Three days after Charlotte Repertory Theater, its lone Equity house, unexpectedly shuttered, the North Carolina city was still abuzz. Radio talk-show host Mike Collins succinctly summed it up on his "Charlotte Talks" program last Wednesday morning. He had gathered three former directors from the newly deceased company and two local theater critics for a postmortem broadcast on the city's National Public Radio affiliate, WFAE. "Charlotte is all about image," Collins declared. "It is not about substance."

Theatergoers awoke on February 20, 2005 to discover that Charlotte Rep's final performance of The Exonerated that afternoon would also be the theater's final curtain call. In the opinion of Collins, the black eye marring Charlotte's cosmopolitan "New South" image had been inflicted by a board of directors more concerned with saving face than saving the theater.

Charlotte Rep's former managing director, Keith Martin, and its founder, Steve Umberger, who were both at the helm during the company's rise to national prominence, had offered to return and pilot Charlotte's flagship theater out of its financial and artistic doldrums. According to one source, however, they were told that their return "would be perceived as a step backwards." Or, as Collins hammered home on his radio broadcast, the board was afflicted with a corporate mentality and incapable of admitting past mistakes.

But after the board forced producing artistic director Michael Bush to resign in November 2003, there was no other way to move forward. Repeated inquiries on the theater's progress in replacing him were rebuffed. Because there was none.

"Listen, there's no one in the business that's going to go down there and take that position without talking to me," Bush remarked last December. "Or without talking to Steve. I was aware there was always some little bird or angel sitting on my shoulder, going, 'If they did this to Steve, they can do it to you.'"

Bush has since returned to the theater he left to come to Charlotte: Manhattan Theater Club, where he is currently director of artistic production. Although Bush was not invited to the on-air symposium, both Umberger and Martin participated via long-distance hookups. By the time of the broadcast, however, more bad news had arisen. Subscribers found out on February 21 that there would be no refunds for the tickets they had purchased for two upcoming shows, Private Lives and God's Man in Texas. While Charlotte Rep's final press release of February 19 had said that subscribers would be contacted regarding refunds, letters were mailed telling the theater's faithful that their unredeemed tickets had been converted into tax-deductible charitable donations of $134.40. This marked the third season in a row that shows included in the Theater's subscription series were switched or canceled.

Many civic and business leaders were aghast at the assertion of William Parmelee, the board chairman, that "there was little community support" for professional theater in Charlotte. While stripping its payroll of artistic leadership, the theater had also managed to discard all of its fundraising and development aces.

"It's unfortunate," said Tom Gabbard, president of Charlotte's Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, where the Theater performed, "that the spin being put on the Rep's demise by some is that Charlotte audiences and donors are not interested in supporting high-quality professional theater. That's hogwash. It's easier for some to blame the community rather than acknowledge the lack of vision and leadership that is ultimately the reason for the Rep's demise."

Addressing Finances

Indeed, when Charlotte Rep addressed its financial situation in a January 7 press release, the theater announced that its production of I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change had just become the second-highest-grossing show in the company's history, surpassed only by Angels in America. But Parmelee then cautioned, "We still expect this year's operations to end in a deficit."

Judith Allen, Gabbard's predecessor, was named to head an assessment committee to "determine whether there is sufficient community support for the Rep to continue past the 2004-2005 season." Cast members of The Exonerated thought the committee's presentation to key corporate and community leaders would occur on February 20, the last day of the show's run. In fact, the presentation had been made February 3, just before the production opened that evening.

Minds were not set against the theater, said Lee Keesler, incoming president of Charlotte's Arts & Science Council, which oversees the city's highly successful countywide arts fund drive and distributes basic operating funds to local companies. Keesler said he was impressed by what he heard from Parmelee and Allen that day.

"It was very well thought through," Keesler suggested. "It was very well organized, and it contained all of the elements of planning for not only the next season, but also a multiyear recovery plan. At the time, they were still talking to different folks in the community about support and had meetings subsequent to our meeting."

Permanent capitalization was an issue for the Arts & Science Council, said Keesler, a particularly tall order for the theater after its red ink surpassed $600,000. As fundraisers, Parmelee and Allen didn't turn out to be the home-run hitters that Keith Martin had been. Joining the theater in 1993, when it was also heavily in debt, Martin left the company with a surplus in mid-2001.

Local Theater groups have rallied to the cause of damage control after Charlotte Rep's ugly exit. Last week, North Carolina Dance Theater offered free tickets to its own performances in exchange for unused Charlotte Rep tickets. Actor's Theater of Charlotte and BareBones Theater Group joined in the initiative, and member companies of the Metrolina Theater Association are listing similar offers on the organization's website.

Martin has moved on to become the managing director at Richmond Ballet. Umberger is finishing up a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream in Fayetteville, N.C., after directing Edward Albee's The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? at Florida Studio Theater in Sarasota.

Pinned down by Collins at the conclusion of "Charlotte Talks," Umberger allowed that he'd be willing to play a role in planting a new LORT (League of Resident Theaters) company in Charlotte. He is rumored to be actively pursuing that scenario and seeking to mobilize a community still smarting from Charlotte Rep's precipitous shutdown. Umberger may have been a bete noire to his company's board of trustees, but he was a classmate of Keesler's in high school. Talks between Umberger and Keesler actually began last fall as the latter was easing into his new position at the Arts & Science Council. Meanwhile, Gabbard is eager to secure a new tenant at the Booth Playhouse, where Charlotte Rep no longer performs.

Umberger founded Charlotte Rep under the name Actor's Contemporary Ensemble in 1976. Taking on its current name in 1984, the theater was admitted to LORT in 1995. Reached after the NPR broadcast, Umberger sounded as if he were poised to seize his new opportunity and eager to help reaffirm Charlotte's commitment to professional theater.

"What's being represented now is that the community just wasn't interested in the theater, and that isn't the truth," he said. "The community just got very confused by the decisions [of the Rep's board]. But in this last week, I've talked to a lot of people out there, and I know that there is a great deal of concern about this and a renewed interest in professional theater. In the end, like most things, it's all sort of another beginning in disguise."



Key Subjects: 
Charlotte Repertory Theater; North Carolina, Michael Bush, Keith Martin, Steve Umberger, Mike Collins
Perry Tannenbaum
March 2005
The Ugly Demise of North Carolina's Charlotte Rep