Theatre 99

Downtown. 280 Meeting St. 853-NOTS (6687)

Ten years ago, Theatre 99 was less than the merest of twinkles in the eye of its current proprietors, The Have Nots!. Charleston Stage Company, in residence at the Dock Street Theatre, and then-65-year-old Footlight Players shared a stranglehold on the Best Theatre Company category, and the Nots! were a newly formed, fresh-faced quartet of young comedy improvisers so desperate for stage time they were gigging in a dance club.

“In 1997, we were just beginning to tour,” recalls Not! Brandy Sullivan. “It was just the four of us — we still had Bryan Mahanes with us then. It was our big spring semester where we booked ourselves really cheap and got tons of gigs all over the Southeast. In town, we were performing at the Acme a lot. We went out to the street and barked and got people to buy tickets. No one knew what we were. It’s understood a lot more now, but at the time, people were like, ‘That’s not theatre. They perform in bars.'”

What a difference a decade makes. Today, The Have Nots! — Sullivan, Greg Tavares, and Timmy Finch — are the crazy glue that binds together the comedy empire they’ve created with Theatre 99, which comprises a family of some 35 sketch and improv artists and a permanent home at 280 Meeting St. These days they fill their 130-seat theatre above the Bicycle Shoppe with packed crowds three days a week, rounding out the rest of the week with classes, rehearsals, and the occasional one-off musical gig from acts like Danielle Howle, Linsday Holler, and Cabaret Kiki.

In those early days, they couldn’t beg, borrow, or steal a spot in the official Piccolo Spoleto artistic lineup. Their solution? Create their own damn fringe. Nowadays Theatre 99’s Piccolo Fringe looms over the rest of the Piccolo Theatre Series like a 900-lb. comedy gorilla. Last year’s lineup included 11 acts from as far away as Vancouver, Chicago, and New York. (Second City, long an official Piccolo staple, stopped participating last year after four years of being programmed against the growing T99 Fringe.) They also coproduce (with the City Paper) the four-day, 20-act riot of standup, sketch, and improv known as the Charleston Comedy Festival each January, another event that’s taken off like a rocket.

It wasn’t always thus.

“For our spring college tour of 2000, we did 73 shows in 67 days on the road, all over the place — in Florida, in blizzards in upstate New York, you name it” says Sullivan. “We realized then we wanted to be in Charleston and open a theatre here. Most people just tour and tour and tour forever. But we didn’t want that.”

The three established their first home — the original Theatre 99 — on Cumberland Street, then, when they left due to rising rent, relocated to the American Theater for a year and a half of peripatetic limbo. Their latest (and, hopefully, last) home rose in the Ansonborough neighborhood in summer 2005, though only after a long struggle with the cranks on the Zoning Board of Appeals and lots of delicate diplomatic finesse with a bristling neighborhood association.

“Having a permanent venue changes everything, that brick and mortar,” Tavares observes. “You have a rallying point, a center. That’s why we’ve fought so hard to have a home. When people stand in your lobby and have a beer with the actors, that transcends what happens on stage. Also, the fact that we have almost three dozen individuals who are a part of what we do. They are Theatre 99.”

Ten years have left their mark on the trio’s personal lives, as well. Sullivan, Tavares, and Finch are now all married, and Finch — currently splitting time between the theatre and law school — is a father.

“We provide entertainment,” says Tavares. “We focus on the art of theatre, but we also recognize that people want to be entertained. I love ‘real’ theatre. But my passion is what we do. We’ve got a huge following, and people dig it. And we couldn’t be prouder. It’s the product of a lot of hard work and persistence. But it’s been a long road, that’s for goddamn sure.”

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