Caffeinated farewell: Live Arts leaves Old Michie

BY STEPHEN BOYKEWICH

PERFORMANCE@READTHEHOOK.COM

When does a night of theater that includes aliens debating the construction of a Wormhole Bypass and a karaoke performance of "Karma Chameleon" leave you feeling wistful?

When it's the last Live Arts Coffeehouse.

After 13 years at 609 E. Market Street, Charlottesville's premiere community theater comes full circle with its final production before moving to its new multi-million-dollar arts complex on Water Street.

Coffeehouse 13, much like the 12 that came before it, consists of 22 short plays from 20 authors, which, according to resident director Fran Smith, range from "poignant to off-the-wall." In classic cabaret style, the show also features live musical interludes and first-class food and drink.

It's the kind of thing you could build a theater around.

Everyone at Live Arts agreed that their tenure on Market Street had to end with a Coffeehouse.

"It was the only appropriate way we could go out," says artistic director John Gibson. "It got us started, it kept the rent paid, and it kept Live Arts going during some difficult times."

The choice of Smith to direct was another no-brainer. "She's not only the mother of Live Arts, she's the mother of the Coffeehouse," says Gibson. "She has a real gift for this kind of theater."

Evidently. Back when she was Fran Sackett, Smith was a co-founder of Live Arts. And she has directed every previous Coffeehouse, though the challenge of making a wild variety of scripts into a coherent and entertaining whole is as serious as ever. "It's like a big jigsaw puzzle," Smith says.

One of the ways she makes the pieces fit is with a theme. This time, it's diversity. The characters in Coffeehouse 13 reflect the range of races and lifestyles that make Charlottesville unique for a city its size.

And then, of course, there are the aliens.

Given the series' success over the past 13 years, it's little wonder that just about every artist who's passed though town has been associated with it in some way– even Charlottesville's original golden boy, Dave Matthews.

Smith remembers Matthews' solo performance of "All Along the Watchtower" in Coffeehouse 2 over a decade ago. She realized, along with the audience, that she was seeing something special.

"VH1 has been trying to get the video of it from us for years," Smith says. "We still can't find it."

The inspiration for the series came from coffeehouses Smith organized as a student in New Haven. When Live Arts was looking for ways to pay rent and build audiences in its early days, Smith, then the theater's artistic director, guessed that it might work here.

It was a good guess.

Smith has never been a stranger to theatrical innovation, though. Before the first Coffeehouse was a twinkle in her eye, she was shaking up the Charlottesville theater world with Live Arts' debut production of Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit. It's not every theater that introduces itself to the community with a French existentialist drama about life in hell.

The production starred Lisa Newman, the late Dan Scott, and the late Mary Morris Brookman. The audience sat on folding chairs before a nearly bare stage with improvised lighting.

"I wanted to set the tone for the kind of theater we were going to be," Smith says. "I had no idea how it would be received."

Better than anyone could have imagined.

"People just bought it," she laughs. "We were shocked."

No one, least of all Smith, anticipated how far Live Arts would come from its humble beginnings. Smith admits to being awed by the new $3.7 million Water Street space (which will also house Second Street Gallery and a youth film school). Gibson admits he doesn't know whether the Coffeehouse series will continue. Is this, then, the end of an era?

"In a way it is," Smith says, "but that's not a negative thing."

She smiles.

"It's all in a lifetime."

***

The new building better be ready by November 8. That's the date of the group's $200-per-person fundraising gala. Building cohort Second Street Gallery is even more optimistic about the construction schedule. Via its fall newsletter, the avant garde gallery has begun touting an October 31 opening ceremony– complete with a procession from the old McGuffey building.

As for the old Live Arts spacein what's called the Old Michie building– owner Gabe Silverman says he has received a serious inquiry from yet-to-be-disclosed group that wants to create a music venue.

"It's all set up," says Silverman. "It's got the HVAC, the bathrooms, the space– and the sound doesn't bother anybody."

Silverman says he is in the process of condo-izing the Old Michie complex.


The new building.

PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO


The cast of "Coffeehouse 13" doesn't seem
too sad.
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO

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