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Rebranded And Expanded Wortham Center Promises Boon Of Opportunity For Local Performers

Sandra Stambaugh

If you want to stage a dance or theater production in downtown Asheville, your options are limited. You could rent the 40-seat BeBe Theatre or the 35-Below space, operated by Asheville Community Theater, which can hold about 75 people. But if you want marquee appeal, something that can draw foot traffic, you have to rent the Diana Wortham Theatre.

“The ability to fill a 500-seat space, for a local company, is sometimes overwhelming,” said Rae Geoffrey, the Wortham’s executive director. “The size and scope of Diana Wortham Theatre over the years has gotten too large for a lot of people and it has become used so often we frequently don’t have space in there.”

In the past few years, Geoffrey and the Wortham’s board grew concerned. They believed the theater’s programming didn’t reflect Asheville’s racial and ethnic diversity and ticket prices were out of reach for many. So they committed to expanding both the capacity and accessibility of the theater.

In September, the rebranded Wortham Center for the Performing Arts will hold three separate spaces -- the 500-seat main stage, a flexible black box space that can hold up to 100 and a multipurpose studio that can seat up to 60.

This past year, Diana Wortham Theatre drew about 55,000 people to some 200 events. This coming season, Geoffrey expects about 300 productions inside the expanded Wortham Center. About three-quarters of those are rentals, and the costs to rent the two new spaces will be significantly lower--$85 per hour for the black box space.

“We need to be able to offer some lower-priced options in those other spaces and reach into more family programming than we’ve been able to in the past,” Geoffrey said. “(We’re) making sure we provide opportunities for the LatinX population, the African-American population and for that younger generation, as well, that is sometimes left out of the performing arts at certain points in their lives.”

Geoffrey and her small staff have already taken important steps there. This past fall, New York City’s Ballet Hispanico came in for a community residency in partnership with the Western North Carolina magazine Hola Carolina. In a more telling step, Asheville’s Different Strokes Performing Arts Collective, which largely presents work by black playwrights and featuring black performers, is presenting its entire next season as the Wortham’s first resident theater company.

Still, it’s in the two new spaces where local performing artists will see the welcome mat. The Asheville Improv Collective, which performs twice per month at Archetype Brewing in the Montford neighborhood, will host one night of the upcoming Asheville Improv Festival in October in the Wortham Center’s black box space, and there are talks about monthly evenings there.

“Comedy thrives on being around people, especially downtown has all the tourists,” said George Awad, a managing partner of the Asheville Improv Collective.

“We don’t get a lot of tourists at our shows. It’s rare,” he said. “I think that’s how a decent percentage of people end up at comedy shows, anyway. There’s always that component of ‘Hey, what’s the commotion? What’s going on in there?’ And funny enough, a half a block makes a difference, in this town.”

Geoffrey leans on data from a spreadsheet called a presentation matrix, showing not just the types of performance offered at the Wortham, but also demographic information that influences her programming choices going forward.

“The first thing I look at in programming is high quality,” she said. “Then if we move into this matrix, it’s not ‘Oh, I have to have three artists doing blues this year,’ but it’s really a measure of ‘oh wait, I’ve got a bunch of old white guys this year who are all doing jazz -- we need to balance that out,’ because that’s an audience development goal and we need to have something for everybody in our community.”

Different Strokes’ first production as the Wortham’s resident company opens Sept. 17, with the premiere of “The Education of Ted Harris,” by local playwright Jamie Knox. As life at the new Wortham Center unfolds, Geoffrey says she wants to hear from people from all walks of the community about how the center can meet their needs.

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