Fondly re­call­ing Pease Au­di­to­rium his­tory at CPCC – be­fore the cur­tain falls for good

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Carolina Living - BY LAWRENCE TOPPMAN Cor­re­spon­dent

When you left the stage, you sprinted around the build­ing out­doors to en­ter on the op­po­site side – leav­ing the au­di­ence to won­der, on rainy nights, why your char­ac­ter was sud­denly wet.

The prosce­nium mea­sured an enor­mous 64 feet around its front curve, but the ceil­ing was just 12 feet high. A six-foot ac­tor “up­stairs” on an in­te­rior set lived in fear of clonk­ing his skull on a hang­ing light.

Yet when Pease Au­di­to­rium falls to the wreck­ing ball this au­tumn, tears will fall too.

Cen­tral Pied­mont Com­mu­nity Col­lege re­cently held a re­union for peo­ple who’ve worked there over 46 years at the dress re­hearsal for “Mu­sic of the Night: An An­drew Lloyd Web­ber Re­vue,” which runs Oct. 26 to

Nov. 4 and is the last the­atri­cal per­for­mance at the venue. If all el­i­gi­ble ac­tors, di­rec­tors and tech­ni­cians had showed up, the fire mar­shal would have had to shut the joint down.

“We call it six de­grees of sep­a­ra­tion from CPCC,” says Tom Hol­lis, drama in­struc­tor and chair of the Vis­ual and Per­form­ing Arts Di­vi­sion. “You can’t go on­stage lo­cally with­out find­ing an ac­tor, a cos­tume or maybe a prop that hasn’t had some con­nec­tion with CPCC.”

The Cen­tral Cam­pus Li­brary, which Pease partly sup­ports with a load­bear­ing wall, will top­ple with it. A new form of both will ap­pear by 2022 (the op­ti­mistic es­ti­mate) or later, with a new stu­dent life cen­ter at­tached.

In the mean­time, CPCC will put all pro­duc­tions and as many rental per­for­mances as it can ac­com­mo­date in Hal­ton Theatre across El­iz­a­beth Av­enue. A few small shows could be farmed out to the Ge­or­gia Tucker Per­for­mance Space, a black box in­struc­tional the­ater be­ing built at CPCC’s Levine Cam­pus in Matthews. (It’ll open in spring 2019.)

When Hol­lis ar­rived 35 years ago, Pease had been run­ning for a decade.

Only Theatre Char­lotte, Ovens Au­di­to­rium and Dana Au­di­to­rium at Queens Univer­sity hosted pub­lic events when Pease opened in 1972, and none com­peted with it in June, July or Au­gust. The col­lege be­gan to run five shows – three mu­si­cals, two straight plays – in sum­mer. Though the mu­si­cals have since moved to Hal­ton, CPCC re­mains the only lo­cal com­pany to do so many in so short a time.

Carey Ku­gler, who worked at the the­ater as a teenager in its first sea­son, says the pro­duc­ing team of Tom and Jean Vance built a cadre of CPCC Sum­mer Theatre fans so loyal that “we put ex­tra chairs in the aisles – com­pletely il­le­gally – to ac­com­mo­date sold-out crowds.”

The odd thing is, au­di­ences flocked to a build­ing that wasn’t meant to be a the­ater.

“It was de­signed to be one large class­room or three smaller ones that could be sep­a­rated by mov­able walls,” says Hol­lis. “The stage could be folded up for more space. Com­mu­nity col­leges back then were meant to teach peo­ple to fix cars or air con­di­tion­ers; drama classes and plays were an af­ter­thought. The chairs were the kind where you smashed your leg into those lit­tle desk tops that swung up from the side, and they weren’t taken out un­til the ’80s.”

Ku­gler, who now teaches part time at CPCC, re­calls all three phases of Pease’s meta­mor­pho­sis. The first had a wooden front cur­tain “that took half an hour to cross the stage,” no back­stage crossover and no scene con­struc­tion shop: “We had this lit­tle shed at the end of a fire lane that held four peo­ple. We had to build ev­ery­thing in it, as­sem­ble sets out­side in the park­ing lot – in July! – and haul them into the the­ater.”

The best-kept se­cret? “Holes in the ceil­ing where the small­est stu­dents crawled up (re­tractable) lad­ders to ma­nip­u­late lights. They went up be­fore the au­di­ence came in, stayed the length of the show and came down af­ter ev­ery­one left, so I as­sume they took a bot­tle with them for … emer­gen­cies.”

Phase two came in the 1980s, as CPCC aban­doned the class­room con­cept.

Pease be­came a full­time the­ater with back­stage space; the stage ex­tended for­ward in a mod­i­fied thrust for­mat and ac­quired an orches­tra pit. (Un­til then, au­di­ences in the front rows watched ac­tors through a small for­est of mu­si­cians.) The col­lege paid for a more so­phis­ti­cated light­ing board and more com­fort­able seats. Phase three, be­gun in the 1990s, was mostly cos­metic: The color scheme changed from mauve to green as car­pets and seats were re­placed, and light­ing im­proved.

The stage, how­ever, re­mains just 20 feet deep, 50 feet across and 12 feet high. Says Ku­gler, “If you

WHERE: Pease Au­di­to­rium, CPCC cam­pus, 1201 El­iz­a­beth Ave., Char­lotte

TICK­ETS: $10-$21. DE­TAILS: 704-330-6534 or tix.cpcc.edu.story see Act 1 from the far left of the the­ater and Act 2 from the far right, you see com­pletely dif­fer­ent shows. So you have to di­rect as if you’re work­ing in the round, with ac­tors con­stantly mov­ing, so one-third of the au­di­ence isn’t star­ing at their backs. If you can solve the prob­lems Pease gives you, you can di­rect any­where.”

Hol­lis now faces a dif­fer­ent set of dif­fi­cul­ties. He’s shift­ing dra­mas, come­dies and mys­ter­ies to Hal­ton, which has more than twice as many seats as the 400-plus in Pease. A set that seemed homey in the small hall gets lost in the big­ger one.

He hopes to avoid Pease’s ab­sur­di­ties in the new Cen­tral Cam­pus fa­cil­ity.

He says mem­bers of the mu­sic, dance and the­ater de­part­ments have ex­plained to the ar­chi­tects what a pur­pose-built the­ater needs to be. The new space will ap­par­ently hold the same num­ber of seats in rows less wide and more steep; the set will have more tra­di­tional pro­por­tions.

And, Hol­lis says, the ceil­ing should be sig­nif­i­cantly higher: “To build a set with a sec­ond story, in­stead of a few lit­tle steps that are ob­vi­ously a stair­case to nowhere – that’ll be a good thing.”

JOHN D. SIM­MONS jsim­[email protected]­lot­teob­server.com

Af­ter more than 40 years, Pease Au­di­to­rium at CPCC is host­ing its last show, “The Mu­sic of the Night: An An­drew Lloyd Web­ber Re­vue.” Above, the cast re­hearses a mu­si­cal num­ber ear­lier this month.

JOHN D. SIM­MONS jsim­[email protected]­lot­teob­server.com

Ron Chisholm, left, di­rec­tor and chore­og­ra­pher, jokes with Pay­ton Dills, right, and cast mem­bers be­fore re­hearsal ear­lier this month at Pease Au­di­to­rium. The the­ater is host­ing its last show through Nov. 4.

CPCC/Tom Cov­ing­ton

A play re­hearsal is shown in the early 1970s at Cen­tral Pied­mont Com­mu­nity Col­lege’s Pease Au­di­to­rium.

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