Today's tour takes us to two locations in each in the major Triangle cities. Naturally, it's not complete. Prominent omissions include the Carolina Theatre, the Hayti Heritage Center, Theatre in the Park and Memorial Auditorium. (The latter's current renovations deserve an article all their own.) But on this excursion, traveling from west to east, our first stop is ...
The ArtsCenter: 300-G East Main Street, Carrboro
If you've ever wondered why they don't build more V-shaped theaters, pay a visit to the ArtsCenter. This former strip-mall Piggly Wiggly--anchored at one end by the Cat's Cradle--holds 335 people in its Earl Wynn Theatre, though they're divided into two groups sitting at right angles. They're split by the tech booth, which is closer to the stage than half the audience (and completely open, so sound and light cues have to be whispered). On the plus side, the ArtsCenter is the Triangle's only theater that allows drinks in the auditorium at most shows. Beer, wine and upscale soft drinks are sold, and there's usually free popcorn. At intermission, check out the display of local art in the lobby, or browse at the newsstand two doors down.
Seats aren't reserved, and doors usually open 30 minutes early. The choicest seating is at cabaret-style tables down front, though they're removed for some productions. Sit close if possible--the room is bigger than it looks--and try to avoid rows that aren't elevated above those directly in front. The most comfortable seats, for my money, are the swivel chairs. Artistic Director Derrick Ivey claims the view from the left side of the house is "slightly better."
The parking lot out front is mostly reserved for VisArt Video, but there are some spaces on the building's east side and a municipal lot one block west. Use the nearby gravel lots at your own risk: There are no marked lanes or spaces, and you might get blocked in.
The nearest restaurant is Amante Pizza right next door, with Pyewacket and other West Franklin institutions four of five blocks east. The actors tend to relax upstairs at the Armadillo Grill in downtown Carrboro--which, coincidentally, was the site of the ArtsCenter's first home in 1975.
The Paul Green Theatre: Country Club Road, UNC-Chapel Hill
The Paul Green opened in 1978--making it the newest built-from-scratch theater in this survey--but it already has a ghost. "It's a fuzzy kind of greenish light seen between the theater and shop," says a source who hasn't seen it but requests anonymity anyway. "It's occasionally seen sitting in the auditorium, stage left. It's about human height." No one knows who--or what--the ectoplasm is, or why it's there, but the theater is right beside UNC's cemetery. Charles Kuralt, maybe?
That aside, the Paul Green has an air of brisk efficiency: You half expect to hear a public address system announcing airplane departures. A major expansion two years ago added much-needed restrooms (plus a second theater and the entire drama department) and prompted a nomenclature shift: The building is now called the Center for Dramatic Art.
Seats are padded and comfy, and so steeply banked that not even a basketball player can block the view. Though it holds 500, the theater feels intimate, largely because it's only 10 rows deep. There's free coffee at intermission, and a stall selling soft drinks and snacks (the best: English toffee cookies). If you want more goodies, go on opening nights and get free wine and desserts. If you feel cheap, go on Tuesdays, when seats aren't reserved and prices are lower.
Parking places surround the theater, but, this being Chapel Hill, don't count on finding them empty. Use the visitors' lot around the corner on Raleigh Road/NC 54, a five-minute walk away. After the show, you can head a mile down 54 toward the 15-501 bypass for a drink at Aurora. Or hike over to Franklin Street.
Page Auditorium, Reynolds Theater, Sheafer Theater: Duke University West Campus
Duke has many performing spaces, but the top for theater are Reynolds and Sheafer in the Bryan Center, and Page beside the Chapel. As in Chapel Hill, on-street parking is largely mythical, but the biological sciences parking lot across from the Bryan Center is ungated evenings and weekends. (Look for a life-size sculpture of a man standing beside a camel--whimsy on a monumental scale.) The three theaters also share a new box office in the Bryan Center lobby, right beside an equally new, chrome-plated information desk that resembles a 1950s ice-cream stand. Box offices at individual theaters are open before shows.
Page seats 1,232--rather small for the type of Broadway tours it attracts. Renovations 20 years ago eliminated 300 seats on the main floor and added welcome legroom. The balcony is unreconstructed, however, so don't sit there unless you're tiny or get a seat on the front row (which some think the best view in the house). Folks sitting under the balcony used to be bothered by quirky acoustics, but that was supposedly fixed this summer with the installation of subtle booster speakers.
The 600-seat Reynolds is home to Duke's high-profile pre-Broadway shows. It has reserved seating (as does Page) and is fairly deep, so try for tickets down front. Sheafer is a flexible, 40-foot-square black box that has some 120 unreserved seats, none far from the action (though you may find yourself watching it from the side). It's used mainly by the drama department.
Bryan Center refreshment options include a coffee shop, McDonald's and a branch of the Armadillo Grill with beer and margaritas. For beer (but no wine or liquor) in a funkier atmosphere, hit the Hideaway, next door to the stage-right exit from Page. Being student-run, it keeps unpredictable hours, but is often open until 2 a.m.
