From charleston stage's first forty-five years
personal recollections by founder julian wiles
Charleston Stage has produced 320 shows in our first 45 seasons. There are so many amazing shows and imaginative moments that are memorable to our company’s history. It’s been difficult to include just a few in this retrospective. Many shows not mentioned here are just as fondly remembered by our artists and patrons. But the following selected shows made a difference in some way to Charleston Stage’s evolution, were especially imaginative and important to us as artists, or were special touchstones in Charleston Stage forty-five year history.
The cast of our first production of A Christmas Carol (1978).
A Christmas Carol (1978)
Charleston Stage’s very first show.
We opened our very first show in December of 1978 with an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol by the Minneapolis Children’s Theatre Company. Family and friends helped make the first costumes—including my wife-to-be, Jenny. As I remember, they were sewing right up until the final rehearsal. We had a minimal set of a London street scene represented only by a few street signs, and most of the furniture, beds, and tables actually came from my apartment! Music, accompanied by a single piano, was put together by the late Ben Hutto, a choral instructor at Porter Gaud who would later become the music director at the National Cathedral in Washington. Thanks to Ben, we had some glorious carols.
The spirits were played by kids—a rather odd casting choice, but I had started the company as a youth theatre (we were then known as the Young Charleston Theatre Company, modeled somewhat on London’s Young Vic). I remember “Christmas Past” was played by a little boy hidden in the canopy of Scrooge’s bed who plopped down to scare poor ol’ Ebenezer! A few days before the show opened, my Mom, Dad and some family friends, Doraine and Luther Wannamaker, arrived from the farm where I had grown up with a huge truckload of greens. Doraine and my Mom fashioned over 30 live wreaths that hung from the sconces in the theatre, and my Dad and Luther helped put up two 12-foot live trees in the lobby. I was able to lure the legendary Bill Bender, then in his early 70’s and perhaps the best-known Charleston community actor, to play Scrooge.
While we’ve produced over 20 productions of A Christmas Carol over the years, each growing more and more elaborate with spirits flying through the air and now a live orchestra, that first production had its own magic. And when snow fell at the end of the show, it was (as it always is) a magical moment—Scrooge had been reborn and a new theatre company had taken flight.
Jerry Lee Rhodan as Foxxy Fox and Evie McGee (later wife of Steven Colbert) as Ramblin Rabbit in CaroliniAntics (1979). Rosa Lampin as the Country Bunny in The Country Bunny (1982).
CAROLINIANTICS (1979) AND THE COUNTRY BUNNY (1982)
These two adaptations began Charleston Stage’s long tradition of producing works that celebrate the rich heritage of the South Carolina Lowcountry.
I based CaroliniAntics (which no one could pronounce) on African American folktales and songs spread throughout South Carolina. Many of these Gullah folktales were collected with the 1930’s WPA writer’s project, and songs were collected by the Freedman’s Bureau on St. Helena Island during the Reconstruction period. My wife, Jenny, had learned a number of Sea Island African American games, which she used in her kindergarten classroom. In the lobby at The Garden Theatre on King Street where this production took place, Jenny arranged demonstrations of sweetgrass basket making and shrimp net weaving by local professional artisans, and the ironwork of Philips Simmons. CaroliniAntics was later renamed Beneath the Sweetgrass Moon and produced in 2003 and 2017.
I adapted The Country Bunny from the children’s book DuBose Heyward wrote for his daughter, Jennifer. The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes was published in 1939 and featured the artwork of Marjorie Wise Brown, best known for the classic illustrations in Goodnight Moon. The original drawings for Heyward and Brown’s book are kept at the Gibbes Museum of Art. The show also featured traditional Lowcountry spirituals and beautiful soprano Rosa Lampkin in the lead role.
Will Applegate and Bill Bender in the 1981 production. Bill Bender was also in the original 1979 production while Colin Somers played the character of the boy in the original production.
the boy who stole the stars (1981)
My first original play.
