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It's no secret that performing artists all over the world are finding themselves in a tight spot. Theaters are closed, entire seasons have been and continue to be cancelled, and there is no live gig in sight. But there might be a silver lining: for co-founders of the new Charlotte-based and -focused Queen City New Play Initiative, Martin Damien Wilkins and Stacey Rose, a tight spot doesn't necessarily mean being stuck.
"We are living in a time of disturbance," Rose said. "But that's not always a bad thing."
Rose and Wilkins started the QC New Play Initiative with the intent of helping to develop the voices of mainly Charlotte-based playwrights and other members of the local theater community (though their mission also extends to the wider South) by providing opportunities for live readings, playwriting workshops, mentorship, and more. Though the COVID-19 pandemic has presented obstacles for the initiative as it is just now coming to fruition, Rose and Wilkins have found that the current situation has actually challenged them to a new and positive mindset. It has forced them and other artists to practice what artists do best: creativity.
"If we look at disturbances, that's when movements start," Wilkins said. "It's a shift; there's always a shift."
QCNPI is embracing the shift. Through platforms such as Zoom and Facebook Live, Rose and Wilkins have begun presenting monthly readings (the first was on June 26, featuring one of Rose's original plays, The Danger) with talkbacks, as well as "artist talks" with local and national artists.
"[As artists,] we're always looking for that pivot-and-redirect," Rose said. "There's no replacement for being live and in a space, but [this is] a time for innovation, a time of blending together forms until we can meet again."
Both Rose and Wilkins consider the Queen City New Play Initiative to be their lives' work. Wilkins is a director and producer who has developed new work for many theaters throughout the country including the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta and the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center's National Playwright's Conference in Connecticut; Rose is a playwright with an MFA from NYU and a long credit of fellowships including from the McKnight Foundation and the Dramatists Guild. Despite their vast network of connections and national experience, both have ended back up in Charlotte. In fact, it was a conscious decision to establish the initiative in Charlotte: both are committed to this community and vow that it is the Charlotte community that they intend to serve.
Why Charlotte? "Well, simply, I would say it's home," Rose said. "Everything happened here. I had a kid here; I became an artist here."
Rose grew up in New Jersey but frequently visited family in Charlotte and moved to the city at twenty years old. She eventually went to Central Piedmont Community College and later the University of North Carolina at Charlotte where she earned her bachelor's in theater.
Wilkins, a Charlotte-native, echoes the sentiment.
"Regardless of where you do your work, home is still vitally important," Wilkins said. "To be at a moment in our lives where Charlotte can be a home-base from which we launch our work has not only been a priority of ours, but a blessing."
Rose and Wilkins wanted to be in Charlotte, but they also feel that Charlotte needs them: though there have been some opportunities for new play development in Charlotte – such as by Actor's Theatre of Charlotte (for which Wilkins has worked) – the Queen City New Play Initiative will be unique. The initiative will focus on developing plays by and for Charlotteans.
"Charlotte is a city that tends to forget itself," Rose said. "It's important to lift up the story-tellers."
"The core of the theater is the artist," Wilkins said. "What's going to expand the world of theater is developing new voices. [We want to] focus our work on local voices. There is a real need for that in Charlotte."
The QCNPI plans to have its first major event in late fall – a community "Bake-Off" where contestants have 48 hours to write a play within a set of prompts – and then later host a playwriting workshop with opportunities for writers to share work and receive feedback from Rose and Wilkins, as well as possible guest artists.
At the moment, Rose and Wilkins see the times as trying but also valuable for re-evaluating the artist's role and the individual artist's personal intentions. The arts world has been upended not only by the restrictions of the pandemic but also by the acknowledgement of systematic inequalities and racism prevalent in all of its arenas. But this is no excuse to be passive; in fact, the discomfort demands reflection.
"If you feel shut down as an artist [right now], examine your relationship with the system," Rose said.
For the time being, QCNPI plans to keep putting out resources and virtual events via Facebook (Instagram, Twitter, and a website are soon to follow) and continue building their plan of action for the future. The two co-founders meet outside on Rose's porch to work – a COVID adaptation as well as a metaphor for doing what you can, where you can, given the moment.
"I'm on my front porch," Wilkins said. "Let's start from there."