A Murder Mystery That Makes Headlines…and Creates Other New Wrinkles

Review by Carol Butler

We sit at round tables instead of the usual rows of seats at The Warehouse of Performing Arts Center in Cornelius on Friday, May 17.  Our names appear on reservation cards; life preservers hang on the wall.  It is clear we are passengers on the ship, Legendary Carnival, and it is clear that when Detective Tery (Della Freedman) enters in a trench coat, hands filled with papers and clippings, announcing the murder of cruise director, Sunny Sails, no one is going anywhere until we figure out “WHODUNIT?”  Death Ahoy is under way.

Attending a Murder Mystery means having interaction with actors who represent suspects. The Warehouse of Performing Arts Center, which Marla Brown opened in 2010, offers up close and personal space for About Town Tours, the company which has produced Murder Mysteries since 2002. Death Ahoy creates a believable atmosphere for audience members turned “people on a cruise ship.”  The detective/actor orchestrates the scenario.  And don’t worry that as an audience member you will have to perform. All of that is left to the actors. The audience gets the fun part of simply asking questions.  

Each table is handed a sheet of clues, background information on the five suspects, and cruise ship news clippings.  Detective Tery needs our help, and in order to be good investigators we need to question each suspect.  They cannot lie.  Personally, I take a pad out to scribble notes and questions and to record their responses.  Quickly we read and share the 16 clues we are given full of coincidences, gossip, occupations of the suspects, an investigative report fact sheet, plus comments and observations from other passengers concerning Sunny Sails.  We specify.

We understand all suspects had interacted with Sunny, who helped put on special events involving four of the suspects.  Was it travel agent, Lou Cruise (Hugh Loomis), gemologist Becky Messer (Kelly Ogden), billionaire real estate tycoon Rhoda Blogger (Heather Love), seminar presenter Molly Rotter (Lee Riley) or poker chip collector and gambler, Harv Carver (Miller Carbon)?  Who wanted Sunny dead?  Why?  And who had the means and the opportunity?  We clarify.

Then, enter the actors (interactive people). One by one each suspect delivers a monologue, table to table, and that is when we can interrogate them, asking them where they were at the time of the murder and their relationship with Sunny.  We also ask them to speculate about an unidentified object found beside Sunny.  (By the way, there’s never a body in the room. The murder precedes the performance.) We intensify.

My table decides we are going to solve the murder.  The suspects easily ad lib their answers keeping in character and providing amusing moments to questions, not delaying or stuttering in a response. We modify

There is a break, and then we are allowed follow-up questions. We identify.

Della Freedman, who studied acting in NYC and has experience as an event planner, created About Town Tours, so she knows how to entice with intrigue whether it’s done in theatres, for corporate entertainment, or private parties.  Most of her actors have been with her for over six years and all have been professionally trained, which was apparent in their improvisations at numerous tables. 

Marla Brown, Executive Director of The Warehouse of Performing Arts Center, created the nuance of being aboard a ship, even pouring complimentary drinks for everyone as we deliberated our conclusions, which changed as many times as there were suspects.  Amazing how everyone can so subtly appear guilty.  Amazing how my table chooses the wrong suspect.  Amazing how fast an hour and a half disappear.

As has become the norm at The Warehouse of Performing Arts Center,you can expect to be treated as a valued guest, enjoy an intimate connection with performers in a black-box venue, and leave knowing you have been engaged in a memorable and creative experience.

About Town Tours will always have some body, somewhere, and they’ll want you to solve the case. Get the proof, find the truth, when you sleuth with a Murder Mystery by About Town Tours.

Amy Bagwell: Bringing Poetry to the People By Tyler Ferneyhough

Above the Dandelion Market in Uptown Charlotte towers a poem painted white on a black brick wall in foot-high font. “Salute,” it’s titled, by A.R. Ammons, wishing only that happiness pursue you. Whether you’re a slick-haired banker or a blue-collared worker, the mural’s hard to miss. And for Amy Bagwell, director of The Wall Poems of Charlotte project, that’s the whole point.

Between teaching classes, producing art by day, and writing poetry by night, Bagwell stays busy. The completion of “Salute” this past April marks the WPC project’s first official mural, one that features a North Carolina poet — the first, they hope, of many. For Amy, the project embodies her core philosophy: bring poetry to as many people as possible through accessible and democratic presentation.

“It’s a choice,” she says, “but it’s there if you want it. It’s the same thing as presenting them in a gallery. If you start reading one and you’re not interested, you can move on to the next one. But if you like one, you can re-read it again and again, which you can’t do at a poetry reading.”

Kenn Compton, who works on the project’s advisory board, says via email, “The most exciting aspect of this project is to see the students connect with poetry, with working on a large scale, with working on something that is both very real and so much bigger than themselves.”

Poetry infuses Bagwell’s life. She got her undergraduate degree in English at the University of Georgia, where she met her husband, Brent, a musician. Together they had a son, Charlie, who they home-school. After graduating, she worked in publishing in New York City and then as a freelance writer for years before going back to graduate school at Queens University in Charlotte in 2007. In August 2010, she started teaching at CPCC and has been there since.

