After 15 years at the helm, Theatre Charlotte’s Executive Director Ron Law begins a yearlong farewell.
By Page Leggett
Photograph by Joe Ciarlante
It was early 2013, and Theatre Charlotte was preparing for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Edward Albee’s three-hour look at one drunken night in an unhappy marriage. The play has just four roles, each with a lot of dialogue, much of it venomous: At one point, George, a college professor, says to his wife, “Martha, in my mind, you are buried in cement right up to the neck. No, up to the nose — it’s much quieter.”
Opening night was about two weeks away when the actor playing George dropped out. Director Charles LaBorde and Ron Law, Theatre Charlotte’s executive director, got right to work.
“We spent that afternoon calling people,” Law recalls. “They all said, ‘Are you kidding me? I’m not that big of a fool.’ Finally, we couldn’t think of anybody else, and Charles looked at me and said, ‘Well, you’re just going to have to do it, right?’”
So in true “the-show-must-go-on” fashion, Theatre Charlotte’s head honcho, who recently announced his June 2020 retirement after 15 years at the helm, took on the demanding role.
The Miracle Worker
Being pressed into service after a 15-year absence from the stage isn’t even close to what Law, 71, considers his biggest test at Theatre Charlotte. His greatest challenges are closely related, he tells me as we sit in the theater lobby (he says his office is too messy): “This building and finances.”
The theater’s financial picture was bleak when Law arrived in 2005. “We got the ship upright and sailing,” he says. “And then the recession hit.” For a time, it looked like Charlotte’s oldest surviving cultural organization might not make it. “The staff — all four of us — took three pay cuts during the recession. That’s how dedicated these folks are.”
Law has high praise for his staff as well as his board, but he also has kudos for the entire theater community. “We have a theater family here in Charlotte,” he says. “We all get along. We help each other whenever we can.”
Besides his theater family, Law has a wife, Chase, and a teenage daughter, Chloe, who have become as entrenched in the Charlotte art scene as he is. Chase is vice president of development for Blumenthal Performing Arts. Chloe, a student at Northwest School of the Arts, got her big break at Theatre Charlotte as the Elephant Bird in Seussical in 2009.
On opening night, 4-year-old Chloe “hatched out of the egg and went, ‘Tweet, tweet, tweet,’” Law says. “That was supposed to be it. But, much to our surprise, she started singing. She knew all the words to the last song, and she did the dance on tippy-toes. There were 35, maybe 36 people on stage (including Chloe’s mom, Chase) dancing their hearts out, and here’s this little girl, surprising us all.”
It was a quintessential community-theater moment. Chloe ended up earning a Metrolina Theatre Association (MTA) nomination for Best Cameo in a Musical for her very first role.
It was during the Seussical auditions that Ryan Deal, now director of advancement at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, met Ron and Chase. Getting the part of Mr. Mayor was life-changing, both personally and professionally, according to the actor/singer, who’d been working in an unfulfilling job and missing creative pursuits.
A few months later, Deal joined the Arts and Science Council and continued his professional relationship with Law and Theatre Charlotte — a frequent ASC grant recipient. “We’re the best of friends and the best of colleagues,” Deal says. He even waxes sentimental about Theatre Charlotte’s building — the same one that’s caused Law so many headaches over the years. “It’s always been a special place,” Deal says. “There’s a secret sauce and personal magic in that building.”
The location that Theatre Charlotte has called home since FDR was president has almost no parking in the one-way-in/same-way-out lot on Queens Road. The line for the tiny ladies’ room can be long. And while the lobby has been considerably gussied up during Law’s tenure, it’s not what you’d call Instagrammable.
“The building is 78 years old,” Law says. “And while we’ve made some cosmetic improvements thanks to generous donors and volunteers, it still looks 78.” The theater seats 216, and Law points out that many shows have sold out every night during their run. That’s led to a lot of wear and tear on a nearly four-decades-old building.
“We have no room for growth,” he continues. “Production-wise, we’re very limited with wing space. We can’t fly anything in and out. When we do a show as big as The Producers (which concluded a two-week run on June 9), for instance, the challenges are incredible. But our associate artistic director, Chris Timmons, is able to deal with that. He’s one of the best I’ve worked with — ever.”
