How this artistic director created a theater company straight out of college — in a new city

By Lawrence Toppman

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Robin Tynes at Duke Energy Theatre, where her Three Bone Theatre has produced work for five seasons. Photo from Charlotte Observer files

In the theater world, an ordinarily crazy person graduates from college and bolts to New York, living in a tiny apartment with irritating roommates and waiting on tables until discovered.

An extraordinarily crazy person creates a theater company in a new city where cultural start-ups often last as long as dandelions in a cyclone.

Robin Tynes went to Catawba College thinking she belonged in group 1. She came out with a B.A. in music theater and realized she was in group 2. She immediately moved to Charlotte in 2012, co-founded Three Bone Theatre with Carmen Bartlett and remains its artistic director.

“We started talking in college about artists taking responsibility for their work,” she says. “A small part of me wonders what New York would’ve been like, but I’m type-A: I wanted to get something going right away. I don’t think I’d have been comfortable with a starving artist’s life.”

A starving producer’s life? Not so bad. By day, she crunches data as Children’s Theatre of Charlotte’s systems and analytics manager. By night, weekend and in other waking moments, she pushes her own company forward with assistance from a small, loyal cadre of Bone-afides. (The company takes its name from Reba McEntire’s dictum that you need three things to succeed: A wish bone, a back bone and a funny bone.)

Three Bone launches its seventh season next week with the local premiere of “Appropriate,” a play about the strange racial history of an Arkansas family. Later this season, it’ll produce the winner of last year’s Tony for best play: “Oslo,” about back-channel talks and heroics that led to the 1993 peace accord between Israelis and Palestinians. That’s a remarkable catch for a small company operating in Duke Energy Theater.

The preceding paragraph tells you two things that make this company unique: Almost none of the plays have been done here – even on national tours – and all have some tie to social issues. Here’s a third: Three Bone takes a local organization as a partner on every play, from the teen-focused Possibility Project to HopeWay, a nonprofit mental health facility for adults.

Tynes’ love of culture and social awareness lie deep in her DNA: She grew up around Asheville and Black Mountain, where her parents (both visual artists) took her and her sister to marches as far off as Washington D.C. She had a teenage epiphany watching “Marisol,” a play by José Rivera, at UNC-Asheville. “It was the first time I saw theater that dealt with social issues but wasn’t preachy,” she recalls. Years later, she decided to form an ensemble to tell such stories.

It began at Upstage, the beloved but disheveled space in NoDa that housed countless performing groups. When the owners decided not to host theater any more, Tynes determined to survive the eviction.

But how? She hadn’t taken a single business class in college. Neither she nor Bartlett, who still takes an interest in the group, had fund-raising or management chops. Becky Schultz, who’d acted in “The Vagina Monologues” in season two, stepped in.

Schultz, now executive director, used her banking background to free Tynes to handle artistic chores. (Technical director Ryan Maloney and production manager Callie Richards complete the core quartet.)

“I was so impressed when she directed me by the respect she and Carmen had for the actors,” Schultz says. “They were well-organized, polished, respectful of our time. They had a vision of what they were trying to do and just had sparkles in their eyes. No one had told them they couldn’t do this, so they were doing it.

“I’d been embedded in a theater in Little Rock, but after I moved, no company in Charlotte felt like a place where I could put down roots. Three Bone was. At the same time, they knew that being completely unfamiliar with the business side was a weakness. They didn’t want to be a group of friends who put a play on whenever they could (raise money).”

Tynes proudly declares the company has never lost money on any of its 23 productions and pays actors and crew at least a little each time. Three Bone now partners with Blumenthal Performing Arts, which waives rental costs for Duke Energy Theater.

She’s proud of two other things not every artistic director can claim: The company never auditions for a pre-cast role just to see what actors can do, and she hires directors of different genders, races and sexual orientations who understand the material. “She realizes she’s a white female of privilege and believes anything she produces should be authentic,” says Schultz. “It’s humbling for artists to acknowledge they cannot tell a story best, but she does.”

People in theater productions often feel they belong to “families,” albeit dysfunctional ones where cousins can go years without seeing each other. Tynes aims for connectedness without contention: She worked with actress Tania Kelly for six months on the one-woman “Every Brilliant Thing,” about the child of a mom who attempted suicide.

“Robin is such a collaborative director,” says Kelly. “She incorporated my ideas openly, and she makes it easy to work with her, because she is so honest and clear. She holds herself and her actions to such a high standard.”

Tynes will complicate her life even further by marrying fellow Children’s Theatre employee Scott Miller in October. She and Miller, the grants manager, met as actors in a CTC tour of “The Littlest Angel.” Without his support for her and Ben Schultz’ support for Becky, Tynes says, “We could not do this. Scott puts up with a lot of me sitting on the couch on TV Night, staring at my laptop and clicking on e-mails.”

CTC has been supportive of Three Bone, even lending space for a fight rehearsal for “Appropriate.” Yet Tynes’ employers “expect me to be on top of my job all the time, as they should. Luckily, that work is very left-brain, so I have mental space to do right-brain (creative) things with Three Bone. Yet I feel like I have two full-time jobs.” And in her free time? “I never have any. But I am teaching myself to learn to relax.”

Tynes envisions an even bigger future for Three Bone, where the company can score more coups such as “Oslo,” add performances – it now does six per show – and pay people more.

“We want to grow in a responsible way,” she says. “Charlotte’s still a hard community for the arts in a lot of ways, so we’re having conversations about how Three Bone can stick around.”

This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in CharlotteThe story first ran at CharlotteObserver.com.


‘Appropriate’

WHEN: 8 p.m. July 12-14 and 19-21.

WHERE: Duke Energy Theater, Spirit Square, 345 N. College St.

TICKETS: $22 in advance, $28 at the door. Groups of 10 or more, $18 in advance.

DETAILS: 704-372-1000 or threebonetheatre.com.

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