Her new exhibit, “The Factories Don’t Install Emotion Tapes,” fuses words with sculpture to make poetry more accessible. One poem is labeled on a glass jar filled with blue light bulbs; another undulates across an old wooden radio like sound waves; another hides in a wooden chest, visible only through a peephole on the edge. One piece that catches the eye is “Down to a Whisper,” an open chest with a map across the bottom. A metal tornado twists along the map’s top ridge, and on the bottom left a ballerina doll lies stiffly next to Columbus, Ohio, Amy’s home town. There’s a mirror on the lid’s underside, and beside it a poem narrates a tornado chasing a woman.

One thing this piece has in common with the others is accessibility.  “Poetry is way too rarified,” she says. Like jazz, it started out as the people’s art form, but now academia has co-opted it, reserving it for people with advanced degrees. “Everyone deserves access to it,” she says, “so wherever poetry can be, I think that we should put it because we can change people’s lives and we can give them a sense that we’re not alone in the world.”

Currently housed in Ross Gallery I on the CPCC campus, the exhibit runs through June 13. Not surprisingly, it’s been a long time coming.

Bagwell wrote her first poem when she was in the third grade, “and I kinda just got bitten,” she says. “I mean, I think I tried to deny it a lot. I was going to be a lawyer, but I just kept coming back to English classes in college and that was all I wanted to do.” She’s tried writing fiction in the past, but found her mind doesn’t work that way. She prefers language at its most condensed. One of her favorite poets is Robert Creeley, who she loves for his “minimal” and “tight” poems. “I’m kind of obsessed with him,” she admits, and applies this minimalist approach to her own writing. “It’s a process that you just keep at until you feel like it’s as tight as it can be, you know what I mean? So, I guess my goal with poems is to get as close to these sort of ‘moon rocks’ as possible because they have this density and right shape.”

But these “moon rocks” don’t have to exist only on paper. Amy says they can also exist on film as movie trailers, and that the best ones almost make watching the actual movie unnecessary. “You’ve gotten these perfect ideas about the people and the places and the interactions and the feelings, and the music has this particular feel,” she says. “Those trailers are like really great poems. They give you this impression and they give [you this] sense of the story, and it’s almost better if you don’t see the movie because the trailers do such a good job of capturing it.” She says though you don’t get every detail or the full story, you get snapshots that tell the story. “Looking at 10 great pictures from someone’s vacation is almost better than hearing them talk about it for an hour and a half, you know?” she says. “And that’s part of what poetry can do, is to give these wonderful glimpses that [provide] you a wonderful perspective on what the whole story is in this very distilled, reduced form.”

For Amy, a poem always starts with an image. She recalls one of her former teachers who told her that poetry started with “an abiding image, something that’s been in your head that won’t go away that’s sort of clawing at you.” As a poet whose work is so boldly visual, she believes in the importance of imagery to convey meaning. But is it the only way? “Do I think that [imagery] is the only way meaning is conveyed? I don’t think so. I mean, you can have a wonderful narrative poem potentially without any imagery at all. But, what I think imagery does is it creates a connection for the reader.” She mentions her favorite writer Flannery O’Conner, who said that the writer tries to connect two points: one that’s very close to the reader and one that’s very distant. “And an image can do that really quickly,” she says.

But beyond a poem’s images, there’s its structure as well. Compton remembers when Bagwell came to one of his topography classes to discuss the latest wall poetry project. He says one of his students was having trouble understanding the poem they were working with, then Bagwell came in. “As usual, she brought doughnuts.” he says, “She always brings doughnuts.”

She showed the class the music video for the rap group N.W.A.’s “Straight Out of Compton” to demonstrate how poets use structure to create meaning. She used a video, not a poem. “We were mesmerized,” says Compton, “and ever since the students have been finding examples of enjambment on their own to bring to class. In that one short lesson she turned visual communicators into visual poets. It was a thing to behold.”

What does the future hold for Amy? The thought raises her lips to a soft smile and she looks away as if into a dream, nodding. “More of this,” she says, “More teaching, more art, more poems, more wall poems. That’s as far as I see right now. Just more of what I’m doing right now, I hope.”

Behind the Scenes of a Shining Star: One Stage Manager’s Life By Rhoda Lukens


James Ogden (photo by Otto Bubenicek)

In the world of theater, legend has it that the producer and director can leap tall buildings in a single bound, move faster than a silver bullet, and speak directly with God.  The stage manager, on the other hand, doesn’t leap tall buildings.  He simply lifts them up and walks under.  Silver bullets?  He catches them in his teeth and eats them.  And talking to God?  Well, he is God.

Based on this analogy, we can see that the stage manager is often a production’s real hero.  Yet many people outside the performing arts sector have never heard of this profession or what the job entails.  While the description can vary within different productions and companies, almost everyone agrees they are the unsung heroes of the performance, perfecting every detail behind the scenes so that the real stars can shine their brightest.

One Charlotte community professional familiar with this perspective is newcomer James Ogden, who joined North Carolina Dance Theatre as their stage manager last September.  “The more we are invisible, the more it works because that’s the magic of theater,” says Ogden.  “We work to bring everyone together to make one thing happen, and if you don’t notice, then I’ve done my job.”

Like many before him, Ogden’s love for the arts began at a young age and was cultivated by his father.  “When I was little, my dad would take me all around town to go see the free productions in the area,” he recalls.  In the second grade, that love was affirmed when he was given a chance to star in his school’s presentation of the children’s folktale, Tikki Tikki Tembo.  That early experience eventually grew to include immersion in theater and dance as well.

Ogden first became fascinated with backstage life during his high school years at the Cab Calloway School of the Arts in Delaware.  Unfortunately, much of the creative freedom he had there did not translate into the demands of his program at Point Park University in Pittsburgh.  Originally opting to focus on lighting design, he changed his major to technical theatre and then concentrated on stage management.

