The controversial move by the Carolina Ballet to relocate some of its performances from Memorial Auditorium has prompted a meeting this evening between Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker and representatives of several Raleigh arts organizations. But behind the scenes, the conflict over performance space centers on a more pervasive issue: Raleigh's largest venues are now competing with Durham for the biggest touring acts.
Meeker and the groups plan to discuss the implications of moving the Carolina Ballet from Memorial Auditorium into Progress Energy Center's Fletcher Opera Theater.
Raleigh City Council recently approved a multi-year lease agreement term sheet for the Carolina Ballet to split its productions between Memorial Auditorium, where it has performed exclusively for the past two years, and Fletcher Theater.
According to Nancy Lambert of the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild, the meeting with Meeker was requested by several groups, including the Guild, Theatre in the Park, The Opera Company of North Carolina, Raleigh Little Theatre and Capital Opera.
They are concerned about the new arrangement and the city's priorities for booking space for locally produced events. Several groups have complained about difficulties booking space at the Progress Energy Center, contending the city favors larger events over smaller local productions by waiving fees, altering grant terms and allocating choice venues.
Language in the scheduling policy for the Raleigh Convention Center indicates that priority is given to touring theatrical productions that would produce five or more performances, while local productions and concerts are on a "first come, first serve" basis.
Lambert says that the purpose of the meeting is to discuss with Meeker how to revise the current booking policy for the Civic Center to give local groups more access to it.
"It really depends on where the conversation goes," Lambert says. "We want to make sure the mayor understands the impact regarding the recent proposal regarding Carolina Ballet, and we would like to consider if there was a way the local organizations could have access to that theater."
Carolina Ballet Executive Director Lisa Jones says that the ballet had historically split its performances between Memorial Auditorium and Fletcher Theater, and that the move would only encompass about half of its upcoming productions.
"Roger Krupa [director of the Raleigh Convention Center] asked us if we'd like to come back to Fletcher and we agreed," Jones says. She says the ballet and other local organizations can co-exist, and that the arrangement can be beneficial. "An organization that performs for three weeks can benefit both the community and arts groups that maybe perform a single show."
Krupa acknowledges that the city places precedence on high-profile, multi-night performances over smaller-scale local groups. Part of the rationale involves Raleigh's competition for events with the Durham Performing Arts Center, which opened in November.
"The Durham Performing Arts Center is taking shows that we would have presented," Krupa says. "That money is not money that is going to be going into Raleigh."
Krupa says that he respects local groups' wishes—"If you can get an audience, we're for it!"—but adds he has conflicted with some organizations over touring shows. According to Krupa, Ira David Wood III wanted to extend last year's production of A Christmas Carol for a few extra shows, but wanted the theater to remain dark the nights it was not performing. (Wood declined to comment for this story.)
Krupa says he refused Wood's request because it came after the space had been rented to other performers. "Do you want to tell the people who work at the theater that they won't be needed those nights?" Krupa asks. He says that he feels there can be a balance between the different performances, but he makes no apologies about wanting high-revenue events: "My responsibility is to the taxpayers and the city manager."
The question hovering over tonight's meeting is whether the city can strike a balance between providing space for larger-scale, higher-revenue shows and smaller, more intimate local productions.
"It's a matter of priority, I think," Lambert says. "The bottom line is the bottom line. They just want to make certain that the city officials do not overlook the community groups. Fletcher Theatre was built for community groups, and we'd like to maintain a presence there."
The Independent will provide a full update on this meeting in next week's issue.