Never let it be said that the caprices of downtown neighborhood associations are predictable. Not half a year after the residents of historic Ansonborough nearly went into community-wide cardiac arrest at the idea of an established local theatre company creating a new performance space at the commercial edge of their neighborhood, the good folks of Mazyck-Wraggborough — just a block north and every bit as dedicated to the cult of NIMBYism as their Ansonborough brethren — have all but invited a pack of thespians to march into the residential belly of their district, desanctify and empty out a historic church that’s a centerpiece of the neighborhood, and turn it into a permanent 350-seat performance facility for the largest professional theatre company in South Carolina, all before the end of 2007.
On Monday, Charleston Stage Company founder and producer Julian Wiles announced that he’d finally found a solution to the dilemma of what his 28-year-old theatre company will do when its current home, the Dock Street Theatre, goes under the knife for a two-year facelift in spring 2007. Apparently Wiles and company will retrofit the New Tabernacle Fourth Baptist Church, at the corner of Charlotte and Elizabeth Streets, as a temporary site for their mainstage productions during the renovations, afterward turning it into an additional permanent facility. And they’ll do so not merely with the blessing of the church congregation and neighborhood residents but practically at their behest.
Officials from New Tabernacle approached the city over a year ago, says Wiles, after the congregation had decided they wished to sell the structure and build a smaller space elsewhere — presumably closer to where the bulk of the church membership lives these days, now that they’ve been largely gentrified out of Mazyck-Wraggborough. Charleston Stage board members quickly got wind of the request and suggested that Wiles consider an adaptive reuse of the building. Eventually, board members Celeste and Charles Patrick, who’ve spearheaded the financial end of the theatre space search effort from the get-go and have restored the William Aiken House, the American Theater, and several King Street commercial properties, brokered a deal between the church and their private real estate company Patrick Properties.
“Celeste and Charles are buying and renovating the building, then they’ll lease it to us,” explains Wiles. Charleston Stage, he says, will have to pick up the tab for operating costs beyond that.
New Tabernacle Fourth Baptist Church was built in 1859 and served the congregation of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church until 1952, when that church merged with St. Paul’s to become the Cathedral of St. Luke and St. Paul. The building boasts a remarkable fan-vaulted ceiling designed by noted architect Francis D. Lee, who also designed a similar ceiling for the Unitarian Church on Archdale Street. Wiles says that award-winning preservation architect Glenn Keyes, the name behind not only the Aiken House restoration but also the Charleston County Courthouse, will manage the renovation.
“When you walk in, it’s such an amazing building,” Wiles says. “There’s a lot of opportunity for reconfiguring the interior without ripping out what’s inside and destroying it. I think much of the beauty of the interior architecture will be retained.”
The church’s top-notch acoustics have drawn ambitious performances to it before; last spring, Piccolo Spoleto and the Charleston Symphony Orchestra presented a concert version of Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio there. Wiles says that the redesigned space will feature a sizeable performance area and seating for 300 to 400. The stage he has in mind will be a thrust, with seating on three sides.
“People will be right on top of the action,” he says.
Wiles observes that nothing about the theatre’s design is certain until Keyes and the Connecticut-based theatre consulting firm he’s hired have completed their survey of the building. And he goes to pains to emphasize that this isn’t a permanent move. Charleston Stage expects to be out of the Dock Street, which it currently shares with the City Office of Cultural Affairs and the associated City Gallery, for at least two years during the historic structure’s extensive renovation, which will include seismic retrofitting. Currently, that work is set to begin in June 2007, immediately following that year’s Spoleto Festival, and to last at least through spring 2009. He says the company will return to the Dock Street for its mainstage productions at that time but expects to continue to produce in both their original home and the Wraggborough Theatre Space going forward, using it for what he calls “smaller, more contemporary shows,” as well as for many of their seasonal children’s productions.
Charleston Stage presently has two additional off-site facilities: a scene shop on Warren Street (the “Dream Factory”) and a rehearsal space in Mt. Pleasant.
“We think there’s room for a rehearsal hall in the new space,” Wiles says. “But we’ll still need a new shop building. A year from now we’ll launch a capital campaign for that and to raise an endowment to help us operate the new facility.”
The typically contentious hot-button issue of parking seems to have been solved in advance. Wiles says New Tabernacle grandfathers in parking for up to 1,200 in the area, according to local zoning ordinances, and pending redevelopment of the Federal Building around the corner at Meeting and Charlotte streets will likely include public parking facilities. It’s also only two block to the city garage next to Gaillard Municipal Auditorium, he observes.
With local performance venues on the minds of most every group in town — Spoleto’s eyeing a renovated Memminger Auditorium, the City’s wrestling with upgrading the Gaillard, the CSO’s out of their offices in June, PURE Theatre’s going to need a new space sooner rather than later, Charleston Ballet Theatre may need to move soon — Wiles’ group seems to be among the first to resolve a thorny issue that has lots of folks chewing their nails.
“We’re going to have to let this space define the kind of stage we’re going to end up with,” he says. “For us as artists, it means we get to work in a whole new way. It’ll be challenging and fun.”