Danielle LaVia hopes a new Equity theater will increase representation for BIPOC performers and in company leadership | Photo by Ashley Rose Stanol

Danielle LaVia was busy living in New York City prior to landing in the Lowcountry in 2017, honing her skills as a writer, performer, educator, director and producer. She is proud to now call Charleston home, but she told the City Paper that it didn’t take long before she began noticing there was something missing from the local arts scene. In fact, this realization was the impetus behind LaVia launching the Charleston Playhouse, the region’s first professional Equity musical theater company, where players are represented by the Actors’ Equity Association labor union.

As LaVia recalls, continually confronting the gap in the theater community was initially a source of frustration, but she eventually used those challenges as inspiration in creating the city’s first Equity operation, where she’s now the executive artistic director.

“I was frequently speaking with theater professionals here about how frustrated we were that Charleston didn’t have an Equity theater. I must have had that conversation 15 times. Then, a former colleague of mine called me one day telling me she has had enough of New York and wanted a better quality of life close to the beach, while still being able to continue her career as a performer. She asked me to tell her about Charleston’s Equity theater, and I regretfully told her we didn’t have one,” LaVia said. “I told her she was preaching to the choir, and that I wondered why every single day. Then, I hung up the phone that day and decided I was going to make it happen.” 

This is not to say that big things were not already happening here in terms of theater. As LaVia explained, it was more a matter of securing justice for those already working in the industry. 

“Charleston has a ton of theater companies, and they are all doing great work. However, it is time to start compensating our professional artists with what they deserve and to begin giving them the opportunity to make a living here, instead of being expected to show up and perform as a labor of love,” she said. 

Knowing what she wanted to do, LaVia began exploring the feasibility of implementing her dream. 

“I spoke to many executive artistic directors and founders of theater companies across the country over the last few years and really took the time to dive into my due diligence,” she said “I wanted to make sure I didn’t rush the process. I spent over two years behind the scenes bringing this idea to fruition; making sure I had the right team, support, venue, timing, etc.”

Acknowledging that she proudly heads up a small-but-top-notch team, LaVia identified one crucial collaborator along the way: “I spent a while trying to find the perfect partner to walk through this huge undertaking alongside me. I reached out to many friends, having them hook me up with professionals in the area, and vetted them in a sort of secret way until I felt that they were someone I knew would fit this role perfectly. Thomas Keating, our current producing director, was that person. Thomas is the yin to my yang.” 

LaVia said she and Keating are, in turn, hoping that other theater lovers in the community will rally around them to help get the Charleston Playhouse fully up and running. 

“We are in the process of doing everything in our power to get funded and ready to jump into production in 2022, and we are actively looking for individual donors and corporate sponsors in our area who would like to be a part of bringing Charleston Playhouse to life from the ground up.” 

According to LaVia, Charleston Playhouse has two objectives that sets it apart. The first is to increase representation of BIPOC (black, indigenous and people of color) performers on the stage and in positions of leadership in Charleston’s theater scene. The second major priority for Charleston Playhouse is to make sure that artists and local theater professionals are receiving what LaVia sees as a long-overdue, well-deserved and competitive weekly salary, while also positively affecting the overall economic growth for the city of Charleston. 

Even in the midst of challenging times, LaVia is encouraged by everything that has come together for Charleston Playhouse thus far, adding that there has already been an outpouring of support from performers and professionals with ties to the area who are currently living in places like New York, Chicago and Philadelphia, waiting for a company like this to finally come to Charleston so that they can afford to head back home. 

The Charleston Playhouse will announce its 2022-2023 season at its Cabaret Gala on Dec. 4. For more information visit charlestonplayhouse.com.