How would I characterize the evolution of Charleston’s theater scene in the past 20 years? It’s been, in a word, dramatic. And the good news is that there have been far more winning entrances than woeful exits. From fancy new facilities to outré work, the last two decades have demonstrated that Charleston, now more than ever, is a theater town.
In the Black: The proliferation of intimate, black-box spaces housing companies like PURE Theatre and Threshold Repertory Theatre has unleashed a steady stream of razor-sharp, gorgeously written contemporary works, with the more intimate space often showcasing smaller casts and production values that don’t call for a larger stage. Keely Enright of Village Repertory Theater recalls, “Twenty years ago Charleston Stage and Footlight Players were basically the only companies producing a full season.” In 2003, when Sharon Graci, PURE’s co-founder and artistic director, launched the company, her vision was to present new and challenging work to create a dialogue. “Nine out of 10 people told me we would fail,” she says. Heading into its 15th year, PURE has logged some 80 plays, among them 67 Southeast premieres and 19 world premieres, all by hewing to that much-derided vision.
A Dolled-up Dock Street: With a preservation-minded restoration and a mega-renovation completed in 2010, the historic venue’s shiny new space offers both better outfitting for technologically sophisticated productions as well as plusher patron space. “A lot of what’s made it wonderful, people can’t really see,” says Julian Wiles, founder and producing artistic director of Charleston Stage, the Dock Street Theatre’s resident professional theater company. Improvements like completely quiet air conditioning, soundproofing, state-of-the-art lights, a new doorway stage left for moving scenery, and a brand-new, safe fly system enable Charleston Stage to take on shows they previously could not. “The scale of the productions has grown exponentially since the renovations,” says Wiles. And then there is the charm and cheer of that wood-paneled taproom, too.
A Gussied-up Gaillard: The opening of the Gaillard’s new multimillion-dollar state-of-the-art facility in 2015 raised the bar on production values around town, while also demonstrating tangible results of arts philanthropy, as the project was largely powered by the outsized, multi-million-dollar gift of donor Martha Rivers Ingram. The resulting mix of smaller Broadway fare, major musical acts, and showstoppers like next season’s Riverdance lights up Charleston’s concert hall with drama and dazzle.
A Tricked-out PAC: And on the early side of the 20-year span, in 1999 the North Charleston Performing Arts Center opened a whole new world of touring shows to greater Charleston, bringing on slick spins by way of its Best of Broadway series. Up next: The Book of Mormon. You know you want to.
The Audience Embrace: Kyle Barnette, artistic director of What If? Productions, says, “In our theater’s eight seasons, we have been really impressed by how accepting and receptive audiences continue to be toward the variety of works we have thrown at them over the years.” Barnette also notes the willingness of audiences to take a chance on new works through the company’s Playwrights Festival. Over at PURE, Graci concurs, saying, “The leaning in of audiences represents a deeper engagement in the art.”
ASD-friendly programming: Whether it’s a company like HEART, which for the past three years has mounted shows featuring an ensemble of special needs adults, or autism-spectrum-friendly productions like those currently in the works at Charleston Stage, the city is accommodating new theater-lovers by adjusting production values: turning on the house lights and lowering the volume.
Life — and Strife — is a Cabaret: Whether it’s a feel-good toe-tapper or a dystopian head-wrecker, things go better with a wine-and-cheese plate. Now, locals can cozy up to cabaret seating regularly at venues like Woolfe Street Playhouse, 34 West Theater Company, and Midtown Productions. What If? Productions also recently began transforming Threshold Rep into a full-on cabaret with its Piano Bar Series, performing musical theater hits to sold-out crowds.
The Gate, The Gate, The Gate: In the past 20 years alone, Spoleto Festival USA has imported eight productions by the Gate Theatre, making the Dublin company a force in and of itself in the prime Dock Street festival venue. With the departure of artistic director Michael Colgan, the Gate may swing in the balance for coming festival line-ups. During an interview this past May with Spoleto’s managing director Nigel Redden, he mentioned that another Irish company, The Abbey Theater, has recently caught his eye.