I worked on the boy who stole the stars when I was in my early 20’s. It sprouted out of a childhood obsession with astronomy—I grew up in the space age. The play then evolved into a story about a boy and his beloved grandfather who becomes suddenly withdrawn because, as we learn later, the grandfather is dying. The play revolves around a legend the grandfather tells his grandson that if you could steal the stars and bring them to earth, there would be no illness or death. So, with the genuine love kids are apt to display, the boy sets out to steal the stars. Along the way, he battles “Draco the Dragon” (it’s a constellation, if you are wondering).
It’s a naïve, fantastical tale, and I wondered at the time if audiences would take to a story for kids about death. At the time, most theatre for young people was along the fairytale lines, so the show was pretty advanced for its era. It had projections (using slide projectors—remember those?), and a dazzling percussion score by David Maves of the College of Charleston, complete with tympani, xylophones, and even gongs. I had a great cast: seventy-somethings Bill and Lenore Bender and 10 year olds Colin Somers and Jenny Presti.
But I still worried about how a play about a little boy who loses his grandfather would be received. Of course, despite the theme, the play was not meant to be depressing, and I hoped it was filled with enough pathos and humor for audiences to enjoy. I remember standing in the back of the house, pacing behind the last row, wondering what would happen. Then, there was a laugh, maybe two—and then a few more, and the laughter was infectious. That magic of live theatre took over and enchanted the audience. At the end of the show came one of those moments playwrights live for—silence. The central character, “Nicholas,” had just concluded his final lines:
I think I see my grandfather in me sometimes
In the way I speak or turn my head
And sometimes I think I see everyone I have ever known
Walking in my shadow.
The lights faded, the curtain fell, and I thought the silence would last forever, but it could only have been a few moments. And then there was applause, thunderous applause. I realized for the first time in my life that something that meant so much to me could mean so much to others as well. I was hooked, and in many ways have spent my writing career trying to recapture that most wonderful moment.
All was not perfect, however. In between scenes a poet character would appear; a little boy grown up reflecting on things years later through poems he had written. With each appearance it seemed to stop the show dead. It was played by Thomas Gibson who went on to fame in movies and TV (Dharma and Greg, Chicago Hope, Criminal Minds). Reviewers hated this character and said it was unnecessary (they were right). One critic called Thomas’s character a “poetry-spouting twit”, so we had a T-Shirt made for Thomas with that quote on it. Fortunately, my rookie playwright stumble didn’t seem to spoil Thomas’ career. Later when I revived the play and the show was published, I wisely dropped this character.
The original production, produced at the first Piccolo Spoleto Festival in 1979, was a total sellout with an extra holdover show that had to be added. The best moment for me was when I walked out of the theatre behind Dottie D’Anna and her companion Kitt Lyons. Dottie and I had knocked heads the year before when we both worked for the Footlight Players. She was the veteran professional director while I was the brash, upstart kid, so often we had not seen eye to eye. I had left the Footlight Players only a year before to start The Young Charleston Theatre Company. As Dottie and Kitt were leaving the theatre, Dottie noticed me behind her and turned to say, “That was wonderful–moving–you should be very proud of this.” And, I was. I still am.
The cast of the original 1979 production of Seize the Street! atop the George Street Parking Garage. Subsequent productions appeared atop the Cumberland and Concord Street Garages.
Seize the Street! (1979, 1982, 1983 tour of england, and 1994)
From the top of a Charleston parking garage to the streets of London.
The original production of Seize the Street was the finale of our first season (1979) and was a celebratory, creative musical. It was produced atop the George Street Parking Garage. In many ways, it put us on the map in the Charleston arts scene with its imaginative setting and a giant half pipe skateboard ramp that appeared in the finale. This was years before X-games or skateboard parks, and our skateboard ramp set was probably one of the first ever created in Charleston! The show featured an original score by then 17 year-old Thomas Cabaniss who would go on to Yale and become a leading composer and musical educator working with the Lincoln Center and the New York and Philadelphia Orchestras. Today, he teaches at the Juilliard School.
