If you're one of the fortunate few who attended Dog Sees God, the latest practically sold-out-every-night production from the Raleigh Ensemble Players (it has a second run Aug. 19–27), you may have sat around some teary-eyed women before the night was done.
Initially, you wouldn't expect a satirical play that takes the beloved characters from the Peanuts comic strip and turns them into teenage dickhead hedonists—complete with a slutty Peppermint Patty, a pot-smoking Linus and a Charlie Brown who wants to do more than play piano with Schroeder—to pack such an emotional punch. (Imagine You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown reworked by the writers from Skins, and you pretty much have the show.) But, sure enough, when the second act hits some startlingly real notes, both young girls and middle-aged women will start wiping away tears. You'll feel like you're at a Michael Buble concert.
"I don't know if that's good or bad," says Glen Matthews, the Mississippi-born artistic director. "But it is what it is."
That's what happens when you're at a REP show: You get a live theater experience so visceral, you feel like you're literally a part of the show. They certainly have it set up that way for Dog, as the small audience—37 a night, as opposed to the 50 or 60 they've had at previous shows—sits in school chairs and picnic tables, just as the characters do. "One thing we're known for is the intimacy of the theater, how close you are to the actors," says Gary Williams, managing director and High Point native. Says Matthews, "It allows for us to be able to involve the audience in different ways."
Approaching 30 years as a theater company, the REP has prided itself on being intimate as well as daring and experimental, usually helming off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway productions. "[When] the company was founded, the charge of the company was to produce works that weren't typically at the time, in 1982, being produced in the Triangle," says Matthews. "And so I think the company has always tried to embrace that charge as much as possible, which typically means that we're going to be the company that tells stories that some of the other companies, for whatever reason, might not tell."
They also needed a space to properly tell those stories. After doing productions at downtown Raleigh's Artspace for 20 years, the Players moved over to a spot on the 200 block of Fayetteville Street in March, above the basement watering hole known as Foundation. They were originally eyeing another space across the street, but that deal fell through. Luckily, one of the kids at Matthews' day job (he teaches theater at Cary Academy) told him that his landlord dad had a spot open on Fayetteville, and he wasn't looking for another bar/ restaurant setup. "It was quite the process," laughs Matthews. Adds Williams, "And still is."
According to Matthews, the city appropriated $60,000 to be used for the completion of the theater. The Tony Randall Theatrical Fund in New York also awarded REP, with a $25,000 grant, giving the company $5,000 each year for the next five years. The company is still raising money for the theater, but it's worth it to finally have a place of its own. "We knew from the get-go that if we were going to survive as a company, that we needed to increase our visibility and grow our identity as a company," says Matthews. "Because even though we had been, at that time, existing for 25, 26 years—we just celebrated our 25th anniversary—very few people knew we existed. So we felt like trying to grow that visibility, and the identity would be very important to the future success of the company."
Right now, the company is in the callback process of hiring ensemble players for its upcoming season. Scheduled to run during October is an original, interactive work inspired by a series of German children's stories ("Think haunted house meets theatrical event," says Matthews) and an off-Broadway play called Circle Mirror Transformation, about a woman who teaches a community-center theater class and the transformations she and her students go through.
A new series alled REP Stripped, which began in April, features the company doing bare-bones productions of plays that are too costly or too complicated to produce. "It's a great actors' opportunity," says Williams, "because you concentrate it down just to the actors and the setting."
So, with Raleigh Ensemble Players expanding its profile and looking to become a major presence in downtown Raleigh, getting this award from the Indy couldn't have come at a better time. "Of course, we follow the Independent and keep up with all of the individuals and organizations that receive the awards every year," says Matthews. "And so, to be included amongst that is huge. Especially at this time for our company as we're trying to get the new space open and launching new programming and, again, trying to grow our visibility and identity. It's a huge honor."
Hey, don't get us going, or we'll start getting all misty-eyed too.