Children’s Theatre eyes future

By Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — After 55 years of performing in buildings intended for other uses, the Children’s Theater of Charlotte is getting a home of its own.

Yet the $40 million facility, known as ImaginOn and set to open uptown in 2005, will feature a lot more than stages and seats.

The Children’s Theatre has teamed up with the Public Library of Charlotte & Mecklenburg County to create what they believe will be the first cultural center in the U.S. for children and teens designed to tell stories through literature, theater and technology.

“The library is the written word, through books and literature, and we are the spoken word, through theater,” says Bruce LaRowe, executive director.  “We are looking at a combination that hasn’t been done anywhere in the country.”

ImaginOn, which also will house the library’s children’s programs, is a key element in the theater’s plans to expand its programs, audience and private support, LaRowe says.

Formed in 1948 by the Junior League of Charlotte, the company was an amateur troupe until 1979, when it hired its first paid executive director.

It merged in 1989 with the Tarradiddle Players, now its resident touring group, and has grown into one of the 10 largest children’s theaters in the U.S., with an annual budget of $2 million.

Featuring professional actors and including youngsters in minor roles, it produces eight stage productions during the school year.

It also tours throughout the Carolinas and Virginia and offers classes and workshops at its Morehead Street facility and in schools and community centers.

Programs range from teaching theater skills to youngsters to using drama to help students learn about improving their health and preventing violence.

In its 2001-02 season, the company served nearly 227,000 children and their families, including 72,000 outside Mecklenburg.

Within three years, LaRowe says, he wants to double private support, now $450,000 a year, mainly through individual giving.

“I think, in this economy, the opportunity is to grow much more aggressively with individual giving than it is with corporate or foundation giving,” he says.

That task will fall to Linda Reynolds, a former top fundraiser for the United Way of Central Carolinas and community relations director for First Union who is the theater’s new director of development.

LaRowe wants to see annual gifts of $1,000 or more grow to 100, up from 65 now and 50 two years ago.

He also hopes to see growth in gifts through wills and planned giving from older donors with long ties to the theater who now take their grandchildren to productions.

After performing in makeshift space in schools, community centers, a former church and a former VFW center, its current home, the theater is counting on ImaginOn to help it reach more people.

“I see that as my role,” Reynolds says, “to tell the story on the street to individuals and corporations and really have an opportunity to balance the history of this organization with the future it has.”

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