“Theater’s inherently local. And the greatest who ever were made the focal point of their plays the place they lived, worked and were part of the community that inspired their art. We believe we work in that tradition. We have consciously made it our mission to embrace local artists and set them free, which is why this space simply had to be. You can’t make great playwrights without a home, a subject I think worthy of a poem.”
Those words are from the prologue of The Merchant of Asheville, a play written and directed by Steven Samuels, artistic director and co-founder of The Magnetic Theatre. Not only do those words launch — after more than two years of looking for a home — the grand opening production of the company’s new space at 375 Depot St. (strangely enough, just across the street from its original building), but they also sum up Magnetic Theatre’s mission statement. “That’s what we do, that’s the entire purpose,” says Samuels. “We want to do original works, we want them to grow out of this soil. That’s where theater comes from.”
Founded in 2010 by Samuels and local theater veteran Chall Gray (who’s stepped back from The Magnetic Theatre’s current iteration, but, Samuels assures, still has input and was crucial in securing the lease), the company has always wanted to focus on new productions. “A large part of this grew out of … seeing the way the theater over the last several decades has essentially managed to recapitulate Hollywood Hell,” says Samuels. “The way playwrights are shunted about from theater to theater through all these development processes, where no one ever actually intends to produce your play because they all make a little something on the development process.”
In Asheville, The Magnetic Theatre can take a different approach. “Over time we build up an audience who’s excited about that. One of the lines in [The Merchant of Asheville] is ‘and you don’t need the masses, just the discerning few.’” The play continues its run through Saturday, July 4.
Beyond world premieres of new works, Samuels — taking advantage of the new beginnings of a new Magnetic Theatre — has possible plans for shaking up the company’s productions and creating something more diverse, while also building the theater’s playwrights’ profiles. “The big thing, ultimately, is how do you break these plays out into the broader culture,” Samuels says. “Here it turns out that there’s something worse than trying to get your first play up. And that’s trying to get the second production of a play that has had its world premiere. Or a third production so that you can begin to work your way into the national theater network.” Ideas include swapping productions with other companies in the Southeast and revivals of The Magnetic Theatre’s past original works once a year.
This sense of raising the awareness and profile of overlooked plays is ingrained into Samuels’ vision for the theater’s new start. “As much as we’re devoted to original work, each of the core playwrights [including Samuels, managing and associate artistic director Lucia del Vecchio and John Crutchfield] has work that is deeply meaningful to us,” Samuels says.
He adds, “There are incredible plays that had a huge impact on me that some people may not know anymore.” Samuels mentions Václav Havel’s The Increased Difficulty of Concentration and Bruce Jay Friedman’s Scuba Duba. “These are marvelous and now completely neglected works, and if our audience saw them, they would understand more about how my writing has come to be what it is.”
Regardless of the new directions Samuels and company want to take with The Magnetic Theatre, their purpose will always be cultivating the local theater scene, making the existence of a brick-and-mortar home for their various productions crucial. “You cannot help playwrights grow if you cannot take chances,” Samuels says. “And you can’t take chances if you don’t have a home, because if you’re itinerant, you’re paying as you go. Having a home offers us other performance opportunities.”
Or, to once again paraphrase The Merchant of Asheville’s prologue, The Magnetic Theatre wants “to make Asheville home to the very best original theatrical work in the land. And, in order to accomplish that, we have to take a stand. So here it is.”
WHAT: The Merchant of Asheville
WHERE: The Magnetic Theatre, themagnetictheatre.org
WHEN: Through Saturday, July 4. Thursdays-Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. $20 advance/$23 doors