"We're shaking things up this year," says J.C. Conway, director of local company Theatre /verv/, and he's not alone. Charleston's board treaders are determined to try fresh tactics this year to snag larger audiences, ranging from new venues to more challenging productions. Those companies that aren't taking a radical approach are going back to basics.
"We were very clear when we began what we were about," says Village Playhouse cofounder and producing director Keely Enright. Since then, she feels that what she and her husband, cofounder and technical director Dave Reinwald, were trying to accomplish was lost. In their sixth season they aim to get back to their "initial passion" of taking classic literary 20th-century works and presenting them in an intimate space. "We wanted to take things that have been in larger theaters and make them smaller," says Enright, emphasizing her desire to bring them down to an intimate level that would appeal to a TV-watching audience. "Characters sometimes seem whiny on a big stage and they can be hard to care about, but if they're right here next to you, you do care."
As Mt. Pleasant's only repertory theatre company, the strip mall-based Playhouse has its own niche audience but is always trying to attract new blood from other parts of Charleston. "We've just signed a new three-year lease," Enright says, "and it's tremendously expensive — above $6,000 a month — but we've figured out how to keep ourselves afloat. Now we're building up our membership base."
In an attempt to appeal to a broad range of tastes as well as their own, Reinwald and Enright are mixing dependable comedies (Neil Simon, Alan Ayckbourn) with solid drama (David Mamet, Tennessee Williams). Also on the roster are the recent Tony-winning Urinetown: The Musical and the tender tearjerker She Loves Me.
Enright's own penchant for slice-of-life drama and eras less well known to audiences is represented by the post-WWII drama The Subject Was Roses. "It may not be our big moneymaker," she says, "but we want to show some things that people won't ordinarily experience. Although they're good moneymakers, you won't see Steel Magnolias here and we won't ever do Arsenic and Old Lace."
Over at the Dock Street Theatre on Church Street, Charleston Stage's founder and Producing Director Julian Wiles is also interested in putting on lesser-known shows alongside obvious crowd-pullers like Ragtime and The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. "You can't just pick popular things if they're not strong," he says, explaining that although his productions have familiar stories and general appeal, he's always looking for "unique, well-written plays." The example he uses from last season, the hackneyed Baby, does not bode well for lovers of unique theatre at the Dock Street; this year's Moonlight & Magnolias is a better indication of what Wiles is after.
Taking a humorous look at the rushed rewrite of the Gone with the Wind movie, Magnolias is a twist on that old theatrical standby, the backstage story. A small cast playing a variety of larger-than-life characters? Check. Plenty of scope for broad comedy? Check. Incompatible personalities trapped by desperate circumstances? Check. References to a classic slice of popular culture? Double-check. "People know something about [the backstory]," Wiles assumes, "but they don't know that the screenplay was totally rewritten in five days."
Another fairly new play, 2001 Obie winner The Syringa Tree, captivated Wiles when he saw it last year in Atlanta. So he's bringing the production team to Charleston for a run in the new year, serving as the lynchpin of a season that aims at providing the goods for "sophisticated theatre audiences and the tourist market that comes in."
Wiles should know those audiences pretty well — this is his 29th year as a theatre director in Charleston. He's noticed some positive developments in the local theatrical community over the past seven to eight years, with the establishment of a few dedicated companies with a passion for the art form and the city.
"We now have an incredible range of things people can choose from, from cutting edge to musicals," says Wiles of Charleston's array of theatre companies. "The theatrical menu is bigger than it's ever been. People don't want to see the same thing all the time, just Broadway plays or just musicals; they want to sample different things." Wiles admits that not every meal will be a gourmet one, but the tourist bumps help to sustain less palatable patches. "Every single production isn't going to be brilliant, but there are 400 performances a year in Charleston and a huge number of people go."
Rather than seeing the other theatres in town as mere morsels to his feast, Wiles has ganged up with them to form Theatre Charleston, the coalition formerly known as the League of Charleston Theatres. Partly that's to help lure the tourists: "We want to make Charleston a theatre destination — people can come from out of town and see one or two shows in a weekend."
Theatrecharleston.com provides schedule information and links for all five participating companies; actors can use it to find out about auditions and should eventually be able to add their resumes to the site. "We're reaching out to the other theatres in town to join," Wiles says.
That's all dandy, but what does it mean for the rest of us? Wiles hopes that at some point, the site will provide discounts on tickets for individuals who join the league. In the long term, the best results might come from the increased communication and harmony the organization brings — local companies will stop grousing about each other and concentrate on producing great shows.
"Although Charleston Stage is huge, we don't feel like we matter less or we have less to offer," says Sharon Graci, cofounder of Pure Theatre on East Bay Street, on her company's role in Theatre Charleston. Graci sees the league as a great opportunity to encourage audiences to be arts-inclined, tying in with her own desire to "attract, breed, and develop" challenging theatre. Whereas Enright and Wiles avoid quick-fire contemporary plays, Pure revels in them.
