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

You can’t prove some­thing has never hap­pened. So it’s barely pos­si­ble that this month’s col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween Ac­tor’s The­atre of Char­lotte and Chil­dren’s The­atre of Char­lotte, a pair of in­ter­lock­ing world pre­mieres that will open days apart, isn’t a first in Amer­i­can the­ater his­tory. But it seems to be.

The two com­pa­nies have com­mis­sioned play­wright Steven Di­etz to write plays that take place on the same night, on dif­fer­ent floors of the same house, with re­lated events hap­pen­ing to mem­bers of the same fam­i­lies.

“The Great Be­yond,” which goes into pre­views at ATC March 14 and opens March 20, has adult char­ac­ters and tar­gets adult au­di­ences, though play­go­ers of any age might en­joy it. “The Ghost of Splin­ter Cove,” which opens March 22 at CTC, has young adult char­ac­ters and is meant for folks 8 and older. They can be seen in­de­pen­dently but will only be fully un­der­stood to­gether.

ATC artis­tic di­rec­tor Chip Decker, CTC artis­tic di­rec­tor Adam Burke and Di­etz, who has writ­ten three dozen plays over nearly 40 years, have a cen­tury of the­atri­cal ex­pe­ri­ence among them and be­lieve this con­cept has never been tried. So does Nan Bar­nett, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Na­tional New Play Net­work.

“I’m not aware of this type of col­lab­o­ra­tion – a the­ater for young au­di­ences and a pro­fes- sional re­gional com­pany work­ing to­gether on plays that take place si­mul­ta­ne­ously – ever hap­pen­ing,” she says. “It feels re­ally spe­cial, but that’s what hap­pens when you put three cre­ative, tal­ented, ded­i­cated the­ater-mak­ers to­gether and ask them to play.”

This land­mark idea started, as many do, with two guys hav­ing a bull ses­sion over cof­fee. Burke came to town in 2013 and soon

met with Decker to see if their com­pa­nies might work to­gether.

“We laughed about it, be­cause we couldn’t see my ac­tors drop­ping Fbombs on 8-year-olds,” says Decker, think­ing of the edgy ma­te­rial Ac­tor’s The­atre likes to pro­duce. “Then we stopped laugh­ing and thought, ‘Why can’t we?’ We both do sto­ries about fam­i­lies, but you don’t al­ways see the other half of that fam­ily.”

They con­tem­plated hir­ing two play­wrights to do pieces with a com­mon theme but quickly de­cided they wanted one voice. Al­most in­evitably, they turned in 2015 to Di­etz, whose plays both ATC and CTC have done over the years.

“They had me at the jump,” says Di­etz, who teaches in the de­part­ment of the­ater and dance at the Univer­sity of Texas. “I love a nar­ra­tive game as a writer, so how those plays might in­ter­sect was fas­ci­nat­ing to me. I had the gift – and the curse – of a wide-open pal­ette.”


Di­etz likes to so­licit in­put when given a com­mis­sion. Do his em­ploy­ers want him to han­dle a spe­cific theme, or set the show in a par­tic­u­lar time pe­riod?

“We gave him bad ex­am­ples of what this might look like,” says Burke. “Maybe a di­vorce seen through the eyes of adults in one play and chil­dren in an­other, or some­thing about re­ac­tions to 9/11. We talked about hav­ing char­ac­ters go back and forth be­tween the plays, run­ning from the­ater to the­ater at Imag­inOn. Th­ese were things we didn’t want, but we didn’t know what we did want.”

Di­etz quickly drafted a plan that brought the pieces to­gether: His sto­ries would take place in the same house, with adults gath­er­ing on the main floor and chil­dren hav­ing an ad­ven­ture in the base­ment. One play would be more re­al­is­tic in nar­ra­tive and de­sign, the other more fan­tas­tic.

“I have a draw­er­ful of notes and even scenes that I haven’t known what to do with,” says Di­etz. “I had been think­ing about some­thing to do with a séance, and I won­dered, ‘What if the adults con­ducted one and ac­ci­den­tally sent some­one into the other world down­stairs?’

“As a kid grow­ing up in Den­ver, Colo., I went ev­ery­where in the world in the base­ment of my house. I wanted to write that kind of ad­ven­ture story.” (That’s all the plot de­scrip­tion you get here. Sur­prises await.)

