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An Eastside, Westside story 

Rethinking arts in the Triangle

click to enlarge The Monet exhibit at the N.C. Museum of Art in Raleigh attracted people from all over the Triangle. - PHOTO BY DEREK ANDERSON
  • Photo by Derek Anderson
  • The Monet exhibit at the N.C. Museum of Art in Raleigh attracted people from all over the Triangle.

To me, the denotation of our sprawling suburban landmass that contains three major research universities and straddles two geophysical regions as "the Triangle" is simply a shorthand expression most useful to the statewide media and business boosters. While the word is elegant in its Euclidian context, as applied to a community it is featureless and dull, conjuring—at best—highways without traffic or humans.

Our region is more accurately characterized as Us and Them, or, as I submit, the Eastside and the Westside. Dividing the two are a number of non-negotiable physical features, including Falls Lake, Raleigh-Durham International Airport and the after-dark desert of Research Triangle Park. The road that is supposed to bridge the two is the unpleasant, heavily congested Interstate 40, which deters cross-region excursions.

Although I live and work in the Westside—Durham—my job takes me to the Eastside—Raleigh—once or twice a week. However, in an unusual week recently I went to the City of Oaks (now there's a name) five nights out of six.

The week began with The Drowsy Chaperone at Progress Energy's Memorial Auditorium, continued with a pair of revival film screenings, N.C. Symphony's musical staging of Shostakovich's Hamlet score in Meymandi and, finally, a visit to Legends nightclub for a thunderous performance of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

So it was a good week on the Eastside—and a strong rebuke to the all-too-common assumption among Westsiders that culture in the East begins with the Carolina Hurricanes and ends in Thee Dollhouse. Still, it's no wonder that these stereotypes have such easy purchase: During those five nights, I saw only a handful of people I knew from the Westside, and I recognized hardly anyone among the Eastside throngs. (By way of contrast, at a recent concert by the great lyric soprano Dawn Upshaw at Duke's Page Auditorium, I couldn't turn around without recognizing—and greeting—fellow Westsiders.)

I approached artists and art enablers from across the region to ask them about their conception of the Triangle. While my perspective as a consumer and observer leads me to conclude that there are two discrete communities, I was surprised to learn that theater artists, in particular, are willing to think of the Triangle as a single, large market. But considering their constant battle for audiences with little in the way of marketing budgets, it's understandable that Tamara Kissane, one half of Durham's small-but-mighty both hands theatre company, tells me, "In order to thrive and survive, it's necessary to build audiences from across the metro area."

From the Eastside, Burning Coal Theatre Company Artistic Director Jerome Davis sees the heterogeneity of the region as a source of artistic stimulus, saying that he and his wife, company co-founder Simmie Kastner, were drawn to "the specific, palpable energy of the three very different worldviews embodied in Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill."

One longtime Westside theater artist, Chapel Hill's Greg Hohn of the Carrboro-based Transactors Improv, says that while he would like his company to be a draw for Eastsiders, "Raleigh is anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes from Chapel Hill, and I'm not sure how that can be overcome.

"We've been in business for 25 years and there are still folks in Raleigh who've never heard of us, much less seen us," he continues. "We try to perform in Raleigh but haven't had many opportunities. Certainly, I'm more inclined to attend cultural events closer to my Chapel Hill home. It's more convenient and greener [to stay closer to home]."

The distance between East and West, and the cost of the gasoline required to traverse them, means that, as Rachel Klem, of Durham's Common Ground Theatre, observes, "You're either a Raleigh actor or a Durham/Chapel Hill actor." Klem, a Chicago native, isn't fazed by the occasional long trip to a show, however. "I like the idea of 'going over to Raleigh'—it makes me feel like I'm on a mini-vacation instead of driving across town."

Given the difficulties that actors and musicians have in driving long distances to shows and rehearsals, it makes sense that large cultural institutions have more wherewithal to create region-wide events. According to Wendy H. Livingston, marketing and communications manager for Duke's Nasher Museum of Art, "We tend to avoid talking about 'the Triangle,' instead using such terms as 'local audiences' [and] 'regional visitors,'" she writes in an e-mail. "Then we draw sort of imaginary concentric circles out from the campus—to include Durham, the Research Triangle area, the state of North Carolina, the Southeast region, the country, the world." (Livingston's circles suggest a rather evocative new name for the region: Bubbles.)

Livingston noted that the Nasher is planning a blockbuster show called El Greco to Velazquez: Art During the Reign of Philip III (opening Aug. 21), which will include partnerships with groups "including the N.C. Symphony, the Carolina Ballet, Duke Performances, Carolina Performing Arts, UNC-TV, and restaurants in Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill. The idea is that the whole region will be celebrating 'El Greco to Velazquez' along with the Nasher Museum."

But few arts organizations have the resources to pull off such cultural events that belong to the whole Triangle, or to the East and West sides. Like the Nasher, the N.C. Museum of Art manages it occasionally with crowd-pleasers such as Monet and Rodin. And, perhaps to the chagrin of hipsters from the Westside, patrons of Broadway Series South from the Eastside and devotees of fringe theater everywhere, programs at the future Durham Performing Arts Center such as Wicked and The Color Purple may also become ubiquitous events.

After the Shostakovich concert, I asked the only acquaintances I encountered there—a longtime Westside couple—for their impressions of the unfamiliar city we were visiting. Both serious classical music listeners, they told me they also see their nights out in Raleigh as an opportunity for dinner in new restaurants, and the excellent Meymandi acoustics and the ample parking near Progress Energy Center are also attractive. The woman—middle-aged, one of the frankest persons I know and no snide hepcat—remarked that although she finds Eastside audiences are less sophisticated than the Westside classical audience, she senses that the once-considerable chasm has narrowed over the years. She and her husband also note, appreciatively, that Eastsiders dress better when they go out—an observation that my lady and I confirmed later as we lingered over drinks at The Raleigh Times and gazed at the young men in jackets and sweaters and the women in skirts and makeup—and started feeling a little scruffy ourselves. We didn't know anyone there, either.

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