Stepping into 375 Depot Street in the River Arts District of Asheville, there’s an odd, yet welcoming, energy in the air. You leave the busy sidewalk, only to navigate through the joyously decorated hallways until you enter The Magnetic Theatre.
“This is one of the loveliest black box theatres in the world,” Steven Samuels said. “It’s intimate. It’s spacious. It’s an inviting space, one people tend to walk into and be in awe of.”
Grabbing a seat on a nearby couch, Samuels, the artistic director at Magnetic, is as animated with his mannerisms as he is warm and jovial in conversation. This is a man who lives and breathes theatre. This is “the source,” one might say, when it comes to learning, appreciating, and participating in one of the great art forms and contributions by humanity to the universe.
“It’s the immediacy, the direct interaction with not only all the players, but with the audience that changes the show on any given night,” Samuels said. “Theatre has everything that any of the great narrative art forms has, where you get to tell stories filled with human beings, but here, it’s real and alive. We get to share our lives together, and that’s a pretty precious thing—gathering together and sharing an experience.”
“Theatre is one of the last democratic, public forums for ideas available to a community. It’s a handmade product, one from the soils of your own backyard.” —Steven Samuels
A Brooklyn native, Samuels found himself at the center of the theatre world as an adolescent running around Greenwich Village in the 1960s, starting small theatre companies and doing anything and everything to always keep one foot in the door of performance art. At that moment, Samuels was witnessing an explosion of creative freedom whose endlessly inspiring ripples can still be seen, felt, and heard to this day.
“It was ‘off-off Broadway,’ which was very intentional and delightful,’” Samuels said.
And it was around this time when Samuels “washed ashore” at the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, a pioneering and legendary avant-garde comic troupe in the heart of Greenwich Village. Operated by Charles Ludlam, Samuels found himself under the wing of the theatre icon, writing, designing, performing, and producing original works—an ideology that remained with Samuels when Magnetic came to fruition.
“I worked closely with Charles, who was such a profound force in theatre,” Samuels said. “And the Ridiculous became one of the world’s leading comic troupes of its kind.”
From 1967 to 1987, Ludlam and the Ridiculous garnered wide acclaim until his untimely passing. Samuels took his knowledge and experience from the Ridiculous and applied it to working with large-scale theatres in Washington, D.C. and around the country. But, after several years of being part of a big fundraising machine, where many-a-time artistic vision is traded for the perceived desires of the donors, Samuels decided it was time to get back to his roots. “What I had known at 16 is what I again realized later in life,” Samuels said. “And that was if I wanted to write and get my work on the stage, I’d have to start and run my own theatre again, dedicated to original works.”
Unsure of whether or not he was at the end of the line with theatre, Samuels had his internal antenna honed to the sky above, eager for some force of energy and creativity to strike him. With his wife’s family from nearby Morganton, Samuels visited Asheville one weekend and was sold. This was the place, the much-needed spark.
“I just fell in love with Asheville,” Samuels said. “There was this energy on this streets here that made no sense to me, this crackling energy that reminded me so much of Greenwich Village in the 1980s. And it made no sense. We had over a million people in Greenwich, but at that time in Asheville, there was only 75,000.”
That epiphany was a decade ago. In 2009, Samuels and his colleagues launched The Magnetic Theatre. Performing all original and locally-written works, the comic troupe performs upwards of 50 weekends a year, with sellouts and overwhelming enthusiasm from residents and visitors alike a common sight in the 99-person (give or take) black box stage.
“Theatre is one of the last democratic, public forums for ideas available to a community. It’s a handmade product, one from the soils of your own backyard. If you care about a voice of a place, that’s a very good reason to be supportive of a place like this,” Samuels said. “It’s hard to believe I get to be here, surrounded by these wildly talented actors, writers, and designers, all these people who share this vision. Nothing is more exciting than when the audience is as engaged in a performance as we are, and that happens with such frequency here.”
On stage at The Magnetic Theatre. Donated Photo.
This post is adapted from our annual Welcome to Western North Carolina magazine. Click here to read more online, or click here to order your own free copy. Learn more about The Magnetic Theatre at themagnetictheatre.org.