Ten years ago, musical versions of Titanic and Chicago topped the Tony awards; Christopher Plummer and Janet McTeer were Broadway’s favorite actors. And in Charleston, the French Quarter was the place to go for a stage production.
There was no PURE Theatre, no Village Playhouse. The Footlight Players were focused on farces and musicals like Stephen Sondheim’s Company. The College of Charleston’s theatre department tended to keep to itself. Back then, Charleston Stage director Julian Wiles told the fledgling City Paper that cutting-edge theatre was not a part of his mission.
Yet local theatergoers had never had it so good thanks to a small number of independent companies trying new things. When audiences went to see a Charleston Guerilla or Ambition Theatre show, they didn’t expect to see mainstream stuff. The Guerillas produced unusual, avant garde pieces. Ambition was described as “multi-media theater of the punk rock” by directors Timmy Finch and Greg Tavares (two-thirds of The Have Nots! and founders of Theatre 99).
In 1998, the downtown theatre scene picked up when Sheri Grace Wenger opened Midtown Theatre in an old Hardee’s on the corner of King and Calhoun. She aimed to boost local theatre to a professional, New York level, aided by theatre manager Keely Enright and technical director Dave Reinwald. “It was difficult to get something going in the heart of the city,” says Wenger. “Back then, it was pretty much Charleston Stage and the Footlight Players, and that was all. We didn’t hear a lot out in the mainstream about what the College was doing.”
The CofC Theatre Department was probably best known to off-campus audiences for its Shakespeare Festival, an annual series mounting popular productions of Elizabethan hits. A break-out version of Angels in America a few years ago helped introduce the college’s program to a wider crowd.
Enright and Reinwald also acted in Psycho Beach Party with Pluff Mud Productions, whose real home was the Windjammer on Isle of Palms, a place that was great to work in when the crowd was juiced up and engrossed in comedies like Greater Tuna.
Otherwise, “it was like a Wild West saloon,” says James Island-based actor Michael Easler. “If it was video poker night, we didn’t get much rehearsal time in.”
“It harkened back to Shakespeare’s time,” adds Tuna director Steve Lepre, “with people talking to you during the performance.” It wasn’t uncommon for music acts to replace theatre performances at the last minute. Still, the less-than-perfect conditions didn’t stop Pluff Mud from mounting strong productions and getting positive reviews for shows like Dearly Departed and The Sunset Grille.
Lepre was an important part of the shows’ success. When a quiet season and a Windjammer policy change ended the Pluff Mud shows on IOP, he introduced more multimedia elements into his productions at the Midtown Theatre and the Footlights, helping usher in a new era to suit the new millennium.
“We were beginning a deliberate effort to move away from the British comedy genre, out of that drawing room,” says Richard Heffner, long-time Footlight Players technical director. This led to plays that reflected the diversity of audience responses and the acting pool. “People wanted to do other types of theatre.”
Lepre obliged with 2001’s Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde and The Laramie Project, a 60-character play about the murder of Matthew Shepard, fueled by homophobia. “It definitely was not your typical Footlight fare,” says Lepre, “but what we assume audiences want and what they actually want are two different things.”
Lepre’s move to Footlight was hastened when Wenger lost her month-to-month lease downtown. “We spent a week feeling sorry for ourselves,” Wenger recalls. “I talked to the city about using the Garden Theatre (now Urban Outfitters) — it was pretty run down and not used much at the time.” Wenger produced shows at Footlight and Charleston Music Hall instead, and Reinwald and Enright started looking for a space near their home East of the Cooper.
“Mt. Pleasant was lacking any theatre scene,” says Enright, “and there was a style of theatre lacking in Charleston.” To fill the gap, the couple opened the Village Playhouse in a Coleman Boulevard strip mall instead, gathering an ensemble of actors who had worked with Pluff Mud, Midtown, and other local companies. “We had no name, no visibility,” Enright admits. “It was an impossible business venture. Every day I was terrified.”
“I tried to talk her out of it,” Wenger remembers. “It was scary, unknown territory.” The Playhouse founders were stubborn and tenacious enough to keep the place running while they built a loyal Mt. P following.
“Once we got through the first two seasons it took on a life of its own; I don’t worry as much as I used to,” chuckles Enright. “But we always knew that without an ensemble we would not succeed. Had they not come forward and help build that company, we wouldn’t be here now.”
By 2003, Footlight was retreating to its drawing-room safety zone, while Rodney Lee Rogers and Sharon Graci were carving a niche for cutting-edge work with PURE Theatre’s debut season. “PURE was one of the best things to happen to Charleston theatre,” says actress Kay Shroka. “They were different, they had guts. When they opened people thought, ‘Oh my God they’re actually doing this.'”
“I don’t know if PURE could’ve survived the way they have ten years ago,” says theatre/verv/ director J.C. Conway. “Now we have more people coming to town from Boston, New York, and Chicago, recognizing stuff they’ve seen in bigger cities.”
“There was never a lack of people who wanted to do things but not always an audience for it,” says Heffner. Now there seems to be something for everyone. The Village Playhouse and PURE are well established, and Footlight is reaching out to younger audiences again with its Late Night program. Finch, Tavares, and Brandy Sullivan have successfully focused on their Have Nots! group, making Theatre 99 a destination for improv, long-form sketch nights, and other original comedy shows. Wenger recently completed a lauded run of The Boys Next Door at the Playhouse. Midtown Theatre has been replaced by Millennium Music.
“I get a big old lump in my throat when I walk through that area,” says Wenger, who says that the gobbling up of King Street’s Garden Theatre by Urban Outfitters broke her heart.
Steve Lepre thinks that the theatre scene’s changed a lot since the “exciting, heady years” of the late ’90s. “The talent pool was larger then. Now companies are smaller and tighter but there’s always a risk of mediocrity. Sometimes you have to take risks.”
Stay cool. Support City Paper.
City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.