Now entering its sixth year of operation, the Magnetic Theatre is at last settled in its new River Arts District home at 375 Depot Street (just across the street from its former location). And for a nonprofit dedicated to showcasing the writing, acting, production and you-name-it talents of local artists, a quirky tale about Asheville life had to be the opening act. Penned by playwright and Magnetic Theatre artistic director Steven Samuels, The Merchant of Asheville oficially premieres at the new location’s grand opening this Saturday, May 30.
“I didn’t choose it for the grand opening; I wrote it for the grand opening” Samuels explains. “I don’t know that anyone has really written or produced a play about Asheville, per se — what [the city] is today, what the different populations are, what the economic situation is, how things are changing in relation to tourism and beer and everything else. That’s what this play is really all about.”
Samuels cites his recent performances of Moliere’s Tartuffe alongside the Montford Park Players as the main source of inspiration and creative momentum behind his comedic play. “I came up with the idea for a story set in Montford at a family-run bed and breakfast that was probably last renovated in the early ’90s,” he says. “It’s basically about this family, their friends and a couple of strangers who appear, adjusting to all the changes in Asheville.”
The Merchant of Asheville, Samuels adds, is a “purely celebratory” work, although it also includes “a few digs here and there.” Just like Magnetic Theatre’s other productions, it’s a certified-local project.
“We only do original works,” Samuels says, definitively. “That’s our entire reason for existing… We’re one of the few theatre’s in the country that is that dedicated to original work, and as important, we are very, very focused on local art.”
Magnetic’s playwright-developing capacity is also a point of distinction, according to the artist. A core few individuals within the organizations are guaranteed to have their writings performed onstage upon completion of each developed play — an unheard of practice in the industry, but one that contributes to member motivation.
Judging by patrons’ feedback at recent soft openings, the hop across the street was a solid strategy as well — one the community backed with more than $30,000 in donations.
“There’s a way in which the new space is a mirror image of the old space,” Samuels says, “except everything is bigger.” The capacity, for example, jumped from 68 people to 91, with the potential to “re-engineer the space” to fit 155 persons legally.
Samuels recently finalized the organization’s alcohol licensing, meaning patrons will be able to enjoy wine and/or beer during opening night and thereafter. Similar theatres across the state and nation, he says, do not enjoy Beer City’s reliable income from alcohol sales — one more contributor to the nonprofit’s viability. It’s just as well for a company dedicated to honing in on the surrounding culture.
“[Magnetic productions are] focused on this city, this place and what everyone is trying to do here,” Samuels says. “We’re trying to be a theatrical expression of that.”
The Merchant of Asheville’s official grand opening takes place at The Magnetic Theatre on Saturday, May 30, at 7:30 p.m., with tickets available for $20 ($23 day of show) per person. Two discount preview showings will be held this Thursday and Friday, May 28-29 at the same time for $15 per person, and regular showings will resume every Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m., nightly until Saturday, July 4. Visit themagnetictheatre.org for information and tickets.