The show tells the story of a neighborhood where people don’t get along so well—old people annoyed by young skateboarders and a somewhat segregated neighborhood where people don’t know one another. When a freeway project is planned to destroy their neighborhood, the disparate neighbors come together to ”seize the street,” demonstrating together to preserve their homes.
We revived the show to great success in 1982 and in our audience one night was an English actor, Charles Lewsen, in town to perform in a Spoleto Show at the Dock Street Theatre. He was amazed by our musical and asked if we’d consider touring it in Great Britain. He thought it would be a big success—especially considering that at that time shows for young people were all the rage across the pond. The idea of a tour seemed far-fetched and, quite frankly, I forgot about it. Months later, Charles called from London (a really big deal in those days) and said he had spoken to the British Youth Theatre Association that agreed to arrange our ground transportation and accommodations while we toured youth theatres in England, if we could raise the money to fly over. Unfortunately, once we added up the costs, transportation alone was a whopping $60,000. Still some parents stepped in, notably Flori Fair, whose daughter Bernie was in the show, and we put on months of bake sales, chocolate bar sales, and the like. Successful fundraising followed and soon we began to close in on the travel costs.
We announced our plans to remount the show at the next Piccolo Spoleto Festival to raise the remaining funds. This time, the show was staged atop the recently-completed Cumberland Street Parking Garage. The show opened to great reviews and packed audiences. In previous productions, we had gotten lucky and hadn’t needed to cancel a single performance due to rain, but this time we were not so fortunate. A huge thunderstorm descended on Charleston with brutal winds–so brutal that they destroyed all of our scenery on top of the parking garage! However, we just happened to have a duplicate and smaller set designed to go to England with us, so we moved our final performances to the then unrestored Memminger Auditorium where it was housed.
Then we were off to Atlanta with a dozen teenage actors, crew members, and a giant skateboard ramp that had been disassembled and packed into three huge wooden crates. We had checked with Delta on the size of the crates, but when we arrived in Atlanta we discovered that they were too large to fit through the doors of the plane. Fortunately this was before the age of TSA and better security, so the pilot allowed us to take the tools we had brought with us to reassemble the set, and take apart the crates to feed the disassembled skateboard ramp piece by piece into the belly of the 707!
We arrived in London with a cast of 30 kids, adults, dancers, skateboarders, and a live band of five musicians. Our first performance was in a London East End school, followed by various shows at youth theatres and communities from Reading to York, closing with our final curtain at a posh boarding school in Wales. The American TV Show “Fame” had just become a hit in England and many British kids were convinced we were from that show. We didn’t mind, and I was stunned to see that a show about neighbors coming together in Charleston, South Carolina had international appeal. Audiences just loved our young performers.
Ironically, I had gotten the idea for this show several years before when I had backpacked as a grad student in London. Britain’s National Theatre had just opened on the banks of the Thames, and underneath was a huge parking garage (what the British call a “car park”). When I went to see a show there, I found scores of kids skating up and down the ramps of the parking garage–the idea for Seize the Street was born. Thus, taking it back to Britain brought the show full circle. Though this was Charleston Stage’s one and only international tour, we had a truly great adventure.
Bob Nicolai, Alison Kennedy, Julie Mathis, and Clay Young–the first A-Team, our teen Tech Theatre Apprentice program, now known as TheatreWings.
the a-team (1986)
The beginning of Charleston Stage’s TheatreWings High School Apprentice Program.