Now, in just his first year out of school, Ogden is enjoying considerable success with North Carolina Dance Theatre.  “I thought it was going to take me years out of college to get where I am, but I work hard and have been very fortunate,” he says.  “I’m here now, and the only place to go is up and to keep learning more.”

In a high stress job, mistakes are bound to happen.  But Ogden understands the remedy relies on learning from those mistakes and managing his response — an easy-going attitude that has served him well at times.  Ogden recalls the opening night of Nutcracker, one of his first big productions with North Carolina Dance Theatre, in which he brought the curtain down on the stage before the symphony conductor had a chance to come back out and take a bow.  “I couldn’t beat myself up the rest of the night over a mistake I couldn’t change,” he says.  “Next night, just don’t do it again.”

Edna Mae Berkey, Ogden’s senior coworker who previously held his position, believes his carefree personality directly contributes to his success on the job.  “The impression James gives is one of complete calm,” Berkey says.  “A lot of stage managers want you to believe they can handle anything, but James is different because he can actually handle it.”

Ogden, however, sees himself simply as one cog in each production’s collection of gears, albeit a central cog that is linked to all the others.  To him, the shows are a team effort, and his job would be insubstantial without everyone collaborating.  “If I just sat behind the TV and called the show but nobody did anything, then nothing would happen,” he says.  “Someone has to press ‘go,’ someone has to run this and that; then the star can shine.”

His recent work with North Carolina Dance Theatre’s Peter Pan is a keen reminder of this conviction.  The gravity-defying ballet was described by theCharlotte Observer’s theater critic as “an evening of unalloyed joy” in which the set pieces and actors flying on and off the stage drew amazement from the audience.  Ogden’s excitement surrounding this high-caliber production also came from the awe-inspiring scenery that, he proudly expressed, he and his team accomplished in a short time.  “To hear that applause for the scene changes on opening night was an amazing reward to get all that coordinated and put into place,” he says.

Apart from Ogden’s “teamwork” approach to management, the most unique trait among all effective stage managers is understanding the people they work with — an emotional intelligence that can’t always be taught.  Other than his technical duties, Ogden most often finds himself called on to be a cheerleader, psychiatrist, or just a listening ear.  “You can’t put anyone down for their artistic vision or say ‘No, that’s not gonna work,’” Ogden explains. “People put their creativity on the line, and it’s like sharing a bit of themselves.”

Perhaps during Shakespeare’s day, there would be no use for someone like a stage manager.  But as our world and the theater have become more technically advanced, these unsung heroes answer to many names as they shape and mold a production destined to astound the oblivious audience and heighten the feeling of the show.  “For me it’s always going to be a starring position,” Ogden says.  “But even within our field, we don’t really want that attention.”

From Hunger Games to Homeland, Charlotte Locals Work as Extras By Haley Twist

“Run like hell!” someone screams, inspiring pedestrians and shoppers to run for their lives outside the TCL Chinese Theater on the historic Hollywood Walk of Fame. Groups of men and women dart pell-mell down the street past a traffic jam of cars and buses. But it’s too late: some people are thrown through the sky, while others melt and vaporize into thin air.

“Cut!” yells the assistant director of Iron Man 3, putting an instant halt to the pandemonium. These busy streets of Hollywood are actually the Iron Man 3 film set, and the pedestrians are standing in a huge green room where the filmmakers can later use computer-generated imagery (CGI) to add cinematic special effects.

Among the pedestrians is Lewis Herman, movie extra by day and J. Murrey Atkins Library information desk employee at UNC-Charlotte by night, hired as an extra for the scene. His job when the cameras start rolling is to quickly run in a predetermined direction until someone calls “cut.” When he hears this, he walks back to his mark and waits for “action!” to be called, alert and ready to shoot the scene many times more.

“The scene’s not done until they say ‘checking the gate,’” Herman says, who first began taking extra calls in 80s. “Usually there’s a long break while the cameras are moved and set up again.”

Like the other extras, Herman’s given specific instructions about how to act and when. In between takes, the extras wait — and wait…and wait…and wait — while equipment moves around, gaffers gaffe, actors re-think their motivation and writers’ re-write. In the life of an extra, there’s a whole lot of ‘hurry up and wait.’

In recent years, Charlotte and surrounding areas have become increasingly popular film locales. From older films like Steve Rash’s 1996 comedy Eddie and Peter Farrelly’s 2001 romantic comedy Shallow Hal, to the more recent Gary Ross novel adaptation The Hunger Games and the Showtime Emmy award-winning series Homeland, Charlotte is being featured more frequently on the big (and little) screen. This gives local movie or television buffs the chance to see the action first-hand — and sometimes even get paid for it.

Often called “the background,” “the atmosphere” or “the non-principal performers,” film and television extras have a unique job that differs on every set. From long days consisting of minimal work to short days filled with tedious activity, an extra’s point of view is unlike that of any other position on set.

“Each set is different,” said Richard Poplin, a recent UNC-Charlotte graduate who frequently appears on locally filmed television shows. “Each time you go, it’s something different because we are always shooting different things, from raves to being a cop. You never know what you are going to get.”

Whether it’s a vaporized pedestrian, a high-class businessman, an concert-goer or an Amish countryman, extras get the chance to wear many masks.

