Monday, August 18, 2014

I miss CAST. I wish more people did.

I'm putting together the fall-spring arts calendar for 2014-15 this week, and I realize the hole Carolina Actors Studio Theatre left when the board shut it down in June. The company that did more plays than any other in the 2013-14 season won't be around to bring us the likes of "Angels in America." (The photo is of J.R. Adduci as God in "Steambath" from a few seasons back.)

Post-mortems don't interest me. I don't care whether the board acted precipitously, whether money could have been raised to move the company to a different venue, whether local producers were interested in chipping in but told "no dice," whether founder-producer Michael Simmons (pictured below, rehearsing "August: Osage County") was right or wrong in his battles with the board. I've heard all of these things and more.

I would have been interested in writing about the crisis, if anyone had asked for help or attention before the company shut down. But I'm reminded of a sign on the wall of the American Red Cross office on Park Road: "He who conceals his disease cannot expect to be cured."

The indisputable thing, however, is this: Audiences failed CAST. I can't remember a single opening night where every seat in the small theater was full. (Or any night, period, on the occasions I went after opening or saw a show twice.) Despite a strong, two-decade track record, despite generally positive reviews, despite advance articles explaining what shows were about, theatergoers didn't make CAST a habit.

In 35 years of writing about Charlotte culture, I have occasionally lamented the timidity and lack of adventurousness of local audiences. Year in and year out, from the Charlotte Symphony and Opera Carolina down to small drama companies, people generally buy tickets to see what they know and skitter away from anything they don't.

Cultural groups often tell me they're trying to build trust. If audiences like a Blumenthal tour of "Wicked," maybe they'll trust the same programmers if they import a terrific but less-known "Peter and the Starcatcher." If they take to "The Nutcracker" at Charlotte Ballet, maybe they'll take to an unfamiliar work by Jiri Kylian. Sometimes this philosophy works; more often, it doesn't.

In CAST's case, it never seemed to. The company had a small, loyal following -- I often saw the same faces at shows -- and occasionally scored a blockbuster hit. But the people who flocked to see "August" didn't come back in force for "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" two months later. So if we're asking who really killed Carolina Actors Studio Theatre, and you never bothered to find out how good they could be, the answer is: You did.


Anonymous said...

They're not identically the same, but this reminds me of the demise of New York City Opera including an artistic battle with the board, loss of funding,adventurous programming.

FWIW, I think people have neither the time nor money to be adventurous in their entertainment.

A night at the theater (or opera) requires an end-to-end commitment of 3-5 hours. There is the cost of the evening-tickets, attire, food and beverage, maybe a babysitter, etc. There's the exhaustion of having been at work all day, dealing with our post-crash era.

All that means few people want to be challenged by programming, let alone see a dud. They want to be entertained. They can easily stay home and watch an array of 500 channels on audio/video systems that recreate the theater experience.

It's a very small group of patrons that can consistently support live theater (or New York City Opera.) Unfortunately, this reality is leaves little room for adventures.

Bird said...

It may be comparing apples to oranges - or at least apples to pears - but, from a logistics standpoint, how did CAST stack up against Actor's Theater of Charlotte (ATC)? I ask because they appeared to be about the same size and targeting the same audience. Yet, I've gone to many ATC shows and very few haven't been mostly if not completely full.

Do you think it is a difference in venue, selection of material, promotion, or something else?

Anonymous said...

Good question, Bird. I, too, have been pleased to see audiences respond so vigorously at Actor's Theatre of Charlotte.

Here are a few differences that might be crucial:

ATC has a stand-alone theater with an easy-to-see marquee on a well-traveled street (Stonewall), and people know where to find it. CAST did not have those advantages. And CAST relocated three seasons ago to a larger, more expensive space that was harder to pay for.

ATC has a full-time staff that can spread out the division of labor among production, play reading, marketing and media, patron care, etc. CAST never rose to that level; it briefly had a separate managing director near the end but was otherwise mostly a one-person enterprise, with help coming from the Simmons family.

ATC tends to do at least two populist plays, such as "Dream a Little Dream" and "The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical," every season. Those sell themselves and make possible some of the less-known fare. For good or ill, CAST didn't do that.

There are other differences, but those are three big ones.