While volunteers, including teens, took part in building many of Charleston Stage’s sets and costumes in the early days, in 1986 we started a formal teen apprentice company that focused on set construction. Bob, Alison, Julie, and Clay were the first members. They met each Tuesday afternoon with me at the then dilapidated Memminger Auditorium and for three hours each week we would build scenery—in fact, almost all the scenery for that season. Over time the A-Team continued to evolve and grow. For two summers we had a free 3 weeks summer training camp led by my friend Larry Deckel, then the College Apprentice Coordinator and a director at Actors Theatre of Louisville. As the program grew to include master classes in sets, costumes, sound, lighting, and stage management, we renamed it our TheatreWings High School Appretice program. Today it has almost fifty members who continue to build sets, props, costumes, and work backstage on the running crews of our shows, all the while learning the ins and outs of everything you don’t see onstage that it takes to make a show.
Academy Award-winning composer John Williams.
fanfare for ten year olds (1988)
Legendary Star Wars composer John Williams penned a fanfare for the opening of our 10th Season.
To celebrate our 10th anniversary, on a whim I wrote a letter to composer John Williams, famous for his Star Wars, Jurassic Park and Olympics themes, asking if he would write a fanfare to open our season. Amazingly, I got a call from his assistant saying he loved the idea and would work on it for us. The plan was for him to come to Charleston and conduct, but Williams became seriously ill that year and had to postpone even his 100th anniversary tour for the Boston Pops, where he was the Music Director. The Fanfare got delayed too, but at the end of that 10th Anniversary Season the Charleston Symphony was joined by a local church handbell choir to play the premiere onstage. Unfortunately Mr. Williams himself couldn’t attend, but it was still a special event and we’ve had the privilege to use the Fanfare for our video retrospectives and other special occasions.
Jeff Johnson as Peter Pan in our Peter Pan original play (1989).
the original peter pan (1989)
Volunteers Send An Acclaimed Classic Soaring.
A highlight of our 11th season was a major production of our original version of Peter Pan. This show featured Flying by Foy (the first time we used flying onstage), a huge cast, and five sets (including a full scale pirate ship). The Foys were responsible for the flying in the original Broadway production of Peter Pan with Mary Martin, which I had seen over and over again on TV when I was a kid. This show was a massive undertaking created by a mostly volunteer set and costume crew along with our A-Team high school apprentices. While we still appreciate the contributions of volunteers to supplement our staff of 37 full time professionals, in the early days of the company it was almost all volunteers who created the remarkable work.
Hurricane Hugo’s hit to Charleston on the High Battery wall of East Bay Street (1990).
The Hugo Monologues (1990)
In September of 1989, Charleston was hit by Hurricane Hugo, a near category five hurricane. Power was out for over 3 weeks, schools were closed for a month, and the city was under curfew. When I came home to my house in Mt. Pleasant, with 12 trees down and 3 on the roof, I had to hike into my neighborhood because roads were closed by downed trees. The farce Scapino was in rehearsal, and fortunately the set had been finished and was waiting in our scene shop which, along with the Dock Street Theatre, escaped the storm unscathed. But we were determined that the show must go on; the opening for Scapino was 2 weeks away. The biggest challenge was finding the cast who had been scattered across 5 states in an era without cell phones. It took time to track everyone down but, at last, the cast returned to town. Without electricity and with a curfew in place, we had to rehearse during the day and open the loading door of the scene shop for light. Scapino opened on time now billed as “comic relief,” and performances were offered on a pay-what-you-can basis and audiences loved it.
But the Hugo show I remember was a different one. At the time, I taught a master class for our high school-aged TheatreWings Apprentices. When we returned from the storm, gathering for the first time, I gave them an assignment to write and perform a monologue about their Hugo experiences. Their stories ranged from the few who stayed and weathered the storm and its terror, evacuations far and wide, and the recovery—eating food out of freezers before it spoiled, neighborhood cookouts, etc. Their monologues were powerful and heartfelt because these were events they had lived through, not just scripts they had picked up. I knew these monologues needed to be shared, so we arranged a performance for family and friends.
