Photo by Ruta Smith

It’s (definitely, maybe) time to light the lights

Charleston’s performing arts scene has been mostly dark for 18 months. Babies born the day the pandemic kicked off and theaters postponed performances are crawling right about now. The entire 2020-2021 season came and went, and as fall arrives and the community starts planning its triumphant return, the ghosts of 2020 hovers over preparations like old Hamlet. 

As 2020 turned from spring to summer to fall and the pandemic raged on, a lot of realities confronted the arts community in Charleston. Shelter-in-place orders and limitations on large gatherings essentially signaled the closing of all arts organizations for the foreseeable future last March. As American politicians argued over an avalanche of restaurant and corporate relief, arts groups suffered. Museum galleries like The Gibbes were able to remain open with reduced attendance and masks in place, but live theater needs a cast of performers and an audience. 

The sudden and prolonged loss of audiences and regular patrons has financially challenged arts organizations nationwide. Some theaters, like PURE, were able to shift entirely to virtual performances for the bulk of the season, but many found digital alternatives lacking.

Executive director Brian Porter says Footlight Players’ return to live shows can’t come soon enough | Photo by Ruta Smith

“Unfortunately, we were not very successful in pivoting to online,” said Brian Porter, executive director of Footlight Players. “It’s just not what we do.”

Audiences and performers alike have found the virtual arts trend difficult to fully embrace over the past year. The success of Spoleto Festival USA earlier this year, and the relatively lukewarm reception to its virtual offerings, like The Journey, marked a clear signal people were ready to return to performing arts spaces, and those spaces are ready to receive them.

Still, the pandemic remains one of the biggest questions hanging over that return. Eighteen months after shows were initially postponed and closed, cases in South Carolina continue to rise. As the delta variant brings back debate over city mask mandates and hospitals again treat waves of patients, it looks like masks will be a part of the arts for the foreseeable future. 

Some spaces, like Charleston Stage and College of Charleston, recommend audiences wear masks while in the theater. Dance Conservatory of Charleston is installing new air purification systems into its spaces. Many companies are reporting fully vaccinated staff and casts. And the city currently will allow theaters to operate at full-capacity. It’s looking like audiences will (definitely, maybe) get to see the faces of performers, at least, when they return to the theaters.

The last year has also shaped what will be on those stages this fall. Queen Street’s Matilda, which should have opened in spring 2020, will finally bow this December. Charleston Stage’s Bright Star closed early in March 2020 because of shelter-in-place orders and will finally reopen this month to continue its run. Village Playhouse will produce outdoor musicals starting with The Legendary Dolly P this September, but has moved its indoor, non-musical productions to 2022 because of the delta variant spike. Palmetto City Ballet won’t open its season until October, after the expected height of the current spike. 

Charleston Stage will perform Blithe Spirit at the Historic Dock Street Theatre from Oct. 13-31

Dance Lab recently had to reschedule a show because a dancer tested positive for the virus on the first day of performances.

“I am hesitant to invest a bunch of time, energy and money into a season that may be hit hard again with this virus,” said owner Jenny Broe. 

“Terror might be a better word,” mused Julian Wiles, founder and producing artistic director of Charleston Stage. “We have meetings every couple of days about contingency plans. What would we do if it gets worse? I mean, four weeks ago we thought we were kind of out of the woods. So yeah, we’re monitoring it all the time and trying to listen to the CDC. We want people to be safe and comfortable, and we’ll adjust as we need to, if we have to again. But we’re hoping we’ll be able to come back. And audiences seem ready.”

All the precautions and preparations are in service of bringing patrons a packed fall season. Charleston Stage, PURE Theatre, Footlight Players, College of Charleston, Palmetto City Ballet and Flowertown Players are all planning multiple offerings between now and the end of the year. The Gibbes, which has been going strong all year, still has a full slate of exhibits and films, like the exclusive theatrical showing of Rebecca Hall’s Passing.

PURE Theatre won’t actually return to its Cannon Street Arts Center home until November’s Little Gem, but the company won’t sit idle. PURE will open its season on the Dock Street stage this September with The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, as well as introducing a new series called Fall Nights that will see the returns of Constellations and Buyer and Cellar, both presented on Sullivan’s Island. 

Constellations

South of Broadway, in preparations for a change of venue next year, will close out its time in Park Circle with Evita, Guys and Dolls and Guys and Dolls Jr.

Village Playhouse is producing original musicals at Tradesman Brewing Company. Annex Dance Company has a season opening gala with performances Sept. 17 at Firefly Distillery. Dance Conservatory of Charleston will be performing shows at Sottile Theatre and The Gaillard Center. Charleston Stage will debut its new CityStage community engagement program as well as sending its resident actors out to teach and perform at schools. 

But while arts organizations were closed and waiting for the green light to reopen, a huge conversation was happening concerning diversity, racism and representation — what experiences, voices and faces are seen and heard. In the difficult summer of 2020, Black Lives Matter protests sparked national outrage and discussion, inspiring many arts organizations to make statements addressing the issue. Many companies acknowledged shortcomings in employing and representing people of color and made promises to address those issues moving forward.

It’s been over a year now, and the 2020-2021 season that would have seen the immediate push of those statements was mostly missed. But the resolve does not seem to have been forgotten. PURE Theatre welcomed Joy Vandervort-Cobb as associate artistic director. Queen Street Playhouse appointed Kay Thorn as musical director. There are changes being made at the top of arts organizations that may lead to better representation and opportunity moving forward. 

“I think we’ve worked on inclusion and those kinds of things in the past, but it’s not always been on the front burner of what we’ve done,” Wiles admitted. “And it’s now going to be one of the primary pillars that we stand on.”

The company seems to be trying to make good on that. While the upcoming season may not be what some would call provocative, it has added more BIPOC representation to its board, resident acting company and even its directing team for this season’s shows. “It’s only a start. There’s a lot we have to do, but I think we will very much be a richer company when we come back,” Wiles said.

Diversity has been a priority for some, but certainly not all, of Charleston’s arts organizations. But it is there. Mlima’s Tale, Black Pearl Sings, The Gibbes’ “The Negro Artist’s Dilemma” — a virtual program in conjunction with an upcoming Romare Bearden exhibit — Pipeline and Detroit ’67 are just a few of the offerings this fall that are specifically Black-led. And that’s not including the diverse actors headlining shows without a core racial component like Kinky Boots at Charleston Stage or Matilda at Queen Street Playhouse.