Char­lie El­ber­son likes to back dar­ing ad­ven­tures.

So when Chil­dren’s The­atre ap­proached the head of the ReEm­prise Fund, he con­trib­uted $171,000 to cover com­mis­sion­ing, work­shop­ping and pro­duc­tion costs for “Splin­ter Cove,” sup­port market­ing ef­forts and en­gage re­searchers from UNC Char­lotte to doc­u­ment the cre­ative process, in case other the­aters want to re­pro­duce it. The fund was es­tab­lished at Foun­da­tion for the Caroli­nas to en­cour­age en­tre­pre­neur­ial ven­tures by non­prof­its.

“We fund game-chang­ing ini­tia­tives from vi­sion- ary non­prof­its, and Chil­dren’s The­atre has been vi­sion­ary for a long time,” El­ber­son says. “Of all the arts, the­ater for chil­dren has been most im­por­tant in driv­ing em­pa­thy: For two hours, you’re breath­ing the same air as Anne Frank, as you share her story. Em­pa­thy is sorely needed now.”

Burke and Decker say the process went amaz­ingly smoothly, ex­cept for the pe­riod El­ber­son calls “Chip’s dark night of the soul.”

Ac­tor’s The­atre lost its Stonewall Street home to ur­ban re­newal in 2016 and tried to re­lo­cate to Free­dom Drive. Un­for­tu­nately, a per­ma­nent short­age of park­ing spa­ces and the need for ma­jor ren­o­va­tions made that move a no-go. The col­lab­o­ra­tors briefly con­sid­ered do­ing both “Splin­ter Cove” and “Great Be­yond” at Imag­inOn, but ATC signed a five-year agree­ment with Queens Univer­sity last year and set­tled into Hadley The­atre there.

Di­etz hap­pily rode out the series of read­ings and work­shops and re­vi­sions of the two plays, work­ing on other things dur­ing the four-year cre­ative process. He sug­gested that Court­ney Sale, artis­tic di­rec­tor of Seat­tle Chil­dren’s The­atre and a for­mer stu­dent in his MFA di­rect­ing pro­gram at the Univer­sity of Texas, direct “Splin­ter Cove.” (Decker will direct “Be­yond.”)

And de­spite praise from Burke – “Steven’s first draft was bet­ter than fifth drafts we see from some other peo­ple” – Di­etz has kept rewriting fer­vidly.

“It’s my way to road­test as much as pos­si­ble,” he says. “Noth­ing gives me more plea­sure than solv­ing prob­lems. There are con­nec­tions be­tween th­ese plays I haven’t found yet.

“I’ll be here the week of open­ing for ‘Splin­ter Cove,’ de­liv­er­ing new pages ev­ery day. What peo­ple see at a school per­for­mance Thurs­day morn­ing will not be ex­actly what they’d see Fri­day night.” (That show will get 20 stu­dent per­for­mances.)

The com­pa­nies have sched­uled th­ese plays so the­ater­go­ers can see them on suc­ces­sive nights or, dur­ing three Satur­days, on the same day with a din­ner break in be­tween.

“Adam’s au­di­ence is, hope­fully, go­ing to be my au­di­ence years from now,” says Decker. “I can’t wait for a 25-yearold to come up to me and say, ‘I went to see “Splin­ter Cove,” and then my par­ents took me to “Great Be­yond,” and that’s where I fell in love with the­ater.’ “

JOSHUA KOMER For The Char­lotte Ob­server

Play­wright Steven Di­etz, left, chats with di­rec­tor Chip Decker at the Hadley The­atre at Queens Univer­sity of Char­lotte. Di­etz was com­mis­sioned to write two plays that take place at the same time in the same house by two the­ater com­pa­nies, Ac­tor’s The­atre of Char­lotte and Chil­dren’s The­atre of Char­lotte.

JOSHUA KOMER For The Ob­server

Tonya Bludsworth, left, re­hearses with Scott Tynes-Miller, Robin Tynes-Miller and Ta­nia Kelly at the Hadley The­atre for “The Great Be­yond.”

JOSHUA COMER For The Ob­server

Chil­dren’s The­atre of Char­lotte di­rec­tor Court­ney Sale helps block out the play “The Ghost of Splin­ter Cove” with the ac­tors. The play is one of two shows that hap­pen at the same time, writ­ten by the same au­thor.

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