In 1993, Jimmy Ward presented an idea to his friend Malcolm Burgis, owner of The Windjammer: Ward wanted to produce a play at the Isle of Palms rock club during the slow winter months. While Burgis was skeptical at first, Ward convinced him and got the green light to put on The Last Meeting of the Knights of the White Magnolia by Preston Jones. Excited about the project, Ward advertised auditions for the play. But no one showed up, so Ward got a few of his friends to fill the roles. Despite their initial protestations that the play would not be well-received, opening night was packed. The Crabpot Players was born.
"I did the play at The Windjammer on a lark," says Ward. "I had no idea we'd be around for more than 20 years." Now in its 22nd season, the company is shifting from its roots as a community theater to a professional one.
The company is a labor of love for Ward — he's invested significant amounts of time and money in the theater, all while maintaining a CPA business and serving on the Isle of Palms City Council. In order to run a theater company on top of all that, a community theater model reliant on volunteers made the most sense.
But now Ward has decided to start producing professional plays — in other words, using experienced actors and directors, all of whom are paid professionals.
"Charleston audiences are getting more sophisticated, so we've really stepped up our game," he says. The company's first professional venture was the recent production Hogs, a script written by PURE Theatre co-founder Rodney Lee Rogers and directed by R. W. Smith, who's been a PURE Core Ensemble member since 2004. The play, which features a minimal set and a multimedia aspect, takes a more contemporary approach to theater — it's a modern-day, loose adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, and uses projections of hogs and pig farms by Miles Boinest to help tell the story.
And this move to more complicated productions with more experienced players is one that Ward is embracing. "Some of the productions we've done were not up to standards I could tolerate," he says. He acknowledges that community theater is important — and the Crabpot Players will still be offering some community programs — but Ward is enjoying the professional switch.
Their next production is the Tony-nominated musical [title of show] — and yes, that's the actual title of the show — directed by Chelsea DeRoché. It opens May 29.
Though relatively new to Charleston, DeRoché has already been involved with the Crabpot Players as an actress — she performed in the one-act play April 45th in January. She suggested [title of show] to Ward, and he happily agreed.
"[title of show] is such a powerful show," says DeRoché. The musical tells the story of two aspiring playwrights who have three weeks to whip up a musical for an upcoming juried musical festival. After being chosen by the festival for a Broadway run, the playwrights and the friends they've cast in the musical learn what it's like to sell their souls. According to DeRoché, the musical is remarkable in that its set is fairly small and that it takes place in one act.
DeRoché is also excited to work with professional actors. "The difference [between community and professional] is talent. With professional productions, you have people who are dedicated to theater," she says. Such actors are likely to have academic training and more experience than community theater participants, and the result, according to DeRoché, is a "great end product for the audience."
It's also fitting that [title of show] comes at this time in the Crabpot Players' evolution. The musical focuses on great acting and writing, offering the message that great theater really is a labor of love. The friends in [title of show] hastily throw together a play due to their shared love of theater; Crabpot Players originated in a similar fashion, and it continues to thrive more than 20 years later.