When Keely Enright and Dave Reinwald announced that the Village Playhouse was moving from Mt. Pleasant to downtown, they expected their supporters to be upset. But the couple was pleasantly surprised at the general reaction to the news.
"A lot of our donors and supporters really thought we needed to look downtown because we wouldn't get the credibility we deserved after 11 years, as long as we stayed in the suburbs," Enright says. "So once we couldn't find space in East Cooper, we really thought maybe we should take people's advice and start looking [downtown]."
For over a decade, the Village Playhouse has been a center for the arts in Mt. Pleasant. Located in a strip mall off Coleman Boulevard, the theater has built a loyal following of fans over the years, from young families to senior citizens. When they discovered that they wouldn't be able to renew their lease last year, they eventually settled on the old Meddin warehouse on Woolfe Street, a 17,000-square-foot building owned by one of the Village patrons, Doris Meddin. Built in 1903, it was used as a meat-packing plant until the early '80s, after which the College of Charleston used it for storage.
The building requires a lot of work — $800,000 worth, in fact. But in some ways, it's an ideal place for a theater. Because of its former life housing frozen meat, the walls are thick and insulated with cork, which gives the space fantastic acoustics. Unlike the cramped Mt. Pleasant location, the warehouse offers plenty of space to stretch out. They'll be removing part of the second floor to allow for high ceilings above the stage and adding mezzanine seating and a bar in the remaining upstairs. There will be an additional bar downstairs and cabaret-style seating, bringing the seat count up to 250. The roof is perfect for creating a rooftop deck, and there's a parking lot across the street — something other downtown theaters don't offer.
The building itself is smack dab in the middle of the peninsula's fastest-growing area — a new hotel is popping up just down the street, they're breaking ground on fancy new condos just around the corner, and a hip new bowling alley bar will be just a few blocks away. Mike Lata's soon-to-open restaurant The Ordinary Oyster Hall is practically next door, and later, the Midtown Project will complete the transition.
Although the move from the suburbs to the up-and-coming Upper King district will be a significant shift for the theater, Enright insists that they won't be changing their approach dramatically, although she is hoping to attract more diverse audiences. "When Dave and I first started, we were aiming the company at [people in their] early 30s. What we found in Mt. Pleasant was that Mt. Pleasant folks in that age range are very into their children," Enright says. "They were not a theater-going crowd.
"So after year one we really had to realize our audience was a slightly older crowd and skew up. So while we've always done theater we wanted, you always have to keep in mind your audience base," Enright says. "We've never been a conservative theater company. I think we'll be able to do more edgy pieces." They'll even host a late-night series in the storage space with shows like Frankenstein and a deconstructed version of A Christmas Carol.
The Village Playhouse on Woolfe is poised to be a hub for the neighborhood, and of the local theater scene in general. The renovation's second phase includes a large space that will be available for other arts organizations to rent. "If we're looking to create an arts quarter, which I think we should be — especially on Upper King — now we have an anchor," Enright says. "And that makes it easier, I think, to market successfully."
The company still has a long way to go to reach its goals. They've only raised $220,000 from their patron base, and so far they've received no assistance from the city. "At this point, Mayor Riley has been very enthusiastic about the project and very vocal in his support, but we haven't seen any funding from the City of Charleston," Enright says. "We're confident that once we get the ball rolling we'll get more help. We need more help." They're in the midst of taking out a loan so they can move forward.
"Those arts supporters who talk about revitalizing a community, we have put our money where our mouth is and we would love to see some other people do the same," Enright says.
The Village Playhouse is hosting their final show in their old space, Red, White, and Cash, June 29-July 7. It's an admittedly bittersweet time for the owners, but they're hoping to have the new space open by October.