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Six directors, 126 actors, and two days in North Chuck

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Despite the wishes — and in many cases, the fears — of local residents, Charleston remains a film-industry also-ran, a whistle-stop location for multi-million-dollar Hollywood productions in need of a particular backdrop.

But if there's reason to be optimistic about the future of a regional bootstrap film scene, the primary evidence was on display on Jan. 17-18 at the South of Broadway Theatre Company in North Charleston.

Here's what it looked like by the numbers: Two days, six directors casting as many as nine film and stage productions, and 126 actors — most of them previously unknown to the directors and their companies — cycling through a mass casting call in five-minute segments. Nerve-jangling for the actors? Sure. But a tangible step toward a better-connected local indie community.

J.C. Conway, director of Theatre RE/verv/ (which recently announced it was taking up residence at South of Broadway), was the driving force behind the casting call. His calendar required efficiency: RE/verv/ has to find an ensemble for its 2009-2010 season, and Holy City, the feature-length Charleston vampire thriller Conway wrote with local indie dynamo Nick Smith, needs actors. Lots of them. (Smith is also a City Paper contributor.)

Once Conway and Smith booked the venue and put the word out to the actors' grapevine, the men figured there were other local directors with similar needs. Eric Vincent needed actors for TV commercials, plus the feature Small Altars (co-written by Smith). Mark Gorman had a play about painter Jackson Pollack to cast, plus a 35-minute short film called The Temperature of Truth. Throw in South of Broadway's Joe Baldino and late-addition Gus Smythe (a member of the PURE Theatre cosmos who recently signed on to direct an unnamed film script by PURE's Rodney Lee Rodgers), and the men behind the table represented a sizable chunk of the Lowcountry's low-budget production muscle.

Casting began Saturday at 12:30 p.m. and quickly fell into a rhythm: Bring in the next actor, call on one of the directors to read the other part from the script, watch, and record. This turned the day into a deja vu procession of noirish vampires, annoying little-girl cookie sellers, and lying teenagers, each role reprised repeatedly.

"With so many directors casting so many parts, the thing is that the actor might be reading for one role, but the other guys are looking at them for their parts," Conway says. "It's nerve-wracking, but we're all actors. We've all been in that same spot. We know they're nervous, and we can see past that."

Smith said the local filmmaking community has always been fairly cooperative — shoestring financing requires it — but it's also been more-or-less insular. The mass casting call was an effort to change that.

"When we've cast things in the past, we've gone to the people we knew could do the job," Smith says. "There's always a lot going on, but people don't know about it."

The actors came despite no advertising, and while most were local, 27 came from out-of-town, 12 from out-of-state. The quality of the talent varied wildly (some came with headshots and info sheets; others struggled even to read the words on the script), but Conway deemed the experiment a success — and confirmed that several previously-unknown-to-them actors had likely earned callbacks and a future in the local filmmaking scene.

"I'd say we probably cast most of the roles with what we saw today," Conway says. "My impression of (the local talent pool) totally changed, and I think the fact that we were in that North Charleston location made a big difference.

"If we'd done it downtown, a lot of downtown people would have come, but doing it here, we got people who were more comfortable coming to a central location. That was very exciting to me. We had a good turnout of African-American and minority actors, and that's hard to get sometimes.

"Absolutely I'd do it again, maybe once or twice a year," Conway adds, "and I would welcome any other directors or organizations that want to take part."

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