeo's confessor and Juliet's nurse were also falling under the sway of Eros. Beautifully directed and designed by Lon Bumgarner.

July 29-August 1: Quickspeare by William Shakespeare, et al. (Chickspeare) -- Treat yourself to a pu-pu platter of choice comical Bard tidbits, topped off with the deathless Hamlet sequence from The Compleat Works of Wllm Shkspr (abridged). Charlotte's unique all-woman company performs this crowd-pleasing adaptation by Joanna Gerdy with Chix faves Julie Janorschke, Sheila Snow, Andrea King, and Meghan Lowther among the worthies delivering the mayhem.

Roll the CreditsImpetus for the new summerfest came from the PAC's new prez, Tom Gabbard, when he introduced himself to local theater groups at a Metrolina Theatre Association meeting last fall. Fringe impresario Anne Lambert was at that meeting. Before singeing herself in the fires of Charlotte Rep politics, Lambert had honed her marketing skills as development director at NC Dance Theatre. More importantly, she had been a pivotal figure in Charlotte's Off Broadway project, uniting three of the city's fringe groups -- Chickspeare, BareBones, and Off-Tryon -- in a common marketing effort, backed by a landmark grant in 2001 from the Arts & Science Council.

"Anne stood up at this introductory meeting and challenged me to figure out a way to make Spirit Square more affordable and accessible to small companies that were eager to work there," Gabbard recalls. "And I said that I'm committed to doing everything we can to make that possible."

With the door opened to PAC projects at Spirit Square, it wasn't long before Anne walked in with the City Stage concept.

"She brought up this festival that occurs in Atlanta at the Alliance Theatre," Gabbard says, "and as we studied it further, we realized, wow, this was a wonderful model that we could begin to apply in some unique ways here using our local companies."

Down in the trenches, it's Lambert who has produced City Stage together with Blumenthal Performing Arts Center. But please note the Charlotte City Partners influence.

On successive weeks, different local restaurants will be offering meal deals in conjunction with each City Stage show. Bring in your ticket stub and our Loaf insert to cash in on the discount. In chronological order, sponsoring eateries are Presto Restaurant Bar and Grill (7/8-11), Ri-Ra (7/15-18), Soho Bistro (7/22-25), and Caffe Siena (7/29-8/1).

And kindly note the Creative Loafing touch. On successive Fridays, performances will be followed by interview-talkbacks with actors, directors, and designers of that night's show. With the exception of the Drift revival, I'll be handling the interviews before giving way to audience comments and questions. Anne Lambert pinch-hits for me on July 16. See you there!

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