Two-part invention

A September piece in the New York Times giddily distilled Asheville’s bohemian mindset and happy whirl of cosmic happenings. Zipping from drum circles to Moog to colonics to Navitat canopy tours, it crowned all the expected high points; the reporter even gave a sound bite to the “enormously influential” legacy of Black Mountain College.

It’s not the first time the city has appeared in NYT’s travel pages (nor the first time its travel writers have spent 36 hours here, but read on). But the article’s epigrammatic style — among other treats, it promised “microbrew and a movie” and “affordable acupuncture” — told a new tale. There’s so much happening in Asheville right now that reducing all the attractions to a quick-hit list is the only way to capture a decent majority of them.

Banking, in their own way, on that peculiarly local hunger for new experiences, ambitious local producer Chall Gray and big-city theater veteran Steven Samuels are set to debut a coffeehouse/bar/performance venue in an untapped vein of the River Arts District.

Surprise, surprise — the Times noticed, and published a story last weekend mentioning the Magnetic Field, in a story titled “In Asheville, N.C., the River Arts District Blooms.” Gray himself was quoted, describing the transformation of the area.

Located a bit south of center, The Magnetic Field is at street-level of the brand-new 372 Depot Street multi-use building. It will comprise both a café/bar and a performance space: A bistro on one side, and a 65-seat theater on the other.

Testing a concept unique to the area and beyond, the venue will stage only original scripts. “As far as we can tell, this will be the only theater in the Southeast to do that,” says Gray.

“This is huge — a massive experiment,” adds artistic director Samuels, a verbose, warm-eyed Brooklynite with a pearly theater pedigree: He is the former manager of New York’s avant-garde Ridiculous Theatrical Company. Samuels was also a senior editor at American Theatre magazine and at TCG Books (the industry’s prime play-publishing company), and he sat for a season on the Village Voice’s Obie Award committee. [He’s also been a chief contributor to Mountain Xpress’ “Sightlines” theatre-review blog.]

On a recent windy day, drywall was being noisily installed at the construction site, and the anticipation seemed caught up in mini dervishes of dry leaves. Klatching with Xpress down the street at Clingman Café, Gray and Samuels were so continually interrupted by River District well-wishers that they were obliged to tell their story in fevered snatches. Everyone who paused to say hello clamored to know the Magnetic Field’s opening date. One woman gestured dramatically at the two men, suggesting a pair of saviors come to bestow meaningful new nightlife. She even allowed herself to call them “rock stars.”

Build it because they are already here

Gray shrugged off the extravagant compliment. To get comfortable, the McDowell County native often retracts and refolds his long legs like a magician’s baton.

“There is an astonishing depth of talent in this town,” says the lanky producer, tactfully identifying all stripes of the favored constituents: creative types who are either natives, long-time locals or newly arrived. “Every conceivable person involved in this project, from the lighting and sound technicians to the actors and playwrights and choreographers, were culled from our own pool of artists in Asheville.”

He doesn’t mention that he wielded the final spark. Gray is only 26, but he’s already significantly shaped Asheville’s current performance-art scene. Nattily dressed in the polished-watch-fob school of retro style, he’s lost the urban-Amish beard he sported in a recent WNC Magazine profile and now more clearly resembles an old-time vaudeville performer (one of the more dignified ones — perhaps Charles LeMaire, whose acting career segued into a reputation for inventive costume design).

Earlier this year, Gray married playwright Lucia Del Vecchio in a Bollywood-musical-style ceremony. Before that, a dramatic high point was his local production of John Crutchfield’s one-man show, The Songs of Robert. Directed by Samuels, Songs went on to make a well-reviewed splash at NYC’s International Fringe Festival in 2009, snagging an Outstanding Solo Performance award.

“Chall is the best natural producer I have ever worked with,” says Samuels, “as well as one of the most literate young people I’ve ever met.” Gray, however, stresses that he’s still working to accomplish his dream as embodied in the Magnetic Field: the provision of a consistent, professional venue for showing new plays. With his past productions, he’s already filled the existing appropriate spaces — mainly BeBe Theatre, 35below (Asheville Community Theatre’s black-box space) and the Catalyst Series sheltered by N.C. Stage Company.

“What I saw every time, with every play, is that we could use another venue,” says Gray. “There was more work than there were spaces — more excitement about staging original plays than there was room to do it.”

Getting new work produced is not just a local challenge, and Samuels with his legion of experience explains why. To survive the encroachment of competing media forms starting in the middle of the last century, theaters changed to subscription mode (i.e., selling season tickets) to stay afloat. As the play-attending audiences aged, salable works grew accordingly more conservative.

“Theater is a handmade art,” points out Samuels. “It’s expensive. There’s no industrial scale for the reproduction of it, and so it can’t compete with movies or TV.” In other words, risks can’t be taken when doors have to stay open. Nevertheless, he says he was “spoiled” during his early years with the Ridiculous Theatrical Company. “Every single play we did was something I cared about.” 
      Still, by the time he left his “extraordinary” career behind in the early 2000s, eventually moving to Asheville with his wife and young daughter, he’d grown jaded, and was glad to shelve drama and pick up some peace of mind.

But the laws of attraction lured him back. For Samuels, the Magnetic Field’s premise was an edgy challenge he couldn’t refuse. The venue will open with a zany holiday engagement from vaudeville royalty the Bernstein Family, who will drop festive new farcical material with help from local guests. And Samuels’ long-in-the-works era-hopping comedy, When Jekyll Met Hyde, will debut in January.

Beyond that, he won’t rule out Asheville becoming the new original-theater capital of the country. “All the talent we need to make great professional theater exists right here.”

He adds, with a transplant’s anthropological curiosity: “There’s a very particular character here, a kind of crackling artistic energy I haven’t felt anywhere since the heart of [Manhattan’s] West Village in the early 1980s.” Samuels talks about Asheville’s exploding “creative class,” its high density of educated people.

Meanwhile, Gray’s hopes seem fed more on faith and hunches. He wants the Magnetic Field’s coffeehouse/bar to be a daily meeting and working place for the very artists (comedians, actors, musicians, dancers, playwrights) who would use the stage at night. He doesn’t summarize his vision in an efficient, bulleted list. But as an insider, he knows the kind of itch for community that, properly scratched, makes local businesses boom.

Because he’s felt it himself. “The excitement of everybody in the neighborhood has really bolstered my own enthusiasm,” says Gray. “I’m very proud that we’re able to do this using all of our own people. Everyone we have met while working on this project has somehow tied into it in a different, meaningful way.”

— Melanie McGee Bianchi is a contributing editor at Carolina Home + Garden.

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2 thoughts on “Two-part invention

  1. Dramaturg

    ” . . .TCG Books (the industry’s prime play-publishing company). . .”

    Samuel French and Dramatists Play Service might have something to say about that.

  2. Steven Samuels

    Excellent point, Dramaturg. The distinction to be drawn, however, is that TCG publishes plays as books, and sells them through standard book channels. Samuel French and Dramatists Play Service publish playscripts, which are handled differently. Some plays appear in both formats…

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