Upping the Exchange Rate: At PURE, Graci is heartened to note how the community is seeking out theater as a means for meaningful exchange on challenging social issues. “There is a much richer opportunity for a denser dialogue that people are anxious to have,” she says. Along those lines, PURE recently presented Citizen: An American Lyric, based on the Claudia Rankine book-length poem that is the featured title for Charleston’s upcoming NEA-funded Big Read.
Do’s and Donors: More and more people with a penchant for theater — and pockets deep enough to support it — are pouring into the cultural scene, says Wiles, and ponying up to support it. Take the hint.
Pay What You Will — and Charge What You Dare: Many theater companies have initiated “pay what you will” nights to offer affordable tickets for certain performances. Still other arts presenters in town are participating in so-called “dynamic pricing,” driving up prices as shows book up.
Southern Gothic Revivals: Crowd-pleasers with a twang and a twist are still alive and kicking on Charleston stages with downhome perennials like Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean and The Dayporch. The Southern-fried fare has been clogging the arteries since I first saw Greater Tuna during Piccolo Spoleto as a kid. While, sure, let’s celebrate regionalism, but can we at least stick to more contemporary offerings — for example, Footlight Players’ trailer park-meets-art world production of Bakersfield Mist? Come on, y’all.
Parking hassles — and Uber to the Rescue: Just as downtown parking issues hit critical mass, options like Uber and Lyft have zoomed in, making a night at the theater a no-brainer — and a cocktail after curtain less daunting.
Those pesky cell phones: Spoleto Festival USA general manager Nigel Redden records preshow announcements in his dulcet British tone, during which he urges audience members to turn off their devices. Charleston Stage reportedly schools theater camp kids on cell phone etiquette. Some Gaillard acts won’t even let phones through the door for fear of unlawful recording. I move we all consider leaving phones at home or in the car when possible. You do not want to be that person.
That Halloween Thing: Whether it’s a noirish farce about a corpse or a full-on musical inspired by a B-horror-flick, the Halloween show body count in Charleston theaters continues to rise from the dead every October. Scary.
Going Pro: When I left Charleston decades ago, acting was a strictly voluntary pursuit. And, while some gig fees still may be nominal, theater leaders like Wiles observe that offering compensation has elevated the level of performances citywide.
Live from…: This spring, 34 West’s NT Live screenings of London’s National Theatre productions was a revelation. I was skeptical, certain that the format could not capture the magic of the theatrical experience, but was won over by the quality of the broadcast — and the chance to check out the best of British theater a block from my house (though of course it’s still a distant second to being in the same room as the players). And even though Spoleto’s 2016 live broadcast of Porgy and Bess ran afoul of weather, the grand civic gesture demonstrated by way of the stalwart, soaking audience the viability of broadcasting music-powered theatrical performances al fresco. Any takers?
The Role of the Digital Age: Theater folks tend to be social by nature, so it’s no surprise that many local companies have mastered digital marketing to spread the word by posting reviews or sharing video snippets of shows. After all, says Wiles, “Word of mouth has always been the best way to sell tickets.” He also points out that technology in general has impacted the theater scene. “Technology has given us a lot,” he adds, as all of his company’s sound, lights, and drafting of scenery is now done on computers. “We’re able to take a very old craft and take it to another level with technology that didn’t exist 20 years ago.”
The Price of Fame: Escalating rents on the white-hot peninsula are putting the pressure on companies like Village Repertory Co., says artistic director Keely Enright. “The scary truth for many of us now, is holding on to our homes,” she says of her theater on Woolfe Street. “With property values through the roof, and rents spiking, the real challenge is keeping theater alive in Charleston.”
Joining Forces: For Piccolo Spoleto this past year, Charleston Stage and PURE teamed up with HEART to collaborate on a reinterpretation of Romeo & Juliet. The impulse is not a new one, as back in 2005 Charleston theater companies had a great idea: “Hey kids, let’s work together to dream up the best ways to bolster audiences and raise the profile of a theater scene.” The resulting League of Charleston Theatres strives to create a collective forum to further theater in the city. Existing presently only as a website page, it begs the question of whether or not the organization has fully tapped into its potential. Please, theater folks and theater lovers, talk among yourselves.