News Column

Innovative Carolina Actors Studio Theatre will shut down this month

June 6, 2014

By ThÉoden Janes, The Charlotte Observer



June 06--Carolina Actors Studio Theatre will close after its current production, with its board of directors citing financial pressures, dwindling attendance and difficulty raising money.

"Gruesome Playground Injuries," which runs through June 21, will mark the last of the 64 productions it has staged over eight years as a nonprofit theater. CAST -- formed in 1992 by acting instructor Ed Gilweit -- plans to close by June 30.

Along with Blumenthal Performing Arts, Children's Theatre of Charlotte and Actor's Theatre of Charlotte, CAST is one of Charlotte's major theater production companies. Friday's news came eight months after CAST was named Theatre Company of the Year by the Metrolina Theatre Association for the second year in a row.

Regarded as the city's most eclectic theater company, CAST uses an "experiential" technique that immerses its audiences in environments that match the theme of the production, from the lobby to the seating area.

The company recently staged the first production in Charlotte of "Angels in America" since the mid-1990s. Under longtime artistic director Michael Simmons, its productions include such diverse fare as the dramas "August: Osage County" and "Frost/Nixon," the musical "Floyd Collins" and the farce "Boeing, Boeing."

Simmons could not be reached for comment. He told Observer theater critic Lawrence Toppman Thursday night he was going out of town on a job search.

But Lisa Walker of CAST's board of directors said the company tried to do everything possible to save itself.

"We have spent the last several months considering a variety of options of ways to try to move forward," she said. "We've engaged professional counsel as part of that, we also did a marketing and fundraising initiative. ... None of it was enough to mitigate the ongoing financial difficulties."

"At the end of the day," she said, "we need to be responsible and not continue to take money that we know is not gonna help us get through it."

The Arts and Science Council provided CAST with a $25,000 operating support grant for the current fiscal year; this is the second year CAST received operating support from the council. In addition to that grant, said ASC pPresident Robert Bush, the ASC has provided funding since January "for consulting assistance for CAST's development efforts."

CAST's budget is in the range of $275,000.

With the help of $30,000 in grants from the ASC and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the group in 2011 moved from a small space off Central Avenue to larger quarters in NoDa on Davidson Street near Amelie's bakery. (The same space was once occupied by Charlotte Repertory Theatre, which ended operations in 2005 and was the last major theater group in Charlotte to close.)

Ticket sales are budgeted at about half of CAST's revenue; by comparison, the Charlotte Symphony gets about one-third of its revenue from ticket sales. Walker said the first year in NoDa was "very successful," then attendance dropped off markedly the following year.

Now, "we're back to the kinds of numbers we were seeing before we had this space, and that's just not sustainable," she said. "As with all nonprofits -- particularly arts organizations -- in the last five years things have gotten very, very tight. We had some motivation around the move and got some good (contributed) revenues that year as people were excited about what we were doing ... but it was one-time energy, and that has dissipated."

Dan Shoemaker, executive director of Actor's Theatre of Charlotte, said arts organizations -- hit hard by the recession in the previous decade -- generally saw strong returns in 2012-13, but that attendance has leveled off.

"Every nonprofit arts organization has to look at the bottom line every year in a budgetary process, and you just never know when something is going to affect that," he said. "Most regional theaters right now are operating very, very cautiously. Optimistically cautiously. ... When something like this happens in our community, it's just a sad day indeed."

"Whenever you went to a CAST show, from the very minute you walked in the door, you were experiencing what that particular production was all about -- from the very minute you walked in, until the show was over," Shoemaker said. "They were proving to be a training ground for actors and artisans and technicians, and providing opportunities and employment for those particular jobs, so that's another part of this that's sad."

Walker said CAST has no intention of declaring bankruptcy, and the board believes it will be able to pay off all debts. A "tribute campaign" has been launched to raise money that she said will help cover costs of ceasing operations, but also to allow the company to celebrate its legacy.

"At least we can try," Walker said, "to focus on the positive -- all the awards we won, all the amazing shows we've put on, and the diversity we've brought to the Charlotte theater community."

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(c)2014 The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.)

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