Manbites Dog Theater: 703 Foster Street, Durham
According to Artistic Director Jeff Storer, Manbites Dog staged shows in over 20 locations in the 12 years before it bought the former Ferguson Printing Company, just beyond center field of the old Durham Athletic Park. Two years later, the Ferguson name--minus an "o"--is still on the front of the 1920s-era brick building, but inside is an all-black, 60-foot long open space that usually seats 80 to 120 people. The chairs aren't uncomfortable, but they tend to be closer together than seems necessary in such a large venue. The floor plan varies from show to show.
"The great aspect of the space is that it's incredibly flexible," Storer says. "There are no pillars, no poles. The difficulty is that we desperately want to get rid of the ceiling." Removing that ceiling and the attic above it would make the space 10 to 12 feet taller, but at a cost of $60,000. For now, Storer is just happy that Manbites Dog--which, he says, "may be the only group in the state that owns its own facility"--consistently makes its mortgage payments.
The Dog displays work from Raleigh's Contemporary Arts Gallery in its spartan lobby, and offers soft drinks and cookies. Storer recommends the fried baloney sandwich at King's Sandwich Shop next door, but that usually closes long before showtime. Fortunately, the Brightleaf Square area is only half a mile away.
Parking is no problem, thanks to the generosity of nearby businesses and the dearth of activity after 5 p.m. The main lot is right across the street, and the Dog arranges for security on show nights. Evening performances usually start at 8:15--a holdover from the days when the company moved so often, patrons needed an extra quarter-hour to find it.
Raleigh Little Theatre: 301 Pogue Street, Raleigh
If you haven't been to RLT lately, the first thing you'll notice is that the main lobby is no longer the size of a walk-in closet. The new space includes a snack stand (with wine, beer, soft drinks and candy) and restrooms you don't have to climb stairs to reach. Other fruits of a recent fund drive include new sound, light and fly systems, and a 31-seat balcony that ups the theater's capacity to 299. Next on the agenda: a new roof.
RLT may be the most eccentric theater in the Triangle, architecturally. The original structure and adjoining Rose Garden Amphitheater were built by the WPA in the 1930s, the backstage was expanded in the 1960s, and the 170-seat Gaddy-Goodwin studio theatre was added in 1990. The result is a three-level Rubik's Cube of rooms, passageways and staircases. "If you can turn out all the lights in a room you're in while you're in the room you're in, it's a miracle," sighs Artistic Director Haskell Fitz-Simons. Fortunately, not much of this affects the patrons. The main theater has reserved seating; the Gaddy-Goodwin doesn't, and they have separate box offices and entrances. (RLT has its non-architectural eccentricities, too: The ashes of former tech volunteer Glen Amos Miller sat in a toolbox on the light grid for years before being laid to rest elsewhere. There are also reports of a ghost.)
The parking lot sometimes fills up, but you can usually find a spot on the streets around the Rose Garden. (Patrons are advised to not leave valuables showing.) RLT is two blocks from Hillsborough Street and N.C. State, so there's no shortage of bars and restaurants nearby, but the actors tend to gather at Crowley's, a couple of miles away on Medlin.
Thompson Theatre: N.C. State University
Thompson Theatre was built in the 1920s as Thompson Gymnasium. It went thespian in 1963, but "you can still see the basketball floor behind the cyclorama in the work area," says Associate Director Fred Gorelick. "The swimming pool is used for storage." It's also, he says, "a creepy place to be when you're alone in the building at night. The legend is it's haunted, because Mr. Thompson"--a star athlete at State who died in World War I--"was not supportive of the arts." Ghosts must have a thing for theaters, or maybe against them.
Those who do support the arts will find, besides a craft center, two theaters in this big brick building down Dunn Avenue from Reynolds Coliseum. The main theater is unusually wide and shallow, with 250 waiting-room-style chairs in a half-oval only five rows deep. It hardly matters what row you sit on, but the best viewing is usually near the middle of the house. The 84-seat studio theatre down the hall is more conventional--the closer to the front, the better, though none of the seats are bad. None of them are reserved, either, so if you're picky, show up early. Soft drinks and candy bars are on sale in the lobby.
A new lighting system was installed this summer, and Gorelick says there's talk of getting new seats in the studio space. There's also a "legend" that the restrooms may be remodeled--though I personally think it would be shame to discard any facilities so charmingly evocative of the late 1940s. Now that the new arena is open, there's almost always parking available at the Coliseum Deck next to the theater. The nearest food is a block away at the snack bar in the Talley Student Union (which also houses Stewart Theatre), but it's usually closed by the time shows get out. Your best bet is to head up Pullen Road a few blocks to Hillsborough Street. Darryl's is the nearest restaurant, but the actors tend to congregate at Frasier's or the Upper Deck sports bar in Mission Valley.