It's not the region's largest room devoted to the performing arts, and certainly not its most lavish. For starters, all of the interior spaces of the two-story building on Brenrose Circle, just off Hillsborough Road in Durham, could fit quite comfortably inside Paul Green Theater on the UNC Campus. A small subdivision of buildings like it could populate the interior of Raleigh Memorial Auditorium.
Then there's the stage itself, a concrete floor that measures roughly 18 feet by 30 feet: maybe 600 square feet in all. That's not counting the 56 chairs that line the three platforms set against the opposing wall—75 if you add an optional bank of seats on the side, and subtract a little stage space in the process. The soft fabric is a definite upgrade from the room's original folding chairs, whose spartan comfort was once softened—to a degree—by a homey collection of pads and cushions.
Rachel Klem and Jeff Alguire, a married couple deeply involved in local theater, opened the space in January 2005. Since then, Common Ground Theatre has made a name for itself—and helped change the status of performing arts in Durham—by giving the growing number of independent theater artists and companies in the region something crucial: a place to play.
"It's vastly important to have a space like this for smaller companies to come to," notes Bare Theatre's resident director Carmen-maria-Mandley, "a place that's both affordable and welcoming."
The majority of the region's theater companies are homeless. With no permanent performance space to call their own, they engage in an ongoing scramble to locate—and then pay for and technically outfit—appropriate venues, which can take up the majority of a company's resources and time.
Klem remembers this well. The kindly but firm majordomo of the Common Ground space recalls her earlier experiences as managing director for Ghost & Spice Productions: "I was spending 75 percent of my time trying to find spaces that seemed appropriate for us, and then working through the various logistics for the folks who owned them. It took so much energy. And after five years of that, people still didn't know who we were, and we were having audiences of 20." Klem pauses before she reflects, "You know, it's ultimately detrimental, because there's no way to build an audience base if you're a company just floating from place to place."
Since 2005, the building that she, Jeff Alguire, Michelle Byars and a cadre of regional theater artists poured sweat equity into by the gallon—and tens of thousands of dollars into needed building upgrades—has provided a stable place of business for approximately 50 local companies and producing artists.
Mandley's voice conveys a note of near disbelief when she says, "We've actually turned people away from performances because of this venue. But the fact that we've done so many shows in the space has afforded us the opportunity to develop a strong base of patrons and do consistent work for them with ease. We didn't have that when we were going from place to place."
Though a few regional companies have made their space available to guest companies and artists, the practice has variously waxed and waned due to budgetary restraints heightened by the recent economic downturn. Although other resident companies such as Burning Coal and Manbites Dog (both former Arts Indies winners) host guest artists, the difference with Common Ground is this: It's the reason the place was opened in the first place. Its open-door policy has given the opportunity to produce their own work to a lot of people who otherwise wouldn't have had it.
"What separates Common Ground from every other space or company in the area," says Jay O'Berski, associate artistic director at Manbites Dog Theater and artistic director of Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern, "is their willingness to gamble on any kind of venture, any medium. They'll accept, book and support them in ways that companies like Manbites Dog used to, but can't take the risk any longer. In introducing a klezmer band no one's heard of, or a one-man gay-marine monologue, Common Ground's the only space bold enough, and managed well enough, to gamble like that."
When a space is willing to take a risk on artists, artists are more inclined to take important risks themselves. Director Rus Hames calls Common Ground "a safe place to do unsafe works." Indeed, the theater's semiregular performance art nights have been a smashing success, providing a place for veterans and neophytes alike to do just about anything they're brave enough to perform onstage. These shows generally sell out, although that's something of a misnomer, for the performance art shows are free, with the theater getting its revenue from concessions.
Another of the theater's more successful gambles is One Song Productions, a troupe now in its seventh year, run completely by local high school students. That "they never underestimated us as being juvenile in our approach to our shows or performances themselves" made Common Ground "unique" among local venues, according to company board member Elizabeth McManus.
A random, rotating series of musicians, comedy troupes and theater collectives specializing in everything from children's shows to the anomie of Performance Art Night makes for what O'Berski calls "the craziest quilt of different art forms. I have seen shows there that people stormed out of—and the next night, it's 'Billy Finds an Acorn.' I love the juxtaposition of those energies."
"There's a certain type of patron who likes this type of theater that's right in your face," says Mandley, "and, by now, they know this is the place to go for it.