“It was a lot of things: terrifying, ego-squelching, boring, exhausting, and, yeah, kind of fun,” MSNBC.com contributor Kim Foreman wrote about her experiences as an extra on the set of Ugly Betty. “You get to go behind the scenes, get into secret places and see and do things that are normally off-limits. And when you see yourself on TV you jump up and down shrieking ecstatically and then show your friends the tape.”

Herman has similar feelings about appearing as an extra, but says the possibility of seeing himself on-screen never gets old. His Facebook cover photo even features a still of him appearing in The Hunger Games, made-up to look like a high-class member of the fictional Panem society and experiencing his own taste of stardom.

But the process to appear on the big screen is a long one, and it all begins with finding the gigs.

“Facebook is a great resource for finding these opportunities,” said Kayla Turner, a junior film studies student at UNC-Wilmington, who appears in multiple television shows shot regionally, including the CW’s One Tree Hill and Showtime’s Homeland. Turner adds that the local newspaper also lists which productions are in need of extras or stand-ins that are filming in town.  Another source is  the online film commission (website) and, of course, Google. But maybe the best resource of all is Tona B. Dahlquist, a casting agent who manages Charlotte-area productions as well as others in the southeast.

“(She) basically does all the casting for everything in the Charlotte area, so once you work for her one time on any set, and are reliable, you can pretty much count on working every project she has at least once,” says Poplin, who’s used social media to find casting opportunities like the The Hunger GamesHomelandand Cinemax’s Banshee.

Once added into her Facebook groups, which are often disguised as code words for larger, more well-known projects, extras have access to casting information and opportunities for surrounding area productions, including those in Charlotte, Gastonia, Wilmington and Atlanta.

Anyone interested in available casting opportunities can apply as long as they fit the criteria the filmmakers are requesting. That can range from “looking for a set of sisters ages 4-7” to “seeking women with an exceptionally unique derriere.” After an application is submitted and approved, the extras simply wait for the call sheet, which provides the where and when.

Once on set, which could be a studio, sound stage, green room or an outside location, extras are given their instructions for the day. Depending on the scale of the production and what the extras are playing, some have to bring their own clothing. But if it’s a larger or more specialized production, hair and makeup is often provided for the extras.

“One of the weirdest things was having to wear so much make-up during The Hunger Games,” said Poplin, who sported a teal toupee during the filming of the movie.

From there, the waiting game between takes begins. While some extras use the time to socialize and eat, others bring their own activities to keep them occupied, like their books, Nooks or crossword puzzles.

“A lot of people bring books or have their iPads, or even on the last set I was on, someone was knitting,” Poplin said. “Also, it’s not a bad idea to close your eyes and rest them for a few, considering most [shoots] are at least 12 hours.”

With such a unique job also come unique rules. Extras never talk to the actors while filming as to not distract them (after all, no one wants to experience a Christian Bale-like freak out from an uber-serious actor). Another is to never look at the camera while it’s filming. Herman admits that it’s really tempting to look in the direction of the camera, but it’s something that with practice can – and should — be avoided.

“If you ignore it, you can act much more naturally,” said Herman, who once ruined a scene by accidentally looking into the camera while filming Eddie in the old Charlotte Coliseum. “They yelled out ‘cut!’ and they said ‘Somebody looked at the camera and we have to do that over again.’”

While many extras first get involved in the business because of a passion for film, production or acting, the hard work and long hours earns them at least a little more than just experience. In Charlotte-area filming, the pay rate is usually $7.50 for the first eight hours, and then time-and-a-half for every hour worked after that.

“However, they also feed you and there are times where out of eight hours you might work two, so even though the pay is almost minimum wage, you still have a good chance to make a few dollars,” said Poplin, who has been using the money earned on film sets to sustain him during post-graduation life.

According to Herman, it’s possible to make a larger amount of money for contributing something additional that the production team is looking for, including smoking, biking and even nudity, the latter often paying a couple hundred dollars per day. If you’re able to land a speaking role, you may eventually be eligible for a SAG (Screen Actors Guild) card, which could result in massive pay raises.

Many extras who prove they’re hardworking can even be called back on set for re-shoots, which occur when the director is not happy with the primary footage. That chaotic Iron Man 3 scene, shot in Wilmington, is a re-shoot of the original scene shot last June on a Wilmington sound stage.

“I like re-shoots because we’re more likely to be seen in the final picture,” said Herman, who traveled to Wilmington to appear in both the original scene and the re-shoot. Herman hopes that being an extra will eventually lead to a featured role, which would pay more, as it may or may not contain speaking and even lead to SAG card eligibility. Others are happy to continue as an extra for the mere experience, which can sometimes be more interesting than anticipated.

“I did make really good friends with this one actor (I won’t name who) and he turned out to be really inappropriate in his conversations with me and wanted to fly me out to L.A.,” said Turner. “I stopped talking to him, to say the least.”

Cloudburst, A Romantic Comedy Between Two Elderly Women, Is A Must See Review by Carol Butler

How far would you be willing to go to save your family?  Oscar award-winning actors Olympia Dukakis (Moonstruck) and Brenda Fricker, (My Left Foot) star in the award-winning movie Cloudburst, which played  on April 27 for one night at Theatre Charlotte as one of the seven films comprising the 5th Annual GayCharlotte Film Festival.

