Jeff Querin and Stephen Wayne have performed in some weird places — a mega church and dive bars, a fire hazard-filled warehouse and a medium-security prison. So when a disoriented downtown Dunkin' Donuts patron arrives at their new 34 West theater box office on Meeting Street searching for an iced latte, the duo isn't fazed.
"We've always worked in unconventional spaces," laughs co-owner, director, and bartender Wayne. "A former yogurt shop next to a Dunkin' Donuts kind of made sense to us." That former froyo shop belonged to Sweet Frog Yogurt, which closed last year. It's unrecognizable now as Wayne and Querin have renovated it into a 64-seat theater, complete with snacks from goat.sheep.cow, Wholly Cow Ice Cream, Carolina Popcorn, and Persimmon Cafe, in addition to craft beer and wine. That's where Wayne's bartender bit comes in.
The do-it-all duo might be new to Charleston's brick-and-mortar theater scene, but they've toured the country, making two previous stops in Charleston for Piccolo Spoleto. Those visits apparently had an effect.
Querin and Wayne moved to Charleston from Queens, N.Y. in January. "We've always wanted to have our own place, and Charleston just feels like home," Wayne says. "After the positive response from our Piccolo shows, we knew that our material would work here. Once we found the space, it was an easy transition."
The pair first met in 1998 while working together at a theater in Houston. "The company was dysfunctional," explains Wayne, who grew up performing theater in California. "We decided that we wanted our own dysfunction," jokes Querin, a lifelong performer hailing from Ohio.
The pair was driving down Highway 34 outside New Haven, Conn. when they hatched their plan. Like that, 34 West was born. However, there was an immediate bump in the road. The nomads needed cash.
"Our initial plan was to drive around the country to visit theaters we admired, but we ran out of money pretty fast," laughs Wayne. "We slept on the floor of Jeff's parents' house in Youngstown [Ohio] for a couple of months thinking about what to do next, and they suggested that we do a play in their hometown."
Querin and Wayne invited two former company members from Houston to put on the biblically-based John His Story, a play that Wayne had previously performed off-Broadway. They ended up with a nice turnout at a local church and an invitation to stay for a season. Thirty-four West had found a home — at least a temporary one. But once again, money became a factor.
"We didn't want to pay royalties and couldn't really afford to pay very many actors, so as I was getting my English degree at Youngstown [State University], we learned that writing sketch comedy and straight plays were something that I could do, and we began writing our own stuff," says Wayne.
What began as a method to keep down costs has become the pairs calling card. "We try to create a show where the audience feels like they are a part of the performance without feeling like anything is asked of them," Querin explains of his company's two- to four-person productions. "We want you to have a fun time and to really be in the moment, but we won't drag you on stage or embarrass you."
Although 34 West's shows can include improvisation, Querin and Wayne's organic process is more behind the scenes. "Improv terrifies me," Querin laughs. "Our audience might not know if what we're doing is a part of the show or not, but everything is planned — ad-libbing is fine — but the majority of what we do is planned."
Wayne and Querin create their signature shows, much in the vein of commedia dell'arte with a trifecta of characters: the buffoon, the lover, and the hero. One of their more popular pieces, We Go Everywhere Together, is about two best friends, one who can't see and one who can't hear ... and they go, well, everywhere together.
"Each play we write stands on its own, but behind all of that is a character with a wealth of history," Querin says. "When audiences love a show and tell us that they can't wait to come back, what they don't realize is that they're probably going to see this character again."
Wayne adds, "For example, a show like Will & Grace is so well-written, and the actors have refined their characters so well, that it really doesn't matter what characters like Karen and Jack do. We focus on the storytelling and work with a quality of actor that can capture the audience's attention without the need of major spectacle or a lot of props."
The theater hosted local actress and vocalist Mary Fishburne in a one-woman show called Divas in Distress in mid-August, and local actress Haydn Christina Haring stars in the theater's current sketch comedy Doo Wops & Beauty Shops.
Since opening in July, Querin and Wayne have positive responses from locals and tourists alike. The layout of the small theater means an audience of 30 easily feels like a full house. The space itself, while in the middle of the hustle and bustle of Hyman's and Sticky Fingers is easy to overlook. "We're the middle of it all ... you can hear people walking by on the sidewalk," Querin says. "But at the same time, we're kind of hidden."
The two tend bar at the theater and serve snacks themselves before the lights go down. "We've found that people enjoy interacting with us prior to the show and then seeing us on the stage," Wayne says. The pair have also begun discussing other ways to use the space.
"Now that we have a space, we're asking ourselves, 'What are the things that we've always wanted to do?' " Querin says. "It's like a gallery in a way, there are so many artists and opportunities to share someone's gift."
Querin and Wayne are finalizing plans for vocal and playwriting workshops, as well as a course they're calling, "Drama at Work," teaching people to apply theater principles, like role playing to discuss social issues such as race, ethics, and conflict resolution to a work environment. Querin, who holds a masters in educational theater from New York University, is especially interested in how theater transcends the stage into education, psychology, and medicine. "Over the years, we've learned that comedy is healing," Querin says. "There's tremendous depth to it." And now that the two have a Charleston theater home, they're ready to dive in and become a new part of the Holy City theater scene.
Thirty-Four West is located at 200 Meeting St., on the ground floor of the Bank of America building.
Performances are at 7 p.m. on Tuesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; and 3 p.m. on Sundays.
Doo Wops and Beauty Shops is currently running until Tues. Sept. 30. Tickets are $25 ($22.50 for groups of eight or more). Tickets can be purchased at 34west.org or by calling (843) 901-9343.