Moving a theater company into its own building takes some audacity, even in the best of times. In economic terms, you're saying that demand for your work has outstripped your ability to supply it in the old venue and will support you in a larger facility. But by the summer of 2008, Raleigh Ensemble Players were convinced.
For 20 years, REP had called Artspace home as the self-styled "granddaddy of alternative theater in the Triangle," but the small gallery where they produced challenging work, such as Caryl Churchill's A Number and Martin Sherman's Bent, was rarely available. Repeatedly, the company found itself closing productions just as word of mouth was bringing them full houses.
REP artistic director Glen Matthews remembers a turning point. In November of 2005, a production of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas at Cary Academy's 500-seat theater, where he teaches drama, brought in audiences much larger than Artspace could ever accommodate.
"That marked a change," Matthews recalls. "Growing visibility and identity was important for us. We felt we had a very strong product to share, and a strong experience for both our artists and audiences. But at Artspace we were only visible three times a year. The challenge became, once you have an audience success, such as [in Cary], how do you manage to keep them coming back?"
The company's two-year hunt for new facilities concluded when one of Matthews' students mentioned one day that his father owned a site downtown. Jean Pauwels, an importer who supplies architects with handcrafted countertops from his native France, was renovating a four-story building at 213 Fayetteville St. He wasn't looking for another Starbucks to go in the place. "I wanted something I would enjoy having around, something more unusual, more fun than a clothing store or fast food," Pauwels said. "Some artistic activity in the building would be good for Fayetteville Street, good for everyone. It would make downtown more lively."
Matthews and managing director Gary Williams toured the facility. Behind a stylish dark wood-and-slate facade, they found a back area 22 feet wide by 52 feet long. "It was narrower than Artspace, but longer," says Williams, with 15-foot ceilings that were adequate for theatrical lighting. A back wall with windows included a circular one at the top—"the eagle eye of god," Matthews calls it—sealed their interest.
Though the property became available before the company had built a capital campaign, "we felt it was too good to forgo," said Davis. The company initiated the move, contacted an architect and launched a capital campaign to make it possible. It also reached an agreement with Artspace to vacate the old space by June 2009.
After an August 2008 open house for company friends at the new venue, REP reached out to supporters for funds. By winter, they'd raised about $45,000, and their list of donors had grown by 153 percent. Plans proceeded for an inaugural March 2009 production in the new space. Appropriately, it was Mary Zimmerman's Metamorphoses, a work about major transformations.
But REP's management was about to learn that theater isn't the only place where timing is everything: The same applies to banking and philanthropy. Six months into the capital campaign, the global financial crisis overtook the United States economy. Donations dwindled. In February, Matthews asked the Metamorphosis cast if they'd stay together for a postponed production in May. At the end of March, $100,000 in debt to its contractor, company management asked the builder to stop further work. "We didn't want to get in over our heads more than we already were," said Williams. He agreed—and agreed, along with the building owner, to work with the company as fund-raising progressed. "Everyone who's been a part of the project has been so gracious, so patient and supportive," Matthews observes. "They can see the ultimate goal."
Which explains why REP embarked on a distinctive season opener last month—its August of Adventure. The company produced two shows at once, staging Metamorphoses at Cardinal Gibbons School and Shakespeare's R&J in the already completed upstairs rehearsal studio of its new home. "We realized it was imperative that we prove our viability," Matthews said. "We proved that we could do this, and that we could work with what we've got until we have more."
The two productions were critical and commercial successes. The entire run of Shakespeare's R&J had sold out by the second week of the run: Even with a show added, the waiting list for tickets exceeded 100 names. (The last week of the production had to be postponed when one of the actors contracted the H1N1 virus; the company will announce the rescheduled dates this week.) Even more striking, company officials estimate that two-thirds of Shakespeare R&J audiences had never been to a REP performance before.
Though the company promoted R&J as a free show, audience contributions have placed the show "well above what we anticipated," says Williams—even more than what would have been expected if everyone paid full prices for tickets. More than 500 people attended the one-weekend run of Metamorphoses, where a series of canny cost-cutting moves slashed operating costs to one-fifth of the show's original budget of $10,000. Such news is welcome. At this point, the group is $200,000 away from its goal.
But the demand is there. So is the momentum. And this fall, the company will pursue a series of initiatives to increase its visibility and raise funds. The popular REP Sings/ REP Rocks cabaret and variety performance series will continue, bringing new audiences into the new space. REP will be a prominent part of Raleigh Wide Open on Oct. 24, before productions of Dark of the Moon at Cary Academy in November and a production of Always, Patsy Cline scheduled for December. Collaborations with marketing firms are in the works, and REP's capital campaign will soon be relaunched with flair, in an event to be announced in coming weeks. "We're going to make it," says company treasurer Don Davis. "There's a lot of good will ... a lot of people want to see us succeed." He predicts that REP will be out of debt within the next year. With construction complete, the main stage at 213 Fayetteville St.—barring the unforeseen—should open next summer.