Two elderly women, Stella (Dukakis) and Dot (Fricker), who have lived together for 31years in a small cottage by the sea in Maine, are deceptively separated from each other when Dot’s granddaughter Molly puts Dot in a nursing home because she feels Stella is not capable of caring for her any longer.  Molly is clueless about their relationship, which is hard to swallow.  Although Dot has been blind for many years, Stella handles it with aplomb.  Stella is a feisty butch woman who swears like a sailor, wears a tattered cowboy hat, and drinks too much tequila. Her acerbic remarks and confrontations evoke most of the humor in this film.  Dot, in contrast, is sweet, plump, speaks with an Irish accent, has soft curly white hair and comes across initially as a passive grandmotherly type. Stella cleverly steals (rescues) Dot and they set out on the lam to Nova Scotia, where they understand same-sex marriage is legal.  On the way they pick up a hitchhiker, Prentice, played by handsome newcomer Ryan Doucette, to help them cross the Canadian border and not be suspect.  Prentice is a young naive country male turned modern dancer who is making his way to his sick mother. 

The chemistry of the actors and the clever dialogue interactions brought the audience to laughter and tears.  At one point Stella is knocking a naked man off her windshield; at another, Dot accidentally lies in a bed next to a naked man, and the ensuing scramble to escape each other results in one of the most explicit and comedic moments in the film. Strong characters (and strong expletives) and the clear struggles just to be themselves, connect to the audience with a resonance that transcends whether someone is gay, lesbian, transgendered or straight…it is about universal love and the struggle to find your way and place in the world.

The heroic quest to stay together and what the characters endure along the way is something most everyone can identify with, which is why there’s been little controversy about this movie, according to its writer and director, Thom Fitzgerald.  It isn’t focused on the lesbian aspect, which appears incidental, but the recognition of the moving, profound love of an octogenarian couple trying to stay out of a nursing home and remain together.  The journey is cinematically gorgeous and expansive as they travel from New England to Canada, much like their relationship, which evolves in the openness and beauty of the scenery.  The music, “My Love, My Love” and “Takeoff” by Jay Brannan, added a lyrical, offbeat, warm and fuzzy presence.

It’s hard to limit the genre as a dramedy, because it is a road comedy, a bawdy comedy at times, a love story, and an action adventure.  Cloudburst was first written as a play in 2010 and debuted in Halifax at Plutonium Playhouse, winning the 2011 Merritt Award for Best New Play.  The film adaptation struggled to get funding, was postponed twice, and later there were distribution problems in the US. The Canadians ended up producing it and premiering it in 2011.  Dukakis commented in an interview that “when you consider that the biggest audience for film is young men aged 17-28 and that Hollywood, like all businesses, cares about making money, then you understand it’s not a morality thing, it’s a market thing.  (Hollywood) is not a group of concerned citizens.  It’s called capitalism.” Cloudburst and its actors have won more than 35 awards, including numerous People’s Choice, Best Feature, Best Film, and Best Screenplay, from around the world. 

This was the first starring role for Olympia Dukakis, and she’s a hero. This film makes a connection to the audience.  As the name of the movie may imply, circumstances and other people may rain on your parade, but there are some people in your life worth protecting and fighting for.  Here’s to not ever having to be defensive about yourself.  As Stella said, “Take it from an old broad…If you’re ever lucky enough to have a perfect day, don’t let go of it, bank it, paint a picture of it.”  Cloudburst seems to be one of those perfect moments in time when you realize you’ve been touched by great love.

Official movie trailer:


Spring Is Sprung With Sensoria Nights: Joe Sample at Halton By Aaron Sanders

Sitting straight-backed, jaw rigid, presiding over the glistening white keyboard of the looks-like-new Steinway concert grand piano, the legendary jazz innovator and master pianist, Joseph “Joe” Sample, and his Trio performed in concert Friday, April 19, as part of Central Piedmont Community College’s Sensoria Festival and the Sensoria Nights series at the Dale F. Halton Theater.  Spinning amazing stories about his life and the world of music that inspired each song, Sample talked about the birth of the “Jazz Crusaders” (Sample was one of the founders and a long-time staple), the indulgent yet heroic name tagged to his band during the recording of “Freedom Song” at Pacific Jazz Records in 1961’s Los Angeles, and then much to the delight of the crowd packed into this 1,020 seat venue, added several insightful career and family anecdotes throughout the evening.

Over a half-century after the birth of the Jazz Crusaders, Sample is still leading the charge begun in his early years in the 1950s with the formation of the Swingsters, a group of teenagers that included Sample, saxist Wilton Felder, and drummer Stix Hooper.  “We clicked in a Southern kind of way,” he said, “We locked-in and stayed locked. Those early gigs were root gigs.”  The crowd got a a good chuckle out of that one. The history lesson given by the 74-year-old East Texan was well received by everyone. East Texas formed who he was as a musician and how he felt music, the master jazzman said, and he realized that his musical soul was entrenched in that region.

To start the proceedings, Sample entered the massive 2,500 square foot stage from curtain left, and slowly, like a veteran marquee talent, sat and charged straight-ahead, no chaser into “Hipping The Hop,” a co-recording from George Benson’s Absolute Benson cd.  Sample’s touch came purely from his fingers, without any need to exert the full body on the keys.  All of a sudden the Halton Theater was filled with warm acoustic tones, gentle melodies and thoughtful improvisation that slowly percolated with spry enthusiasm from the crowd.  Next, Sample played tribute to Southern culture with the emancipative-toned “Freedom Song.”  In keeping with the pianist’s Southern connections the breezy 90s classic is a blending of inventive jazz and get-down Rhythm & Blues. The tune was originally recorded by Sample, who while actively touring as a member of the Crusaders, simultaneously launched a successful solo career.

