Wait and See
The new year is finally here, but for many theaters in the Charleston area, things are still looking like 2020. Many shuttered their doors last year to keep the public safe amid the pandemic, but there’s no firm end in sight for the public health crisis, even with the vaccine. Because of this, many local theater companies are still left in purgatory at the top of 2021.
“We’re really stuck in this holding pattern, and it’s just awful because no one can plan anything,” said Brian Porter, executive director of the Footlight Players. “We’re just sort of stuck in between a really awful place and a really great place, and if we move, we don’t know which direction we might end up heading.”
According to Porter, livestreamed performances and small in-person shows are not monetarily viable for the Footlight Players because of production costs. Porter believes the theater scene’s future depends on how quickly the COVID-19 vaccine can be distributed, but he predicts other production companies will move outdoors as the weather warms up. “It’s a waiting game [for Footlight],” he said.
Some, like 34 West Theater Company and PURE Theatre, are moving forward with shows, but have curtailed the season’s usual length. 34 West, which began in-person performances of Uptown Girl on Friday, typically announces all show dates a year in advance.
Stephen Wayne, co-founder of 34 West, said the company will focus on one show at a time right now. “We’re opening with Uptown Girl and will run the show for several months until we feel like the demand decreases,” he said. “Then, we’ll open the next new show shortly after. We’re also excited about some special events planned that we aren’t ready to announce yet.”
When asked about the upcoming year’s impacts on the theater scene, Wayne speculated that new companies will form and older companies will be “pulling back.”
“It’s not just the pandemic that’s changed the landscape,” he said. “There’s a huge social change that’s occurring that’s really exciting to see.”
Art Forms & Theatre Concepts commits to four shows a year that highlight Black stories, writers and performers, but all were canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic. Arthur Gilliard, the company’s founder and executive director, said Art Forms is planning to produce Inner City, in collaboration with the city of Charleston this year.
“Of course, we have no date because we don’t know what COVID is really going to do, so it’s continuing to be a challenging year,” Gilliard said.
Black-owned theaters, according to Gilliard, encounter an added financial burden from a lack of donors or built-in connections, which many white theater companies have. “Black theater companies — we usually have to use whatever spaces are available, and we don’t have the built-in financial supporters,” he said.
Art Forms & Theatre Concepts will still attempt to put on four shows in 2021, but Gilliard indicated the logistics of it will be difficult at this point in the year. “Before applying to get the rights [to a show], we have to be comfortable that the space is going to be available,” he said. “We have to make sure that those spaces are going to be open to the public, and they’re not yet. So, it’s hard to plan right now.” Monetary issues have also continued in the new year.
“The financial struggles to keep our doors open is real,” said Kirk Pfeiffer, artistic director of the Cultural Arts Center Charleston. “Hope and optimism is what we have today. We would love nothing more than to announce an upcoming season. Unfortunately, that is not realistic at this time.”
Pfeiffer noted that a new partnership with Ashley Hall allowed the Cultural Arts Center to continue its education programming in 2020.
Village Repertory Co. was left reeling after losing Woolfe Street Playhouse, its venue of eight years. Even after a set of outdoor performances of Summer Comfort in August, the company could not keep up with rent on Woolfe Street.
“We had to move 20 years worth of the theater company’s property out of a 17,000-square-foot space to three storage spaces all across town,” said Keely Enright, producing artistic director.
In response, the company began conducting travelling performances and continued to put on outdoor and virtual shows. But, the search for a new home for Village Rep has also been affected by the pandemic.
“The landscape keeps changing,” Enright said. “I’ve made so many plans and unmade so many plans since March 13 that, at some point, you have to trust that the dust can totally settle before you can see.”