For its fourth season, Pure will present five Southeastern premieres, an American premiere (Pure International, directed by Bulgarian Alexander Morfov), and a couple of world premiere shows. The first of these will be Killing Chickens by the company's cofounder, Rodney Lee Rogers. The other will be an as-yet unselected play to emerge from the company's playwriting group, the Pure Lab. Both showcase new work developed by the theatre. Play development was one of the programs that Theatre Charleston members picked up on during an initial fact-finding mission to Chicago. "We want to emulate those company's programs," Graci says, "but still meet Pure's needs. So we might go with two long one-act plays chosen from the work written by the seven writers we have in the lab."
Graci describes this season as a mature one, as she and Rogers bring their company back to its Pure roots. Just like Enright, they feel confident and established enough to reaffirm what they set out to do. Since Pure was founded by actors and is geared towards them, they plan to get more technical support. That way, with more dedicated designers and stagehands, there'll be less to distract the thesps from what they do best. Pure's also moving the start times for all its shows from 8 p.m. to an earlier 7:30 p.m. kickoff, as well as introducing Sunday Brunch Matinée shows, with light nibbles at 1 p.m. and performances beginning at 2 p.m.
One unavoidable distraction that Pure must face is a move from their Cigar Factory space. "It's pretty definite that the Factory will close to tenants in December," Graci sighs. While the company explores some short-term options, it ultimately wants to find a place where they can expand their space over a 10-year period.
At least Pure has a home. The 10-year-old Art Forms and Theatre Concepts, Chucktown's African-American company, finagles performance time in the Dock Street and Footlight Players Theatre. The equally venerable Actors' Theatre of South Carolina, still waiting patiently for its new venue in the pending Folly Beach Fine Arts Center to become available, will team up with Footlight Players on the Dylan Thomas play A Child's Christmas in Wales.
Pure isn't the only group on the move, either. Charleston Stage is preparing to make an announcement on its own search for a space this month; its Dock Street Theatre home will close in June 2007 for a two-year makeover. "We're staying in our present space completely for this season," says Wiles. "We haven't closed." Meanwhile, doubtless motivated by occasionally disappointing audience numbers and a less-than-perfect rehearsal space for its shows in the downtown Dark Room, Theatre /verv/ is switching its shows to West Ashley's Map Room. With its fresh-faced director and cast and a season of high-strung shows, /verv/ is geared towards younger crowds and hopes to find several in its new setting.
"We're the first company in West Ashley, and I think we'll benefit from that," says J.C. Conway. Using the Village Playhouse as his niche market model, Conway has organized /verv/ around a core group of four actors — himself, Jan Gilbert, Beth Curley, and David Barr. "I'm by no means saying we'll only do stuff with us," assures Conway. "Our second show, Things You Shouldn't Say Past Midnight, has a larger cast. But casting can be tough in this town."
One way to encourage actors to join a production and stick with it to the bitter end of closing night is to pay them. Up until this year, only three companies threw their actors a bone — Charleston Stage, Pure, and Actors' Theatre of South Carolina. Despite its tight budget, the Playhouse will join them in paying cast members this season for all but one production — She Loves Me, their latest coproduction with The Company Company (which doesn't include players' payouts in its remit).
There's one institution on the peninsula where the actors pay the company instead of the other way round. "They pay us to get better," says Mark Landis, director of Arms and the Man at College of Charleston's School of the Arts. These student productions hold their own with Charleston's professional fare, and this year SOTA's trimming its number of Shakespeare plays down to one (King Lear) because of the amount of work involved in mounting a production.
"It's to give our overworked technical department a break," explains Joy Vandervort-Cobb, who will direct Wedding Band for SOTA in October. "When we're doing all our shows, those people are torn, and we're looking to lessen the load on the scene and costume shops. Not many people want to drop shows. It comes down to man hours, reality, and costs."
SOTA is focusing on six shows this season, with ingredients that Vandervort-Cobb considers atypical. "I think we just went crazy," she jokes. "We're just going through a phase."
While CofC cuts down on its bardwork, the Footlight Players are boosting its own number of productions in honor of its 75th season. The bulk's made up of board-selected favorites from decades past, including Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca and a community theatre staple, the Village Playhouse no-no Arsenic and Old Lace. 2006 will also see the introduction of a new offshoot season, "Salt & Battery," in part to get younger audiences into the theatre. The experiment was first tried 50 years ago, when avant-garde shows ran concurrent with the regular stagings. The edgier productions will start at 10:30 p.m. on the same nights as three of the retrospective shows; for example, David Mamet's Romance is set to parallel Inherit the Wind.
Apparently Charleston theatre works in cycles — every few years, the larger companies realize they're getting staid and decide to shake things up a bit. They stage more challenging plays, then revert to more marketable stuff when the box office receipts disappoint them. Luckily for audiences, those companies seem to have short memories and the cycle is beginning all over again. — Nick Smith