With “Spellbound” the pianist played soulfully on his instrument, but it was the swing and sweat of the concert hall, not of smoke-filled, noisy nightclubs.  His piano style, bridging the gap between gospel, Rhythm & Blues and stride, made a spirited “Spellbound” perfect for easy listening, yet invigorating.  The march continued through to his worldwide hit “Street Life,” which garnered shouts of enthusiasm from the crowd, with fans filling in lyrics immortalized on the original release by jazz songstress Randy Crawford.  Through the initial four opening pieces, his approach to melody put his solos in touch with complexities of feeling, which the audience seemed to appreciate just as much as the musicians themselves.

Joining Sample at the center of the stage was drummer Joel Taylor.  The Berklee College of Music product’s drum selection was advanced, with some creative cymbal work that constantly added lingering ambience to the rhythms and was fun to listen to.  On five-string electronic upright bass was Nicklas Sample, wearing (unlike the casual dress worn by his father and Joel Taylor) a long-sleeved shirt and tie ensemble, accessorized by a “Hubie” Blake looking black derby.   During one of his many stories, Sample recalled how the Jazz Crusaders were constantly challenged by the absence of a true bassist in the group.  Nicklas Sample can swing, clearly bringing no nonsense into his playing, but indulging occasionally in improvisational straight-ahead phrasing.  In the hands of the veteran Sample, through hand cues and chord changes, the trio was well piloted.

A good thirty minutes into his performance, Sample began a solo with deep piano striding, a classical treatment in tone, and heavy cymbal work in the piece “Django,” composed and first released in 1956 by the Modern Jazz Quartet pianist and composer John Aaron Lewis.  Lewis was also part of the 1957 Miles Davis Birth of the Cool sessions.  It was one of Lewis’ best known compositions, written in memory of the Belgian Gypsy jazz guitarist Jean “Django” Reinhardt (1910-1953). 

Headed down the main stretch, which began with “Street Life,” the song selections through the night highlighted some of Sample’s most popular and crowd pleasing pieces, including “Soley Creole” from his Old Faces, Old Places 1996 album; Invitation’s “Stormy Weather”; “Snowflake,” the Crusaders’ meteoric, up-tempo jazz tune; “Images” the 1979 album title song; and “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good To You,” the 1929 song written by Andy Razaf plus Don Redman and later popularized by the King Cole Trio. The joie de vivre, “Carmel” the title cut from Sample’s largest selling album closed out the proceedings.

The first act, hailing from Charleston, SC, took good advantage of their opportunity. Opening for Sample (45 minutes) was a good break for the Charlton Singleton Quintet.  Their arrangement of Grover Washington’s colossal hit “Mister Magic” was not quite in keeping with the original; but surprisingly, it was inventive and impressionistic, with thoughtful interludes between Charlton Singleton on trumpet and Mark Sterbank on saxophone.

Favelas: Architecture of Survival Photo Exhibit Shows Signs of Light and Life by Stacy Campbell Remy

Favelas: Architecture of Survival will be on display at the UNC Center City Projective Eye Gallery through May 30. Gallery hours: Sunday through Monday 9am-9pm.                                                                         

Pedro Lobo is the photographer whose work reveals images of “favelas” or “shantytowns” in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the nation’s former capital prior to the creation of Brasilia for that purpose in 1960. According to the research of Mark Long, exhibition curator and associate professor of political science at College of Charleston, an estimated 50 million people living in Rio, or one in five, inhabit a favela. At the exhibit in the Projective Eye Gallery at UNC Charlotte Center City, we learn that the favelas were begun more than a century ago, both by soldiers awaiting their paychecks and by recently freed, yet ill-equipped slaves who migrated to the city in search of opportunity.

In spite of the somber surface conditions of this “architecture of survival,” Lobo shows us, through his incredibly detailed and textured archival inkjet prints, a beauty and artistry in the designs of the neighborhoods and communities and how hope appears to be always within reach. His use of color and texture (including wood grains, tiles, fabric, and nature) presents an aesthetic view of the favelas. The deep-focus technique is intentional and ensures that all of the photo’s elements, from the foreground to the background, are in focus. Always just beyond, mixed in, or even hidden in the photos, we see clear glimpses of delight for the senses – city panoramas, mountains, oceans, sky in various compelling shades of blue, even tropical fruits and juice; all of these are glimmers of  hope for people often languishing in life in these photos.  When we peer into the world of these photos, we often see light – real, artificial, and reflected in unexpected places.

Artistic design elements through tiles (in the forms of bricklaying, staircases in mosaic form, and tin roof tiles reminiscent of Mediterranean skylines), brightly painted shutters, and delicate iron scrollwork all recall an appreciation of design. Even an Oriental rug or a fabric- flowered shirt on a clothesline brings artistry to the everyday, revealing the presence of creativity and beauty.

In this exhibit we are indeed invited into the homes – the lives – of the favela-dwellers. As the exhibit begins, we are greeted at the door and finally, in “Rio das Pedras 10,” the last photo in the exhibit, we experience the tidy kitchen with its brightly-colored tablecloth and hand-painted pottery. Despite having limited financial means, it is clear that the inhabitants of the favelas have taken time and effort to create functional, yet cozy environments in which to live their earthly lives with dignity, grace, beauty, and comfort when possible. Through Favelas: Architecture of Survival, which contains 48 large format photos in all, Lobo finds and shares hope, light, and beauty as he draw spectators, and our hearts, into this world. 

