In the four and a half years he's been in Charleston, Hunter Gardner has been very involved in the local comedy scene. He started out in the stand-up community, never missing an open mic night. He later discovered improv and took classes at Theatre 99 where he's been performing for over two years now. He's also a stalwart at the monthly comedy showcase RIP City. All the while, Gardner has been writing, writing, and writing some more.
What's he writing about? His own life experiences.
Growing up in Winston-Salem, N.C., Gardner was raised in a Christian household. And he bought in, attending Sunday services and youth group and even playing in the church band. But things changed when he left for college. "Like a lot of people, when I went off to school, I kind of got into my party ways," says Gardner, adding, "I got really into my party ways."
And that was his life for the next few years, doing ungodly damage to his liver, "I just partied harder and harder until I kind of hit that rock bottom moment where I was like, 'I'm just tired of feeling like this.'"
Unexpectedly, the idea of church crept back into his mind. He remembered the experiences of his youth, the kind people he knew, the personal fulfillment. So he started attending a local nondenominational church and it snowballed from there — daily reading of the scriptures, organizing bible studies, simply being ensconced in the culture. "Just like I got really into partying, I got really into church," says Gardner.
This chapter of his life reached its precipice when, "I truly believed that God had given me a holy calling to move to Charleston to witness to three of my best friends who lived there."
So Gardner found himself, of all places, in the Holy City. And I'll leave you wondering what happened next, though I will say, Gardner is no longer a Christian.
These real life events set up the arc for the show, Drinking with Jesus.
It's a one-hour, one-man show composed of monologues by larger-than-life characters from both the world of religion and the world of partying down. Gardner gives it the tagline, "Alcohol can make you do some crazy things and religion can make you do some even crazier things."
Writing for this show began almost two years ago and it's been a process that has taken longer than Gardner expected, but, "It's better to take your time and make something good then something quick," says Gardner. "It's frustrating for someone like me because I'm one of these obnoxious people that has like a thousand ideas."
Indeed he does. He has another script for a more traditional full-ensemble stage play and he has a collection of songs composed for a musical he just began working on. But for now, he's all in on Drinking With Jesus.
And over the last two years, the production has drastically evolved.
It started out as a one-character show with more of a narrative structure. But through revisions, read-throughs, advice from PURE Theatre's David Lee Nelson, and by enlisting the help of Henry Riggs of Nameless Numberhead, the final product began to materialize. "I started working with Henry and it was almost like we burned the forest to let the trees grow back," says Gardner.
They started workshopping some characters, fleshing them out in an unusual way. "I would go over to [Henry's] apartment and I would kind of wear something that character might wear and then he would just interview me in character," says Gardner. "I remember thinking, 'If anyone walked in right now they would just be looking at two insane people.'"
Insane or not, the process worked and Gardner and Riggs put together a kooky cavalcade of characters, bringing what Gardner thinks is the best out of the story and out of Gardner's ability to perform.
Though these characters aren't based on specific people, they are rooted in Gardner's life experience.
For all its social commentary, this production isn't out to offend anybody. "This show in no way has the objective to make fun of Christianity," says Gardner. "In fact, I hope it's a show that Christians can come to and be like, 'oh yeah, that is kind of true.'"
And from a performance aspect, Gardner hasn't left his improv ways behind. Though Drinking with Jesus is a fully scripted show, there's some freedom for the unexpected. "So that way, every performance is an opportunity to kind of discover something new and go back and put that into the script," says Gardner.
It's not sketch comedy. It's not stand-up. It's not improv. It's an unorthodox comedy show, the likes of which are on the rise in Charleston — and a trend that Gardner thinks is going to continue. "I think the next year is going to be a really fun year for the comedy scene," he says. "You're going to see a lot of cool stuff popping up."
Perhaps, this is just the beginning.