New venue space at Carolina Theatre could fill niche

by Eric Ginsburg

The void of a mid-sized performance space in Greensboro is at the forefront of plenty of minds in local music and performing-arts scenes, but Carolina Theatre President Keith Holliday may have a solution. With some renovation, a large, somewhat forgotten room on the third floor of the Carolina Theatre could fill that niche, he said.

“There’s just nowhere to go,” Holliday said. “There’s nowhere to go downtown that has this scene.”

While area colleges have spaces for mid-size performances, Holliday said, a flexible space that could hold 150-175 people is sorely needed, especially downtown. The main room, that has been used for storage and was originally the theater’s in-house sign-making shop, recently got a $20,000 floor facelift and with additional investment, it could meet the demand.

The possibilities for the space are almost limitless — Holliday said there is already a dance crew and a theater company that want to use the space, and he envisions music shows, documentary screenings, receptions and more being hosted there.

“It’s got character galore,” Holliday said. “[We] could do a lecture series. Heck, you could do a church up here.”

The space still boasts old glass windows behind where the performers would be, as well as some old scrawled graffiti on the walls. Moveable chairs are set up to demonstrate the multiple uses of the space, and while Holliday estimates it could easily fit 200 people standing, he expects a capacity of 150 to 175. There’s no stage, though a temporary dance floor or a theater set could be installed, he said.

There’s a separate entrance from the theater — an elevator and an external staircase encased in glass — and there’s enough between it and the primary theater that two events could happen simultaneously. There’s no backstage area, making it even more intimate, Holliday said, though curtains could create wings on either side for a theater company.

The project isn’t ready to be unveiled — there’s no timeline or board approval yet — but Holliday is working to make the vision a reality and already has designs drawn up. With $91,000 for renovations, Holliday said a small bar could be put in, black curtains could be hung over sidewalls to improve acoustics, a few doorways could be repaired and sound, heating and air infrastructure could be installed. If the project became successful, a second phase of almost $2.5 million could remove four concrete pillars in the space and raise the ceiling to allow for greater versatility, but that’s still a far-off idea.

The extra venue would also allow for even bigger events than the theater can currently hold, utilizing the black box as an additional breakout rehearsal space for larger events in the main theater.

The pillars would impede a dance performance, dance group leader Jan Van Dyke said, but if they could be removed and could include a stage that could handle jumping “like basketball,” the space would be “pretty perfect.”

“We all agree that Greensboro needs a small theater,” Van Dyke said. “Greensboro has nothing, really, that’s available to groups on a rental basis. There’s no good space.”

The proposed downtown performing arts center would not incorporate the mid-sized space Van Dyke’s group needs, she said, and in lieu of a desirable venue, they choreograph around pillars at the Green Hill Center. The Carolina Theatre’s black-box space is ideal not just because of size, but also because it has bathrooms, a separate entrance and is contained, she said.

Van Dyke’s dance group practices at UNCG, where she teaches, but when Van Dyke stops working there in the fall, it’s unclear where they will go.

Andrew Dudek, who ran Gate City Noise and helped open the Flying Anvil, said bands need a “stepping-stone type club” like what Holliday envisions. It could be minimalist, with only a few microphones and a basic soundboard, he said, but it needs to have a bar.

“A hundred and fifty is perfect to a mid-size band,” Dudek said. “Bands that are starting out need small clubs to cater to them. This town’s kinda thirsty for it.”

The old vibe of the space, complete with graffiti, some visible brick wall and an antique Carolina Theatre poster that appears to be wheat-pasted on the wall should stay, Dudek said. People shouldn’t trash the space but should be able to accidentally spill beer and not “feel chaperoned,” he said.

“Leave it rustic, leave it nasty,” Dudek said. If the space doesn’t specialize in something specific, like focusing solely on live music, Dudek said he worries it won’t develop a solid reputation.

“Nobody’s going to be able to rely on it [unless it’s] specialized to be a staple,” he said. Holliday said a programming advisory council of eight to 10 people mostly under 30 and connected to downtown is being formed and would be key in determining what kind of music and other events were booked in the space. While Holliday rattled off the names of a few indie-rock bands that might work well in the third floor venue, he said the Carolina Theatre staff will need input on what to book.

“The best way to do that is to find out what the people want,” he said.

Kris Hilbert, who opened show space Legitimate Business and now runs it as a recording studio, and Dudek said they’d be happy to share insight from their experiences. Both said it would be important to have someone who had connections to bands, labels and the music scene booking shows. Dudek named former WUAG general manager Jack Bonney and Hilbert suggested Mike Wallace, who plays in several local bands and used to set up Greensboro Fest.

Hilbert, who has thought about opening a venue again after Legitimate Business closed due to fire regulations, was excited about the prospect.

“If it’s cool, that’s awesome,” Hilbert said, “150-200 is exactly what we need. Everyone is on the outskirts. Having a venue downtown is the sh*t. The fact that it could be downtown is sick.”

Bands come from all over to record at Hilbert’s studio, but he sends the ones with bigger draws to Charlotte or Raleigh because of the lack of an appropriate venue here. There are numerous places for local bands that draw smaller audiences, Hilbert said, and the missing niche is a “fixable problem.”

“Tons of bands need a venue, Hilbert said, adding that he hopes it opens. “If it was me I would brand it as an underground rock and punk club.”

The success of Legitimate Business before it closed as a music venue proves that a mid-sized venue could succeed, he said. Hilbert estimated that some shows drew 300 people, adding, “We crushed it here.”

Though people grew to trust that shows there would draw talented bands, he said many people came for the social aspect and just hung out. Dudek said that is always the case, further illustrating the need for the venue to be a cool and welcoming environment that people feel some sense of ownership over or pride in.

Holliday’s excitement at the possibilities of this workin-progress idea is palpable, and while he couldn’t give a date, he talked about the project as if it could be a reality in the near future. If it’s done right, some say it can’t come soon enough.