In our world, according to city-data.com, the average median family income in Charlotte was approximately $50,000 in 2009, with that of outlying suburban areas generally higher. Given the economy since then, those figures may have changed slightly for some, drastically, maybe, for others. Regardless of where one lives in the Charlotte metro area today, it would seem that anyone who can afford to buy a daily newspaper, let alone subscribe to online publications, may not be able to relate easily to the plight of living in such villages as are depicted in the Favelas: Architecture of Survival exhibit.  We may understand the hardship on a surface level- some may even feel the need to throw money at it and then look the other way, at least feeling good about themselves and their contribution (and being sure to tell the neighbors about their charity, all the while). For people whose decisions and actions through policy and/or procedure  can and do affect the daily living experience of other human beings (and thus make a difference),  I can’t help but wonder what reaction a similar exhibit depicting life in Charlotte’s high-poverty areas would provoke.  What would such photos about Charlotte reveal?

And the signs said, the words of the prophets

 are written on the subway walls

And tenement halls.

 -Paul Simon, from “The Sound of Silence,” copyright 1964

Charlotte Symphony Orchestra KNIGHTSOUNDS is a 21st-Century Class Act Review by Carol Butler

The cool is back in classical music thanks to the third and final 2013 KnightSounds series, performed by the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra Friday, April 19 at the Knight Theater.  Unlike the regular season’s offerings, KnightSounds is designed to appeal to a more contemporary audience of classical music; the young and the young at heart.  Five of the seven composers on the April 19 program are still alive, and three are under 40 years of age.

International conductor Jacomo Rafael Bairos kicked off the night of American Music Masters and Pioneers with Adam Schoenberg’s Rondo.  Imagine music that makes you feel as if you were flying through the Grand Canyon.  Schoenberg wrote that his intent is to capture strong beats that emulate popular music with a good part for everyone in the orchestra.  Rondo was written to be an inspirational piece that captured the energy of the presidential election of 2008.

Composer Paul Dooley took the stage and was introduced before his piece.  “The Charlotte Symphony Orchestra will now play music,” Bairos explained, “not meant for humans to play.”  Point Blank was composed on a computer in 2012.  On this concert, electronic sounds were simulated by real people and instruments.  Immediately I felt immersed in a James Bond chase scene, horns holding long notes, drums rolling, and piccolos having a panic attack of interjections.  Suspense intervals were dramatized by bass players slicing their strings like a desperate scratch, ending with violins picking their highest notes like pulling fleas off a dog. Musically jarring.

 A laptop musician plays into speakers along with the orchestra for the Mason Bates composition, Warehouse Medicine from the B Sides, written in 2009.  A brief computer glitch was handled by Bairos who shrugged and laughed, “Technology!” 

 And then there was the popular and energizing principal timpanist Leonardo Soto, clearly a timpani virtuoso.  A second set of six kettledrums wrapped around Soto front of stage.  Michael Daugherty’s 2003, Raise the Roof, flies at a frantic pace with deep oboes, tentative flutes, high violins and rolling drums, with Soto switching between differently sized mallets, his hands, and brushes.  Layered sets of instruments, crescendos, the timpani lit up from within and without with green and red lights, all made meme think of a giant 1970’s color organ.  A Morse code of speed and rhythmic punctuation peppers the air.

Aaron Copland wanted to create the sound of being an American, so of course he went to a Mexican cabana, where he was inspired to compose its namesake, El Salon Mexico, completed in 1936.Woodblock domination, along with discordant “drunken” notes certainly suggested a raucous bar atmosphere.  Dramatically louder violas, kettle accents and the plaintive moaning of a single clarinet suggest an intimate encounter.

John Adams, who by the way is friends with Michael Daugherty - camaraderie among composers, had a terrifying ride in a Lamborghini with his ex-wife’s brother for over six minutes.  Inspiration from the kinetic energy and terror became Short Ride in a Fast Machine.  It begins with trumpets escalating as if it was a ceremonial introduction with layers of shrill flutes and piccolos.  A loud woodblock, violins that underscore suspense and danger with faster, and progressively louder notes that suddenly burst off-key suddenly skidded to an abrupt stop.

George Gershwin’s An American in Paris, written in 1928, was the finale. Despite dying at age 38 from a brain tumor in 1937, Gershwin left a prolific body of work.  French horns were muted by a wah-wah, delicate sounds stood alone, busy activity was captured in running tempo as if dancers were running through woods chased by laughing drums, then tension, and an ending with a triumphant loud thump!

There was an interactive tweet section meant to share the KnightSounds outside the theater.  Not sure what descriptive words could be succinctly conveyed other than “wow,” because I feel those tuned into the show would not have wanted to interrupt their enjoyment with that distraction.  Although QR codes were beside each composer on the program, it seemed counterintuitive since we have all been trained to make sure our phones are off at performances.  Loved the pre-show drinks, catered chicken and steak on a stick - read, no sticky fingers.  The DJ led party in the lobby after the performance let everyone leave Knight Theater on a second high note.

The Charlotte Symphony Orchestra can expect people to be holding onto their seats when the next series of KnightSounds kicks off in October followed by 3 more concerts January, March and May 2014.  All except the Ansel Adams: America concert in May will also be performed as noontime matinees.  Every night should be a good night with KnightSounds.


