The
drama began behind closed doors in 2001. Chairman J. Michael McGuire lay down
the gauntlet at a joint meeting of Charlotte Repertory Theater's board of
trustees and the company's top administrative staff. The Rep's new goal was to
win the Tony Award for best regional theater within the next five years.
Convulsive shakeups -- in personnel, production practices, and repertoire --
began within months. Charlotte
native Michael Bush became the new producing artistic director after a 20-year
stint at Manhattan Theater Club. The march on Broadway and to national
prominence had begun.

Two years later, the Rep's trustees have driven away two artistic directors,
two managing directors, two literary managers, and the first full-time
development director in the company's 27-year history. In the wake of Bush's
sudden resignation last month, there is no permanent artistic leadership at
Charlotte Rep, and the company is further from realizing its ambition than it
was when McGuire announced it.

Subscribers, local actors, Broadway notables, and a companion LORT company
are among those alienated by the Rep's abrupt shifts in style and direction.
Compounding the damage, the tensions that once existed behind the Rep's closed
doors have been played out in public, laid bare and debated in Charlotte's daily newspaper.
Two central questions remain unresolved: What can a regional theater be with
limited resources at its disposal? What should a regional theater be to best
serve its community?

The controversy boiled over onto the front page of the Charlotte Observer
arts section last May - and lingered in the public eye for three successive
Sundays. Just seven weeks earlier, a highly publicized revival of The
Miracle Worker,
starring Hilary Swank, had been drop-kicked by producers
Fran and Barry Weissler. Two nights before its final preview in Charlotte, the Weisslers
whipped "The Miracle," pulling the plug on its scheduled transfer to
Broadway.
While reviews were lukewarm, the Charlotte
previews consistently played to enthusiastic, sold-out houses. The same theater
writer who had questioned the Rep's commitment to Charlotte stalked Swank on a shopping spree
to Wal-Mart and breathlessly disclosed how she fixed her coffee. New patrons
who had never before seen a Rep presentation flocked to the box office, awed by
the Hollywood tinsel.

WAR & REMEMBRANCE

"If we had not gone to war in Iraq," said Bush after his
resignation, "we wouldn't be having this conversation. The economy took a
downturn, and we're on stage with The Miracle Worker as we're going to
war. That's really the reason why the Broadway production was canceled.
Audiences were dwindling because people were hesitant to come and spend time in
a designated terrorist zone, otherwise known as Broadway." But when the
Rep juggernaut didn't continue on its path to Broadway, the grumblings of
subscribers and actors fallen by the wayside began to be heard. Subscribers who
had tickets for Jar the Floor were told mid-season that the
Broadway-bound Miracle Worker would replace it, not at all a horrific
development. Then, after cutting a week from the run, Swank pulled out of two
more performances to attend the Oscars and a Hollywood
premiere, crowding and jostling the faithful again and again. Local actors and
designers felt they'd been totally ignored in every phase of the process.
Swank's final furlough sealed the perception that the Rep wasn't in control of
its product. Audiences filling Booth Playhouse to see The Miracle Worker,
many argued, were seeing an import -- a touring show auditioned and rehearsed
in New York, with designers from Broadway and
a director, Marianne Elliott, from Britain. The Rep had abandoned the
community to go commercial.
"Community or commercial?" blared the first Observer headline on May
18: "Rep wrestles with its identity."

Bush definitely wrestled with the Observer, firing back a lengthy response,
published May 25, 2003, titled "Rep's goal is world-class theater," forcefully
asserting that there was no confusion whatsoever about the Rep's identity. Nor
was he trying to freeze out Charlotte
actors. "I have received feedback that many of them have felt somewhat
excluded from roles in previous seasons. I'm pleased to say that I have already
cast some of the best of them in roles for next season," he said at the
time.

If that was a jab at Bush's predecessor, company founder Steve Umberger, it
was ignored in Umberger's June 1 rejoinder. Instead, he attacked the
simplification that the "old Charlotte Rep" was local and the
"new" one national. Before Bush paraded Penny Fuller, Andre De
Shields, Gretha Boston and Marla Schaffel onto the Booth Playhouse stage,
Umberger reminded readers he had brought in Olympia Dukakis, Bonnie Franklin,
and Beth Henley. Clearly, Umberger's founding vision -- "to build a strong
recurring ensemble of actors distinguished not by ZIP codes or national
reputations but by ability and similarity of artistic values" -- had been
tossed aside. But after the outcry sparked by The Miracle Worker, it was
equally clear that the Rep would need to pursue its Tony Award aspirations with
stronger community connections.

To Bush and the board, the Rep's 20th anniversary revival of Pump Boys
and Dinettes
had exactly the right balance of big-name talent and down-home
appeal. Carolina
icon Jim Wann, who largely created and starred in the original Broadway
production, would team up with charismatic Tony Award winner Emily Skinner and
ignite a wildfire of 2003-04 subscription sales.

Despite Skinner's sizzle, the Observer didn't warm to the revival. Neither
did the public. When the final numbers from Pump Boys hit the Rep's
spreadsheet, the heralded season-opener had earned nearly $40,000 below budgetary
projection. McGuire and his board hit the panic button. Hard.

KNEE-JERK RESPONSES

Counter-intuitive moves included ditching the New Year's Eve fundraiser,
canceling a much-anticipated co-production of Hamlet, and cutting a full
week from all remaining subscription productions.
The timing was horrendous, likely short-circuiting the Rep's pursuit of the
regional Tony for years to come. Gretha Boston, in her first straight comedy
role, had to be told on the night before previews began that the run of Jar
the Floor
had been shortened by a week. Bush would have to tell all future
Broadway luminaries that Charlotte Rep star packages now demanded four weeks of
rehearsal and just two weeks of performance. The only way to lengthen artist
involvement was to link engagements together via co-productions with other
companies. But the Rep had scuttled that option by pulling out of the
co-production of Hamlet with Syracuse Stage when auditions had already
begun. In fact, the board's decision was made while Bush was driving to New York.
"We created a problem in their budget!" Bush fumes. "That's just
something I won't do to another theater."

Why the panic? On paper, The Miracle Worker had actually earned
slightly more than Pump Boys had lost. But the revival had been expected
to torpedo the Rep's lingering deficit. Bush, Umberger and McGuire all agree
that between the time Bush interviewed for the Rep's top post and the time he
brought Penny Fuller to Charlotte
in The Glass Menagerie, the surplus had vanished, and the company was
some $250,000 in the red.

Arts organizations nationwide can recite the sequence: Sept. 11 happened,
the economy skidded, state budgets tightened, and the money stream from
endowments dried up. Afterwards, war in Iraq. A "Miracle"
run on Broadway might have yielded the income to melt the Rep's mountain of
debt away. Then the Pump Boys disappointment wouldn't have mattered.

"We felt like we bought a Porsche," says McGuire, "and we
thought we were going to go down the autobahn in Germany and make some rapid
progress. In the meantime, before the Porsche was delivered, they put a 55
speed limit on the autobahn."
Bush vividly remembers McGuire telling him that The Rep couldn't supply the gas
anymore. "I said, 'Well, then I think the Porsche has got to move to
another driveway.'"

The search for Bush's replacement has already begun, haunted by two new
questions: Where does Charlotte Rep go from here? And how can it get there?

[END]

 

Key Subjects: 
Charlotte Repertory Theater; North Carolina, Michael Bush
Writer: 
Perry Tannenbaum
Date: 
November 2003
Subtitle: 
Longing for a Tony, a Regional Theater Searches for Its Soul