Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Farewell, N.C. Shakespeare Festival?

Or N.C. Shakes, as it recently redubbed itself in an effort to appeal to audiences with short attention spans in the digital era. Its board of directors suspended operations last week and won't produce any plays this year, though they hope to provide in-school Shakespeare to Go shows in 2014.

I saw my first live "Macbeth" there in 1980, a few months after I came to work in Charlotte, but I didn't see a whole summer season until 1985, during my first stint as theater critic. I've gone sporadically up to High Point since then: The Observer stopped covering culture in the Triad five years ago, but I always liked to see at least one play a year there. Actors came from around the region to perform, often developing long acquaintances with the company, so I felt a kind of reunion spirit when I went. Many were directed by Steve Umberger, who founded Actor's Contemporary Ensemble (which became Charlotte Repertory Theatre).

I wondered even 25 years ago how the company could survive in High Point, where the auditorium was seldom half-full on weekends. Yet it managed to produce two Shakespeare plays every year plus two or three others, including the ubiquitous "A Christmas Carol." By 2009, it was down to two plays; by 2011, it squeezed out only "A Christmas Carol."

The recession dealt all cultural groups a harsh blow, and theater companies (like all endeavors) have a natural life span; maybe 35 years was enough. Perhaps there's even a small silver lining: Charlotte Shakespeare continues to do pay-what-you-choose productions of the Bard in the summer -- "Macbeth" opens Aug. 15 at Booth Playhouse -- so perhaps folks close to the Triad will come down here to get their Shakespeare fix.

But I'll miss the 80-mile drive up and back. Sometimes I'd stay over at the hotel across the street, seeing an evening show one night and a matinee the next. Theater became something special -- not just a casual outing, but an event that required some preparation and lingered long in the mind. I guess too few people felt that way.