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Ousted in a 'Coup' from the Theater He Founded, Samuels Starts Anew with Sublime

Matt Peiken | BPR News

Only those involved with local theater might be surprised Steven Samuels is back in action.

In September of last year, Samuels was fired from Asheville’s Magnetic Theatre, which Samuels co-founded and ran for eight seasons. He was still smarting, still angry, when he decided, in some respects, to pick up right where he left off, but with a fresh company.

“My concern and caring for other artists is so strong that, even though I knew the best thing I could do was focus on myself and my family, I couldn’t do that,” he said. “I had to find a way to support these other artists, as well.”

Samuels is directing the first play of Sublime Theater. Asheville’s John Crutchfield, who wrote the Magnetic’s debut play, is the playwright of Sublime’s launching pad, a show titled “TRNZ.”

“In some ways it’s kind of a fresh start, and the symbolism of us inaugurating this new company with a new play written by me, directed by Steve, is very much the way Magnetic started 10 years ago,” Crutchfield said.

After building an impressive resume behind the scenes in New York City, Samuels stepped away and avoided any involvement with theater for nine years, and it might have stretched far longer had Samuels not moved to Asheville.

Here, he met playwrights and performers who surprised and impressed him. He wanted to produce their work and also give light to his own, and Samuels directed more than two dozen of the 53 world premieres Magnetic staged under his leadership. There wasn’t and still isn’t another year-round company in Western North Carolina more committed to playwrights of this region and producing new, original work.

“The key is you must develop your own audience,” Samuels said. “You must develop people who understand what you’re trying to do and want to follow you in this journey.”

But attendance was never strong and, in recent years, some board members of the Magnetic grew uncomfortable with what they saw as an insular creative culture under Samuels. They believed he tended to produce a lot of his own plays, often with the same small group of people.

One of those board members, Jim Julien, allows that the board wasn’t clear with Samuels about its concerns or expectations until the difficult conversation Julien had with Samuels one night last September at the Lexington Avenue Brewery. Samuels recalls feeling dumbfounded and blindsided.

“I was enraged. I was incensed. I was nearly out of my mind. I was screaming,” Samuels recalled. “I couldn’t believe these people had done this. I was stabbed in the back. They staged a coup. I was thrown out of that bar, and rightly so, because I was scaring people. And I continued out on the street. I’m lucky I wasn’t arrested.”

Samuels is particularly galled by the charge he was chiefly interested in working with and producing plays by a tight inner circle.

“Yes, I’m a playwright. Yes, I wanted to do my work, but I also wanted to do John’s work. I also wanted to Lucia Del Vecchio’s work.” Samuels said. “I am not the easiest person in the world. I have very strong feelings about things and I tend not to mask them. (But) to charge me with trying to make the theater my own and to do all the work on my own when I’ve spent my life helping and advancing other artists is a very painful thing to learn other people can even think.”

Samuels and Crutchfield had plans to produce “TRNZ” through Magnetic, and Crutchfield said Samuels gave him his blessing to continue on schedule there, if he wanted to.

“He was holding true to acting on his stated and actual acted-upon values all along, which is he believes in the work and the artists doing this work,” Crutchfield said. “It was my suggestion that ‘Steve, you’re the director of my play.’ It was he who I had developed this relationship with over the years, and there was no one else I wanted to work with.”

Crutchfield describes “TRNZ” as an abstracted musical, “mytho-poetic romp” set in Berlin, about a teenager who falls into the wrong crowd. The production runs Nov. 1-17 at Asheville’s BeBe Theatre.

Samuels’ ambitions for Sublime Theater are modest relative to how they evolved with the Magnetic. There will be no fulltime venue, no year-long schedule. Instead, Samuels wants only to produce shows he’s willing to fight for, on a schedule that better balances with life and family.

“I don’t feel constrained anymore. I feel like now we’re in a position to pursue works that interests our artists most,” Samuels said. “I chose my board so carefully, the first thing I said was ‘Your primary job is not to fire me.’”

Matt Peiken, BPR’s first full-time arts journalist, has spent his entire career covering arts and culture.
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