GREENSBORO — Triad Stage opened its doors to an audience on N.C. A&T Homecoming weekend — not for a play, but for The Poetry Café.
Spoken word artist Josephus Thompson III will present his next session of The Poetry Café on Saturday.
Spoken word artist Josephus Thompson III hosted the open mic night of poetry, dance and song. About 70 people watched from the seats in the downtown Pyrle Theater at 232 S. Elm St. Another 63 tuned in online.
The event shows how Triad Stage now uses the 300-seat theater, shut down to its own live productions since March 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and continuing after its founding artistic director left.
Leaders have made it available for rentals to individuals and groups such as The Poetry Café, while they plan for returning to produce live theater.
They have not yet set a date for that, Triad Stage leaders say.
“We are continuing the unprecedented work that we started in the spring of planning for a better, more resilient Triad Stage on the other side of this closure,” said Deborah Hayes, who chairs the nonprofit theater’s board of trustees.
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“As much as we would like to have a definitive schedule, we are not quite there yet,” Hayes added. “But we are working hard toward the day when we can share that.”
Founded by Yale graduates Preston Lane and Richard Whittington, nonprofit Triad Stage presented its first professional production in January 2002 — Tennessee Williams’ “Suddenly, Last Summer.”
Through 2019, it produced classical plays by renowned playwrights, as well as original productions written by Lane with music by singer-songwriter Laurelyn Dossett. North Carolina and New York actors filled the cast.
Whittington left in June 2019 to spend more time with family. He’s now interim vice chancellor for advancement at UNC School of the Arts.
Lane resigned in November 2020.
An article published by alternative weekly Triad City Beat reported that some UNCG theater alumni accused Lane of sexual abuse — allegations that Lane denied. They said that the alleged incidents occurred while they were students at UNCG, where Lane taught acting and directing part-time until December 2019.
No criminal charges or civil lawsuits have been filed in Guilford County.
The local theater community buzzed Tuesday with shock and concern over sexual abuse accusations against Triad Stage co-founder Preston Lane.
The set for the last unproduced play, “Pride and Prejudice,” remains on the stage, covered by a black curtain.
Behind the scenes, Triad Stage leaders now study where to go from here.
“This is so much more than, ‘When are you going to put on your next play?’” Hayes said. “For this organization to survive and thrive over the next 20 years, we have to make sure that we are building on a solid foundation. That’s exactly the work we are doing now.”
In the meantime, it has booked several rentals — The Poetry Café, a Shirley Clinton concert, a middle school production of the musical “Grease,” and a N.C. Theatre Education Association conference. During September’s N.C. Folk Festival, it hosted a symposium on The Art of Mass Gatherings.
It also can host wedding-related events. Pyrle Theatre rental rates start at $900.
“This is a good way for us to stay in the public view, to have people using our venue, to know that we’re here and open and haven’t closed forever,” said Justin Nichols, Triad Stage’s patron engagement director.
Hayes and Nichols outlined the theater’s progress in a recent interview.
They were joined by staffers Sarah Hankins, interim artist director and learning director, and Katie O’Kelly, director of operations and production.
They plan with the help of arts consultant John McCann of Partners in Performance in Durham.
The Triad Stage board has formed a 15-member planning committee led by Donna Bradby, an actor and director who teaches in N.C. A&T’s theater arts program.
Theater leaders interviewed 16 people, both community leaders and people who had been affiliated with Triad Stage.
They also had five listening sessions with a cross-section of the community, Hayes said.
One question: Has Triad Stage run its course?
No, respondents said.
“Triad Stage does add value to our community in ways that no other organization in this community brings,” Hayes said. “We develop programming that is meant for this community. We hire people who live in this community.”
Through conversations with 62 people, Hayes said, “We learned that the community values the programming that we have done historically, values the quality of the productions.”
“They have also told us that they think we should be more collaborative across the community and engage in further outreach to broaden our base of engagement,” Hayes said. “And they want us to be a stronger and more resilient organization.”
The planning group will discuss the gathered information during a two-day meeting this month, Hayes said.
Its November board meeting will include some theater leaders from diverse communities across the country. They have successfully operated theaters in an environment affected by the pandemic and by social and cultural issues raised by the George Floyd killing and its aftermath.
“We are excited to get ideas from them about ways we can enrich our programming and become a more vibrant organization,” Hayes said.
She expects to give another report in late fall.
“Over the past 20 years, the world has changed a lot,” Hayes said. “It’s important to us, having committed to go through this process, to allow it to reach its conclusion.”
They say that those who bought tickets for Triad Stage’s 19th and 20th seasons will get plays for their money.
Triad Stage’s board has put together a more fulsome diversity, equity, inclusion and access policy, Hayes said.
It’s also made changes to respond to the pandemic, O’Kelly said.
Those entering the theater must provide proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 PCR test within 72 hours of the event. They must wear masks.
There are only 156 seats made available within the 300-seat auditorium to allow for social distancing, and a professional cleaning crew sanitizes used space before and after an event.
Triad Stage faces other hurdles to reopening.
Once operated by a paid staff of about 26, it now has four: Nichols, Hankins, O’Kelly and Tabitha Davis, bookkeeper and office assistant. Some other posts will be refilled.
A facilities study showed what will be needed for the building to comply with rules from the labor union Actors’ Equity Associations, such as increased filtration, Hankins said.
All that takes time, Hankins said.
“We’re all dying to open that stage,” O’Kelly said. “The second that those lights go down and the first stage light goes on, I’m going to bawl my eyes out. It’s that emotional, that cathartic feeling that we’re all missing.”
The theater has some financial help to reopen: about $1 million in COVID-19-related assistance. Organizations and individuals continue to contribute.
In September, another venue entered the local arts scene: the Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts.
It’s important for Triad Stage to differentiate itself from the Tanger Center, Nichols said. While Tanger offers national touring productions, Triad Stage offerings are curated, designed and built for the local community.
“We believe in a world where Triad Stage and Tanger Center coexist as contributing members to a diverse and vibrant arts community,” Nichols said.
Josephus Thompson III, who performs under the name Josephus III, started The Poetry Cafe in the UpStage Cabaret, the 80-seat venue atop Triad Stage. He’s glad to move into the main theater.
For The Poetry Café, “Triad Stage has provided a great opportunity for growth for the brand,” he said.
The Poetry Cafe will return on Nov. 13 and Dec. 3.
“While the cabaret space is nice, we are definitely moving to the place where the theater is a much better fit and allows for the show to blossom,” Thompson said.
Staff writer Jamie Biggs contributed to this report.
Contact Dawn DeCwikiel-Kane at 336-373-5204 and follow @dawndkaneNR on Twitter.