In spite of its limitations, the little white theater on a hill has become a creative hub. The nonprofit MTA holds workshops there. Charlotte Film Society holds its popular monthly Saturday Night Cine Club there, too. And Law and his collaborators have devised creative ways to use the space.
“There are a lot of people in the community with talent and a desire to perform who don’t necessarily have two months to devote to rehearsals and another three weeks to a production,” Deal says. Speaking with Law, he wondered out loud if there was a way to give those people a stage with a shorter time commitment. “Ron said, ‘Let’s do it.’ He didn’t wait to figure out details.” That’s how Grand Nights for Singing, a cabaret series staged in the theater lobby, was born.
The theater also hosts summer theater programs for youth and high-school and college students. “[The building is] probably more animated and active during the summer than during the year,” Deal says. This month, Law is directing a youth production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast Jr.
Technical challenges inherent in the space don’t hold Law back when choosing plays. In consultation with board members; “theater people,” including Blumenthal Performing Arts CEO Tom Gabbard; and “civilians,” he chooses a slate and then asks subscribers to vote on six picks for the next season.
He’s managed to push the envelope on play selection without alienating longtime patrons. Each season is a mix of old-fashioned crowd pleasers such as Arsenic and Old Lace and cutting-edge newer works like Spring Awakening. The average age of patrons when Law first started was 62. Now, it’s between 45 and 54.
His play selections have created more opportunities for casting women (and hiring female directors) and people of color. Likewise, patrons and the volunteer pool have grown more diverse. It’s all been part of Law’s plan.
“Ron’s given a lot of people opportunity,” says Hank West, an actor and president of MTA who met Law during his first season at the helm when West was featured in Kiss Me, Kate.
“Not just actors,” he continues. “Costume designers, sound engineers, set designers. Ron’s a very open person, and he’s created a welcoming space.”
The Full Monty
Law’s openness has sometimes meant selecting plays and musicals that some older patrons might consider risqué. The Full Monty, produced in 2009, “opened us up, content-wise,” Law says.
“The Full Monty is really a heartfelt, traditional book musical — except the main characters take off their clothes and dance at the end. If you’re not pulling for them to do that — they’re doing it for a righteous cause — something’s wrong with your heart.” Hair in 2014 had nudity, too, but the scene where the full cast is naked was lit in such a way that many audience members missed it entirely.
What’s impossible to miss is Law’s big heart. “Had it not been for Ron and Theatre Charlotte, I wouldn’t be in the role I’m in today,” Deal says. “[After Seussical], Charlotte became my home, and I found a community. That’s the work of community theater.”
Deal adds that his account isn’t just his “Ron Law story.” Others have had similar experiences working with Law.
“It’s been replicated [over and] over,” he says. Ron Law has brought actors, volunteers and patrons into the fold and turned them into family.
Each cast and crew is a new addition to that always-growing clan. Law remembers every production fondly, but he says Saturday Night Fever is his favorite show he’s directed during this tenure. “Back in the ’70s, I managed a disco band for a couple of years,” he says. “That music is part of my history.”
As of next year, Theatre Charlotte will be, too.
Law will be 72 when he officially retires. He survived a heart attack and has had a hip replaced, and feels lucky he wasn’t debilitated by either. Fifteen years as the patriarch of his theater family felt like “a good number,” he says. He wants to spend more time with his 14-year-old daughter and continue directing, “if people will have me.” He’d love to teach college students again, as he did at Marymount Manhattan College, East Stroudsburg University and High Point University for 17 years prior to joining Theatre Charlotte.
The innate (and trained) teacher says he’s proudest of the opportunities Theatre Charlotte has provided students. “He loves ‘his’ kids,” Hank West says. “He’s very intuitive with them and takes pride in their accomplishments.”
In fact, it’s the youth programs Law hopes will be his legacy.
It will be more than that. Ron Law has done more than build a community theater. He’s created a family.
The end of an era: Catch a show during Ron Law’s last season as Theatre Charlotte’s executive director. The Main Stage season begins with Oliver!, which Law is directing in September, and ends with Dreamgirls in May/June 2020. theatrecharlotte.org SP