Ambitious small theater relocates to GSO

by Amy Kingsley

The Open Space Café Theater is located in a slim building on a bustling stretch of West Market Street. Other tenants include a pet grooming business, a dance studio and a shoe store. A narrow asphalt strip divided into parallel parking spaces rings the squat structure.

Open Space sits on the end nearest the street – real estate that includes a large open space joined to a smaller office. It used to be a Korean grocery.

Joe Nierle moved in a few months back and started redesigning. He pulled out the fluorescent lights and replaced them with chandeliers bought from a church, plastered old movie posters to the wall and cleaned out the refrigerator case to use as a dressing room.

“I want to make a place for artists,” Nierle says. “I want artists to have a place to play.”

Nierle himself taught and directed theater for more than 30 years, most of them in New Jersey, before he moved to North Carolina. He decided to relocate Open Space theater after his retirement, when he moved to the South to be closer to family. It’s quite an undertaking for a person who has, in theory at least, put his productive years behind him.

At eight days until opening, Nierle says most of the major work on the space is done. Some of the walls still need painting, the dressing rooms are unfurnished, signs are unlettered and control boards must be wired. Nonetheless, Nierle is calm.

“It’s really coming down to the details,” he says.

Nierle and his staff will host a gala opening at the new space in a little more than a week with the inauguration of Nunsense A-Men, their theatrical debut. The lights are hung and the stage mostly built, but the tables and chairs have not, as yet, arrived.

Nierle’s Open Space theater will be, in his words, a “café theater.” Beverages and desserts will be available for purchase and audience members will sit around a collection of café tables. When it opens, the Open Space theater will be able to accommodate a 50-person crowd.

“There won’t be a bad seat in the house,” Nierle says.

Nierle is a newcomer to Greensboro, but his theater company has been around a while. Open Space started in Westfield, NJ about 10 years ago, found shelter in an old Presbyterian church and quietly thrived on artistic risk-taking. The company’s inaugural show was Angels in America, by Tony Kushner. Other members of the theater community in Westfield told Nierle the production would fail, but his performances sold out.

The relocated Open Space theater might someday tackle the same type of heavy theatrical fare, Nierle says, but for the first couple of seasons he’s planning a series of lighter entertainments that will run for two to three weeks. The lineup for the first season includes The Fantasticks; I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change and The Mystery of Irma Vep.

Nierle, who had to establish theater connections from scratch, found allies for his project within the UNCG theater department student body. His scenographer, who is in charge of costumes, sets and printed materials, hails from the university, as do several members of the Nunsense A-Men cast.

Since auditions, several aspiring theater artists have approached Nierle with their resumes. Nunsense A-Men’s musical director has lobbied Nierle for future work.

The public is interested as well. Nierle has received several phone calls and has already sold a number of tickets to the first production. Although the director says he would like to be successful, he also says money and ticket sales are not the only measure of achievement.

“I’d like to make some money,” Nierle says. “But the key note is not the money. It’s being able to surround myself with talented and creative people.”

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