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Building common ground 

New company, new theater

What better way to start a new year in the arts than with glad tidings of a new theater company--and a new performance venue--both opening this week? Nicole Quenelle and Lauren Walker's new company, Self-Induced Theater Project, presents Cindy Lou Johnson's dark comedy Brilliant Traces this weekend as the inaugural production at the Common Ground Theatre in Durham.

Heading from the center of town, the new venue is located about two miles past the Durham Hilton on Hillsborough Road. It's in a white warehouse nestled just behind the distinctive two-story yellow house that headquarters the Artsplace Unlimited music school, at the corner of 4815 Hillsborough and Brenrose Circle.

You really might want to jot those directions down somewhere, since a number of prominent regional companies have already signed on to stage productions there during the theater's flagship season.

Available rehearsal and performance spaces have long been such a limiting factor for regional theater and dance that people began submitting proposals when news of a possible new venue hit the streets. As a result, when Common Ground Theatre opens this week, most of its first half-year will already have been booked. Ghost & Spice Productions will stage Edward Albee's The Play About the Baby there, Feb. 24-March 12. Theatre Or mounts in May a show it's been invited to take to the first annual Stoneleaf Festival, next summer in Asheville. (Much more to come on that development; stay tuned.)

When we dropped by one day in mid-December, Common Ground co-directors Rachel Klem and Michelle Byars had the paint and brushes out, working on a lobby they had basically built the previous week. Beyond the lobby doors stood an intimate (but not too intimate) black box space, one that can be configured in a number of ways while seating audiences between 50 and 75.

Not to get ahead of ourselves, though. Still in progress on the day we visited were those staples of all theaters: toilets, since city building codes specify the number public venues have to have. The lighting grid and Beringer instruments would follow by the end of the month. Dozens of details remained between the crew and opening night.

We interrupted the drama of construction to ask Klem about her vision for the space. As it turns out, it's all in the name.

"We deliberately chose a community name," Klem said. "Community theaters have had such a stigma attached to them: that somehow you'll always see amateur, bad or muggy theater when you go to one. But our ideal definition of community theater is one where the community grows, one that supports artistic growth. We're here to help people see what the community has to offer, and to see what ways we can help each other grow.

"I don't know why so many of us are out there on our own," she continued, "when we can band and work together. My hope is I'm just taking my first step and that the support will be there, that the theater community will support it."

A number of members from the community have already been doing just that. J. Chachula, whose Flying Machine Theater presents a work still under wraps in April, was among the people who spent December putting sweat equity into the space: putting up dry wall, helping construct a lighting booth, dismantling the industrial shelving that had previously filled the space. He compliments the work Klem and Byars did before the heavy labor.

"They got a lot of input before," Chachula said, "about the kind of space theater people would want to be in, and the problems in other spaces that are already out there. Theater people don't give space a lot of thought--until something goes wrong. Actors are going to love having an actual dressing room here, instead of a corner somewhere. There's no noise pollution. They're going to love having a lot more control over the space."

Klem and Byars are currently accepting bookings--for classes like yoga and painting as well as theatrical productions--through the end of 2007. If you want to see the space, call 968-3870, and check the Web site: cgtheatre.com.

Call Self-Induced Theater Project 's name a case of truth in advertising. "I've always been a big proponent of creating your own artistic opportunities," Nicole Quenelle recalls, "and while I've enjoyed working with other groups in the area and still plan to do so in the future, I was interested in exploring new artistic processes as well."

For the company's inaugural production of Brilliant Traces, Quenelle's group committed to a week of work with Toby Matthews, a movement instructor who led exercises incorporating developmental movement with methods developed by Jerzy Grotowski and Anne Bogart. The goal was to focus more on physically-based acting techniques.

"The reason I started the group," Quenelle says, "was to work in fairly experimental and exploratory rehearsal processes, and to find people interested in working in more interdisciplinary ways. The response has been marvelous; a lot of people are very positive about working in new ways, exploring new thoughts on how to run a rehearsal process."

We see the first results of these speculative efforts when Lauren Walker directs Roman Pearah and Quenelle this weekend. Cindy Lou Johnson's work tends to focus--in extreme close-up--on the psychology of families and groups. The region first saw Johnson's work when the Fallen Rose Theater presented Blesse at Durham Arts Council in 1994. Brilliant Traces mixes comedy and drama as it probes the extremes to which people will run to avoid confronting themselves: Alaska's the starting point in the flight of one of her two characters. We learn the rest Thursday through Sunday-- at that new place in town. Reservations? Call 522-3177.

  • New company, new theater

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