From where I’m sitting, the view of Charleston’s stages is pretty striking — and that’s not only because a critic often snags those coveted center aisle seats. My perspective is also informed by my own formative years kicking around Charleston theater houses, from childhood straight through college. Three years ago, after decades of steady show-going in New York City and elsewhere, I came home to find a dramatically altered and still-evolving theater scene. And since I’m not the only recent arrival to town, it seemed like a choice time to offer up an abridged lay of the land in Charleston theater arts.
First, a little background. When it comes to theater, there has always been something sparkling in the water here. There’s Alicia Rhett, for starters, whose work with The Footlight Players in 1939 won her their annual award. She shortly thereafter gained national attention for her portrayal of India Wilkes in Gone with the Wind, only to quit the stage forever and turn her attention to portraiture.
To lend additional context, I will now grudgingly date myself. In 1976, a whippersnapper named Julian Wiles arrived on the scene, partnering with South Carolina composer Mel Marvin (Broadway’s Tintypes) on Song for a New Land, a musical celebrating the country’s bicentennial and including yours truly, complete with pigtails and growing pains. In 1977, when Spoleto Festival USA made its jaw-dropping grand entrance into town in a flurry of confetti and world-class culture, I nabbed a spot in its debut opera, The Queen of Spades, singing in the children’s chorus alongside the Westminster Choir.
Now, if you’ll indulge me in a little nostalgic name-dropping. At The Footlight Players, a young Thomas Gibson (Criminal Minds) kindly wiped my tears after I lost a plum role to Sallie Krawcheck (the finance phenom and former Citigroup CEO). In Cinderella at the Footlight Players Workshop, my fat-padded stepsister served as chubby foil to a radiant Cinderella played by Evie McGee (who captivated audiences and later the heart of another peninsula talent, Stephen Colbert). The production also cast Gibson as its charmed prince, as well as a footman fittingly played by Jeffrey Kalinsky, the celebrated style impresario and Charleston native who today is still looking for the perfect person for his singular shoe.
Later at the College of Charleston in The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, my clunky characterization of the abusive mother entailed harshing on a young and preternaturally professional Carrie Preston, who has since won an Emmy for her work on The Good Wife. There are countless other examples through the decades of standout theater-lovers who graced these stages as a consuming passion or simply passing diversion. And whether our homegrown players have gone on to world acclaim, or have channeled those skills in other enterprises, our stages have long been the launching pads of outsize lives.
But back to Charleston today. As in my earlier years here, I can still have my pick of hum-along, bubbly musicals, droll drawing room comedies, and time-tested dramas put forth by old reliables.
For starters, next up at The Footlight Players is a two-hander comedy, Bakersfield Mist. Taking a page from the Gate Theatre’s Spoleto offering, The Flowertown Players in Summerville will try its hand at The Importance of Being Earnest in late September. After its season opener of Hairspray, Charleston Stage’s now veteran Wiles will continue his tradition of creating family-friendly, original works that mine the stories of our region with a remount of Beneath the Sweetgrass Moon, which draws from South Carolina African-American tales, games, and ghost stories.
Adding considerably to this is a heartening groundswell of talent, vision, and risk-taking. After all, if theater is to remain alive and kicking as an arts form, it must offer work that enables us to fathom today’s fraught world, or at the very least, to laugh it off. With anywhere from five to ten-plus years under their belts, these newer companies together substantially shore up the standards and offer our community meaningful, crucial exchange.
PURE Theatre, which trains its considered curatorial eye on black-box productions of contemporary and original works, opens the season by casting a cold eye on the commodification of religion in The Christians. Later on, look for the time-trippy work, The Curious Case of the Watson Intelligence. Village Repertory Co., whose programming runs the gamut from the complex fare to the crowd-pleasing, starts out somewhat ominously, with a theatrical version of George Orwell’s 1984. Threshold Repertory Theatre, which has just announced a new artistic director, Jay Danner, has my attention with its quirky comedy Becky Shaw. In the same space in October, What If? Productions collaborates with Threshold and goes for creepy camp with Evil Dead: The Musical.
It’s all meaty, fun stuff and I’m confident it will be a solid season that augers well for the future of the art form in this city. Of course, there’s still much I would like to see moving forward. In light of real estate challenges, I encourage more site-specific work. I’ve seen transformative pieces take place in New York City warehouses or bars, and even one in the public restrooms of Dublin’s St. Stephen’s Green. (Of course, this isn’t new to Charleston, as Wiles cracked this open on the tops of parking garages in the late 1970s, with his original music Seize the Street!).
In the face of mounting production costs, I move for more mixed-media productions, collaborating with the many digital gurus who are now making Charleston their home. More importantly, I call for much more work from local playwrights, a la David Lee Nelson and Brennen Reeves, and more new alliances between companies.
Anyone who has left the house knows that the city of Charleston is having a pivotal moment. You need only dodge a construction site, fume in traffic, or delight in the proliferating job postings to know that. Charleston’s cultural map will surely change along with its skyline, but it’s up to both players and audience members to determine if it will be for better or worse. But for now, it’s show time, and I’m looking forward to a season of probing work and packed houses.