Fire Pink concert blends Degas, Debussy and technology - Intimate performance at the Bechtler makes a strong impression among Impressionist masterworks By Beth Bargar

Claude Debussy and Edgar Degas served up the main course, Charlotte native Dan Locklair provided the sublime dessert, and Fire Pink Trio demonstrated its mastery of harp, viola and flute in the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art’s Music and Museum series. Music, visuals and lectures came together in the April 9 concert, which fit the theme of the 2013 Ulysses Festival: “Brave New Worlds: Technology & Art.”
Debussy’s sonata and Degas’ renderings of ballerinas and bathing nudes combined with the trio’s passionate performance to energize the standing-room-only audience.

The trio’s physical interactions with their instruments played upon Degas’ mastery of the movements of dancers. Debra Reuter-Pivetta bobbed with her flute; violist Sheila Browne swayed while bowing and plucking; Jacquelyn Bartlett embraced her harp as she plucked and strummed the 47 strings of her seven-pedal instrument. During Locklair’s “Dream Steps,” Bartlett knocked insistently on the harp’s soundboard, as if she were a minstrel begging entrance to a castle.

The 60-person audience listened intently to hear Bechtler vice-president Christopher Lawing’s comments on the music and projected images. Benjamin Roe, formerly general manager of WDAV-FM in Davidson and now at Boston’s WGBH, added informed explanations between pieces.

Elements of this multi-media presentation blended seamlessly to provide an enjoyable, interactive experience for the audience in the intimate, softly lit gallery. (The butt-numbing wooden folding seats aren’t bad for a one-hour concert, but getting a supposedly available cushion wouldn’t hurt.)

The concert began with Debussy’s sonata, the second of six he planned before dying in 1918 and the first significant one for that combination. The trio’s artful playing illuminated Debussy’s piece, intertwining serenity with lilting joy, longing with the sensual passions of spring. Degas’s depictions of physicality, from the quiet calmness of his bathing nudes to his athletic ballerinas, seemed to be echoed in the rhythmic minuet of the sonata’s central movement. (Even the trio’s name, taken from a spring-blooming mountain wildflower, evoked Degas’ passion for the bright yet soft colors of Impressionism.)

After the enchanting Elegiac Trio by Englishman Arnold Bax recalled the fey wildness of Ireland, Fire Pink turned to the concert’s concluding work: Locklair’s “Dream Steps,” which the former trombonist for the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra wrote for a trio and two dancers in a Raleigh art gallery. The work evokes the late 19th-century Paris of Degas’ paintings in its five movements, with its pulsing, recurring themes for flute, viola and harp.

Can you handle the raised bar of ‘Spin’? Show about 19th-century cyclist makes us think anew about women’s roles and rights By Carol Butler

There’s a price you pay when you let others tell you what you cannot do. There’s also a prize when you don’t let them. Toronto artist Evalyn Parry was inspired by three women in the late 1800s to make sure she lived her life her way. The result is “Spin,” a performance starring Parry and a two-wheeled bicycle on a large tripod.

“Spin,” which played Batte Center at Wingate University on April 5, incorporates what has come to be called digital theater, but this performance cannot be so easily categorized.

Parry introduces us to Annie Londonderry, the first woman to bicycle around the world. Londonderry did so to win a $20,000 bet; she set out at 23, virtually penniless and prepared to leave her husband and three children for more than a year. She dumped her skirts for pants and switched from a 42-pound woman’s bike to a 21-pound man’s bike. She earned money innovatively along the way, having her photo taken with others and selling creative travel stories as she went from city to city.

Parry illustrates her journey with a video projection showing women in 1895, cycling in petticoats because that was how a “lady” rode. She tells stories of women finding their voices, their freedom (particularly from skirts) and mobility by electing to ride these “iron horses.”

Parry sings, plays musical instruments, recites poetry, acts out roles and meshes with fellow musician Brad Hart. He plays (literally plays) a bicycle as a percussionist instrument, enhanced by electronic amplification. He uses a violin bow through the spokes, plays the bike bell, gives rhythm to the flashing red-and-white bike lights, uses drum sticks to play fenders and chain and uses fingers to elicit unexpected sounds from the springs in the seat. Mesmerizing.

She seamlessly blends lyrical monologues. She becomes suffragist Frances Willard, who speaks of the bicycle as “an instrument of power for women.” She sings as Amelia Bloomer that, “to be free, a woman needs her legs, her political legs.” The one time Parry speaks as a man – a doctor who suggests it isn’t safe for women to ride bicycles, lest they “rattle the fertility out of their womb” – she holds a handlebar mustache on a stick up to her nose.

Parry draws a parallel between herself and Londonderry: Like the cyclist, she has bet on herself and has had to leave her family behind for a year to tour. She’s a musician, singer, playwright, actress, designer and her own publicist, because this is how she must be faithful to her talents. Parry is a driving force for women who choose something more, something better, something personal. Beyond the surface appeal of her myriad talents and entertaining music lies a depth of heart.

She proposes that the progress of women to vote, to be mobile, to be freed from the constraints of heavy skirts and corsets was due in no small measure to women who made a choice: to be true to one’s own compass and moral code, to persevere by doing what one set out to do. Women watching the engaging, transformative “Spin” may be inspired to recycle themselves: As Parry asks, who would you let say no to you?

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