Yesterday, I received an Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Award from the South Carolina Arts Commission. This award was for my work as an individual artist but in the theatre, there really is no such thing. Theatre is a collaborative art. While I’m honored that my work as a director, scenic designer, and playwright are being recognized, I know that none of my work would ever have seen the light of day without the contributions of hundreds of theatre artists who have made up Charleston Stage’s staffs and production teams over the years.
I was honored to know Elizabeth O’Neill Verner in the twilight of her life. Mrs. Verner, like many Charleston artists of her generation, was in the final years of her long and distinguished career. In addition to Mrs. Verner, Charleston’s luminaries at the time included Milby Burton of the Charleston Museum, artists William Halsey and Corrie McCallum, Lucien de Groote of the Charleston Symphony, as well as my mentor, the multi-talented Emmett Robinson of the Footlight Players. These creative artists and their brilliance lit up Charleston’s cultural scene for a generation. Mrs. Verner’s daughter, Betty Hamilton, was also a mentor of mine. I was one the many struggling literary and visual artists whom Mrs. Hamilton championed. Her Tradd Street Press published my one and only children’s book, The Tradd Street Follies, in 1978, the same year I founded Charleston Stage. I owe an enormous debt to that great generation of Charleston artists who preceded me, many whom were members of the famed 1930’s Charleston Renaissance. There is no doubt that my work is built upon the artistic foundations they laid.
Legendary folksinger Pete Seeger once said that “there is an eternity and we are it.” We are the living bridge that links one artistic generation to the next. As I accepted my Verner award yesterday, I was reminded of those Charleston artists who paved the way for me, many of whom personally championed my dream of what would become Charleston Stage. While I am proud of the great productions and many original plays and musicals we’ve produced at Charleston Stage in the Historic Dock Street Theatre and elsewhere over the past 32 years, I am most proud of the fact that Charleston Stage continues to provide opportunities for the next generation of Charleston’s actors, singers, dancers, and scenic artists to try their artistic wings. Only with the never-ending support of my remarkable colleagues and generous contributions from the Charleston community, would this be possible. While yesterday I was one of the ones who got to stand in the spotlight, I know the recognition I received was only made possible by the many who all too often are backstage, hidden in the shadows.
I am reminded of a scene from one of my first plays, The Boy Who Stole the Stars, first produced at Piccolo Spoleto in 1981. It too spoke of the passing of the torch from one generation to the next. In the final scene, a little boy, mourning the loss of his grandfather, muses:
I think I see my grandfather in me sometimes:
in the way I stand or hold my head or in something I’ve said.
And sometimes I think I see everyone I’ve ever known;
everything that ever was—
walking in my shadow.
I know that the shadow I’ve cast, in my artistic life here in Charleston, has been illuminated by the light of those who’ve supported my work and the work of Charleston Stage all these years. To them I say “take a bow, this award is for you too”.