For a city of its size, Charleston’s live theater scene is thriving. Most weekends present more options for theatergoers than there is time to see all the plays on offer. But, according to the creative team behind the fledgling theater company 5th Wall Productions, that doesn’t necessarily mean there isn’t room for more. And the co-founders of 5th Wall — Blair Cadden, Jason Olson, and Jean Gaston — plan to carve out a niche for themselves within the booming theater town.
“I think what sets us apart,” says Cadden, artistic director and primary spokesperson, “is that we have programs in place for every step of the writing process.” A monthly writer’s workshop and a Rough Draft Reading series place 5th Wall’s emphasis on playwriting and playwrights, although they plan to stage performances as well.
Cadden returned to Charleston — her hometown — shortly after graduating from Wofford with a BA in Theater. But she didn’t intend to start a theater troupe right away. “I thought maybe one day I’d start a company somewhere else,” she says. “Then I met some people who said, ‘Why don’t you do it here?’ So I said ‘Why wait?'” Those “people” were Gaston and Olson, both of whom had worked on theater projects in the past and were itching for more creative control.
Olson, who serves as both literary manager and technical director for 5th Wall, was excited to meet like-minded partners with whom he could share the task of getting a company off the ground. “I moved to Charleston three years ago to work on a creative project that ended up fizzling out,” the former Bostonian says. “I got involved with theater here and decided to stay.” Currently, he works as shop steward at Flowertown Players, and while he enjoys working at the Summerville theater, his ultimate aspirations lie elsewhere. “I’m a writer,” he says.(His adaptation of The Three Musketeers was produced at Flowertown last year.) “I’m lucky enough to work in theater, but [5th Wall] is separate from our day jobs.”
Gaston, whose official title is Jean-of-all-trades, works in aircraft maintenance, but she is very active in local theater too. “I just got cast as Puck in Midsummer Night’s Dream [at the Lourie Theater in St. George],” she says. “After that, I’m directing Little Shop of Horrors at Flowertown. After that, I’m in Taming of the Shrew at Threshold. I hate free time.”
Free time is something that’s currently in short supply for the 5th Wall co-founders. While everyone involved has at least one other job, the company is their primary focus. “This is my big commitment at the moment,” Cadden says. And the commitment is paying off. 5th Wall already has a full calendar of events planned beginning in June with the staging of Aaron Sorkin’s A Few Good Men. “It’s going to be at Threshold,” says Olson. “But it’s a 5th Wall Production.”
Prior to summer the 5th Wall team is hosting several other events. Cadden, Olson, and Gaston’s monthly playwright workshop Writers Bloc is already open to the public. Though the company is currently homeless, 5th Wall is working toward finding a permanent performance space in West Ashley and will have a rental rehearsal space starting in February. Currently, meetings are being held at the main branch of the Charleston County Public Library on Calhoun Street. “Part of our mission is to help people know what’s out there,” Olson says.
Gaston agrees. “We want to do unpublished works, and things from people in the area … It’s kind of intimidating to get out there in Charleston if you’re new,” she says.
The company will also be hosting staged readings of original work by local playwrights through their Rough Draft Readings series. The readings will provide an opportunity for writers to hear the words they’ve only seen on the page delivered live by actors, allowing playwrights to flesh out their works by exposing strengths and weaknesses in plot, pacing, and dialogue. Each reading will be followed by an audience Q&A with the playwright. The first Rough Draft Reading will be Cadden’s own The Stray Englishman on Feb. 23 at Coastal Coffee Roasters in Summerville. Cadden originally wrote the play in college, and it’s loosely based on a friend’s experience with a boyfriend. Cadden added in a “grandfather with a locomotive obsession and a weed-smoking great-aunt who is trying to seduce the [protagonist’s] now-ex-boyfriend, who’s about 60 years her junior.”
And for the future, well, 5th Wall Productions has big plans.”Next season will be a full season. And at least half of the shows will be original scripts,” Cadden says. And the master plan is even more ambitious. “One of my dreams is for people to be able to walk into a bookstore and see our name on a first page.”
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