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For Charleston theaters, 2018 was a year of set changes

Curtain Call

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It was the year of the set change. Whether to beat rising rents, reach new audiences, or simply ensure that the show can go on, in the past 12 months theater companies across town reimagined their spaces in inspired, ingenious ways. Some landed plum spots, while others scrappily scrambled from one available stage to the next. Some stayed put, but reinvigorated venues to produce new works or attract new crowds. All in all, the collective shuffle primes us for an altogether promising 2019.

Among the most dramatic developments was PURE Theatre's landing at a new home at almost-ready-for-prime-time Cannon Street Arts Center, where it will serve as the cultural hub's resident theater company when it soon opens. What's more, this renovation of the former Zion-Olivet Presbyterian Church at 134 Cannon Street was made possible by a partnership between developer Patterson Smith and the City of Charleston, with the express purpose of ensuring that the arts continue to infuse the city in the face of escalating real estate pressures.

Starting Jan. 11, PURE will rotate its first two productions there, Sam Shepard's Fool for Love and True West. But it won't be the only company to benefit from this stunning show of enlightened development. The center was conceived so that all manner of arts and community organizations can avail themselves of performance areas, exhibit rooms, reception halls, and more.

Charleston Stage also got up and running in a new space, by way of an expansion into new real estate, while still retaining its anchor presence in the Dock Street Theatre with high-spectacle shows like Mamma Mia!, as well as probing plays including Of Mice and Men. Now, the 40-plus-year company heads westward over the bridge to Ashley Landing, where its outsize 10,000-square-foot West Ashley Theatre Center is tricked out with a couple of dance and rehearsal studio spaces, which can be rented, and a 130-seat performance space, aptly called "The Pearl," as it was funded by a quarter-million-dollar lead gift from the Pearlstine Family, another philanthropic beacon in the city's development-addled drama scene.

And, in a sleight of brand, The Footlight Players may still be firmly planted at their historic home at 20 Queen Street, but the shingle on that home has shifted. No longer the Footlight Players Workshop, it has recoined itself the Queen Street Playhouse, the original name of the theater. Under that rubric, the venue can more ably draw audiences seeking other forms of entertainment, or, the website notes, transform the space "into a true performing arts space for the community.

And, yes, sometimes change can be poignant, as many around town have grown accustomed to that Footlight Players face. However, the theatergoers and other culture vultures would likely concur that strategies to introduce new audiences to performance spaces can only serve to buoy others in residence, and to ensure those venues remain up and running and robust. So, I say mad props for the pivot, and long may Queen Street Playhouse and Footlight Players run.

Now the theater company, under the helm of Brian Porter, presents its season alongside other programming spanning disciplines, and mainly under the subsects of the Queen Street's Harmony Series, Comedy Series, and Poetry Series. Along with that new sign out front, there are plenty of auspicious signs in the Footlight's current season, among them the lovely Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill and madcap North By Northwest.

What if? Productions, led by Kyle barnett, hops around - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • What if? Productions, led by Kyle barnett, hops around

There are also itinerant companies. What If? Productions hopped between Threshold Rep and other venues, presenting the winning production playwrights festival, A String Between Man & the World, at the College of Charleston's Chapel Theatre, and their annual cabaret piano bar at City Gallery at Waterfront Park and The Schoolhouse, the Avondale-based spot that continues to serve the broader cultural community (such as Marcus Amaker's poetry festival).

Similarly, 5th Wall Productions vacated their space at Citadel Mall, and has since mounted shows on the stages of South of Broadway and Threshold. Art Forms & Theatre Concepts' Debutante of the Season and PURE's Sweat both took over the Dock Street stage, with back-to-back productions during the 2018 MOJA Festival.

Even Spoleto Festival had to shuffle, with the ending of the famed finale, which left Middleton and had a go at The Joe (a solution that cannot be repeated in 2019 due to the baseball schedule). It will need to continue to do so for the coming festival, with the College of Charleston's Sottile Theatre going offline for a major structural rehaul.

Treasure Island - COURTESY WOOLFE STREET PLAYHOUSE
  • Courtesy Woolfe Street Playhouse
  • Treasure Island

And there are a few stalwarts, like Village Repertory Theatre, which remains in the same, snazzy spot at Woolfe Street Playhouse, but has continued to transform it with each production. Take, for instance, the company's ambitiously staged Treasure Island, which brilliantly rendered the brick room into an impressive, creaking ship. Similarly, Threshold Repertory Theatre stays put at 84 ½ Society Street, but this month new artistic director Don Brandenburg announced a company refresh, including of the building's exterior.

Yes, that's a fair amount of rearranging, but lest you get all deck chairs and Titanic on me, consider the positives. Theatermakers are demonstrating agility and ingenuity in an unforgiving real estate market. Philanthropists are devising plans that result in new spaces, and foster more philanthropy. From stage to stage, it is certain to be enthralling to watch it all play out.

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