Mar 16, 2023 - Culture

Charlotte theater companies lack funding and space

"POTUS" actors pose in a set of the Oval Office with paper flying in the air.

Charlotte Conservatory Theatre's production of "POTUS" runs March 16-19 at Booth Playhouse and April 26-29 at the Cain Center for the Arts. Photo: Fenix Fotography/courtesy of Charlotte Conservatory Theatre

It’s not feasible to make a living as a full-time artist in Charlotte. You have to have another job, like teaching, multiple theater artists tell Axios.

Why it matters: Charlotte wants to consider itself a world-class city, but a world-class city needs to fully support professional theater, local artists say. The pandemic was especially hard on local theater operators — and plenty of artists worry about the future of funding and availability of space.

  • “Theater is an expensive habit,” OnQ Productions founder Quentin Talley tells Axios. says.
  • His upcoming production of “Miles & Coltrane: Blue (.)” will cost around $100,000. Talley hopes to take his show about Miles Davis and John Coltrane, which runs April 13-16 at Booth Playhouse, on the road eventually.

Talley, the program director at the Hayti Heritage Center/St. Joseph’s Historic Foundation, Inc., founded OnQ in 2006 because he was tired of only seeing theaters produce work about the Black experience during February. OnQ’s last full season was in 2018 due to funding (though they still put on shows occasionally).

  • Then the pandemic hit, and “all hell broke loose,” Talley says.
Omar El-Amin as Miles Davis, holding trumpet.
Omar El-Amin as Miles Davis in OnQ Production’s performance of “Miles & Coltrane: Blue (.)” in 2017. Photo: Gena J./courtesy of OnQ Productions

Yes, but: You may have been Uptown to see a big-name production like “Hamilton” or “Wicked.” They drum up interest in theater, and they provide an economic boost, but they’re not a permanent fixture.

State of play: The last few years have been challenging for Charlotte’s theater scene.

  • Three Bone Theatre and BNS Productions were displaced by Spirit Square’s closure in the fall of 2021. The property’s McGlohon Theater and the black box Duke Energy Theater will be updated and will eventually reopen — but smaller companies can’t afford to go dark for three years, Three Bone Theatre co-founder Robin Tynes-Miller tells Axios.
  • Booth Playhouse, another local space, is more expensive than Duke Energy Theater at Spirit Square due to union fees associated with renting the theater. Blumenthal Performing Arts, which operates several Charlotte’s theaters, provides discounts to nonprofit theaters and companies using their venues for more than half of their season, Blumenthal CEO Tom Gabbard says.
  • New space is also gobbled up quickly. The Visual and Performing Arts Center (VAPA) had a waitlist before it even opened last March and is currently at 99% capacity, per executive director Arthur Rogers.
  • Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, a local institution that started in 1989, closed in 2022 because of poor season ticket sales and the fact that it lost its space at Queens University.

Stacey Rose is an award-winning playwright, but she was a full time respiratory therapist before joining the writers’ room on FOX’s TV show “9-1-1.” She operates Queen City New Play Initiative, which she co-founded, out of her Plaza Midwood apartment.

Flashback: These theater challenges aren’t new. They were top of mind when Theatre Charlotte artistic director and acting executive director Chris Timmons moved here in 2003 to work for Charlotte Repertory Theatre.

  • Charlotte hasn’t had a true professional theater since then, in the sense that they paid living wages, provided insurance and retirement benefits, Timmons says.
  • Charlotte Rep brought the controversial performance of “Angels in America” as well as Academy Award-winner Hilary Swank in “The Miracle Worker” to Charlotte. The theater closed in 2005.

Of note: Theatre Charlotte, which was founded in 1928, has its own space after an electrical fire in 2020 forced them to hit the road for a season. Timmons hopes to open up the space to other theater companies once they’re fully up and running.

“If you’re wondering what happened to any building [in Charlotte], saying it’s a brewery or an apartment complex is probably right,” Davidson College professor and Charlotte native Steve Kaliski says of ATC’s former Uptown home

Zoom out: Charlotte is grappling with a multi-million-dollar question: How can it fund and sustain the arts? In a new funding model, the city distributes grant funding to organizations through a pool called the Infusion Fund. The Arts and Science Council was previously responsible for distributing those dollars.

Some artists tell Axios they’re worried about how they will be considered for future funding.

  • City council recently voted 6-3 to approve the city’ new Arts and Culture Policy Framework, which means ASC will no longer receive money from the Infusion Fund to support its operations. It received $950,000 for FY23, per ASC president Krista Terrell.
  • Terrell tells Axios the organization isn’t going anywhere. The organization provided $142,050 in culture vision grants since fiscal year 2021 to theater artists.

By the numbers: $8.9 million in Infusion Fund operating grants was distributed to 38 organizations by the City of Charlotte’s Arts and Culture Advisory Board for FY23. Seven local theater organizations received $918,932.

  • The city also rolled out the Opportunity Fund in FY22 to make grant funding accessible more quickly, says Priya Sircar, the city’s arts and culture officer. It distributed $235,000 in FY22 and $925,000 in FY23.
  • $325,000 is available in the current grant cycle. Recipients will be announced in late June and funds will be distributed by early July. The deadline to apply is March 31.

The big picture: Charlotte is pouring more money in to the arts, but FY24 marks the end of the Infusion Fund and there’s nothing to guarantee the Opportunity Fund will continue in FY24. That’s where creating the city’s arts and culture plan comes into play, Sircar says. The goal is to have the plan completed by June.

The bottom line: Theater provides more than tourism dollars. It connects communities, but artists say they should also be able to make a living doing it.

Three Bone Theatre's production of "OSLO" in 2019. Performers raise a glass to a character in the production.
Three Bone Theatre’s production of “Oslo” in 2019. Photo: Courtesy of Three Bone Theatre

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