Too many arts organizations have learned the hard way that if you're not good enough, you simply won't survive. Midtown/Sheri Grace Productions is one company that's managed to endure staff changes, financial hardships, and, most recently, the suburbs. The theater company set up shop in James Island in 2007 and recently expanded next door with a black-box theater.
"I think that people on James Island that have seen us might think that because we're in the suburbs we must not be very good or we must be an upstart group," says owner Sheri Grace Wenger. "But we've been around for awhile, and we have a really, really good track record."
Indeed, Wenger founded her company in 1989 and has seen a lot since then. Sheri Grace Productions started out doing dinner theater and eventually renovated an old Hardee's on Calhoun Street, where the now-defunct Millennium Music sits empty. She's been a coordinator with the Piccolo Spoleto theater series, has worked as artistic director for the Footlight Players, and has collaborated with the Village Playhouse's Keely Enright and David Reinwald before there even was a Village Playhouse.
After taking a few years off, Wenger opened the Charleston Acting Studio in the corner of a quiet strip mall on Folly Road. While the initial space was mainly used to house classes, rehearsals, and the occasional performance, the recent expansion gives the company much more performance space.
Technical Director Robin Farmer, who's been a jack of all trades with the company since the beginning, has been working to transform the space from an appliance store to a full-fledged theater in anticipation of its debut performance, Crimes of the Heart, which opened last week. A large, adjustable stage sits in the front of the room, while church pews, donated by New Bethel Reformed Episcopal Church, reach all the way to the door. The back rooms include space for storage and building sets.
While Wenger hopes the new space will help bring more attention to the company, recent financial challenges have led her to seek nonprofit status. With the help of a new board of directors and Development Director Meg Richards, Wenger hopes to have outside help within the next year.
"We've never been nonprofit before because we've always been able to sustain our operations through ticket sales, but now with the economy the way it is and being on James Island and not getting a lot of attention ... we need some funding," Wenger says. "Because we're tucked back here, it's really hard to get the word out, especially when you have no marketing budget to speak of.
"The reason I've always avoided it is because board members have power over the artistic director essentially and watch everything that's going on dollar wise, which is fine with me," she adds. "But once we go nonprofit, we can set up to raise money, write grants, and ask for corporate sponsors who will either give us cash or some kind of major contribution." High on their wish list: An attention-grabbing marquee sign that will direct drivers to their out-of-the-way location.
But don't think they're sitting idly by waiting for funding. The company has an eclectic fall lineup that includes theater, stand-up comedy, and another round of the multimedia SHORT ATTN SPAN THTR. Wenger's son Ryan Ahlert, who works as operations manager and coordinator, has contributed to the planning of the upcoming season. An actor himself, Ahlert cut his teeth in Charleston's theater scene.
"I was a single mother, so I would take my children with me, and they didn't have any choice but to be raised in theater," Wenger says. "So both of my children turned out to be theater majors. My daughter escaped and became a doctor, and Ryan stuck with it."
Ahlert also helps train acting students at Charleston Acting Studio.
"There's more talent in town, but with more theaters in town, we need more actors," Wenger says. "That's why I'm glad that we've got our school going."
With so many changes on deck, it seems inevitable that locals — both on James Island and beyond — will soon discover the area's newest community theater.
"I want James Island to know we're here," Wenger says, "and that we're not a new company."