The following spring, Charleston County Schools planned an evening of performances drawing on high school students from different arts programs in the area. Among the musical and choral groups, our TheatreWings students were invited to perform. The venue, however, was the 800 seat Sottile Theatre—years before we had modern sound amplification technology. I was fearful their intimate performances would be lost in this large theatre, but still we showed up to perform. We were late in the program, the audience was getting restless and just before we performed, a chorale group took the stage and sang something in Latin. It was lovely, but I feared the audience was being lulled to sleep. I really felt sorry for our young performers as I thought the audience would not want to sit still for another group of performances. We were announced and the audience was obviously agitated–I thought the night would be a disaster. But then there was magic—the magic of live theatre.
As each story unfolded, you could hear a pin drop. Because our audience had lived through Hugo and its aftermath, they were a perfect match for us. Unfortunately the performance wasn’t recorded, and most sadly, I did not keep copies of the monologues these imaginative students had written. But the monologue I remember most was one that ended something like this:
“No power, schools closed, thousands of trees down, National Guard helicopters overhead, thousands of volunteers pouring into our neighborhood clearing roads, downed trees, helping to repair our homes, and day after day, the sound of chainsaws buzzing in my ears. And now, three weeks later, I’m heading back to school and I realized, damn, it’s over!”
With those final words, the audiences erupted in cheers and applause and, in an era when there are too many standing ovations, I knew this one was truly heartfelt. I don’t know if I have ever enjoyed an ovation more. For here were simple, heartfelt stories—no sets, no costumes, no mics, no special effects—touching an audience in a special way—that beautiful moment, all too rare when an audience and performers share a special connection together. It sure doesn’t get much better than that!
The cast of the third production of Helium (2011).
HELIUM (1989, 1999, 2011, 2018)
Losing your mind and finding yourself. My favorite original play I’ve written.
This is my favorite play I’ve ever written. I originally wrote Helium in 1990 after reading a memoir by New York Times humor columnist Russell Baker, entitled Growing Up. Mr. Baker opened this Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir by observing that his 80-year-old mother’s mind “could wander free through space and time. Some days she went to weddings and funerals that had taken place a half-century earlier…she moved across time…with a speech and ease beyond the gift of physical science.” While Mr. Naker certainly saw the sadness of his mother’s affliction, he also saw that there was freedom in her as well. From that thought, the first production of Helium was born.
Over the next few years I was able to experience aging and dementia first hand. My delightful grandmother, having reached the age of 100, passed away still with the twinkle in her eye and her good humor mostly intact. I watched as my mother and her sister, her primary caregivers, found their way through my grandmother’s last difficult years.
A few years later, my wonderful mother-in-law became lost on many days in the fog of dementia. It was a challenging time for our family, especially my wife Jenny, who became her primary caregiver. Our kids were little and they marveled at their Granny’s mind and her flights of fancy. Sometimes we wanted to cry but often we just had to laugh at the things she would tell us. And, like Russell Baker’s mother, she spent much of her time traveling, for as with many patients with dementia much of her long-term memory remained intact.
After Granny passed away and I had seen dementia firsthand, I decided to revisit Helium. The play underwent a major revision in 1997 and was produced the next year at the Dock Street Theatre. It struck a chord with many people who would say to me, “Let me tell you about my aunt, my mother, my uncle, my cousin.” They would relate to me the trials, but also the joys they found as caregivers, and the flights of fancy that their own loved ones had taken.
The world has become much more aware of Alzheimer's and dementia since 1990 but much is still unknown. Patients and their caregivers still struggle to find their own way, and each way is different–no one has all the answers. In Helium, I simply wanted to share one family’s journey, joys, and sorrows, and invite the audience to marvel and celebrate how a human spirit can take flight.
Jennifer Claggett Metts as Annabel Lee and Ian Walker as Edgar Allen Poe in Nevemore! The Final Mystery (1994).
Nevermore (1994, 2006, 2012, 2019)
Edgar Allan Poe’s Charleston beginnings and the mystery of his death take the stage.
While Edgar Allan Poe is probably best known for his wild and fantastical tales, it was one of his poems that first caught my attention. I still remember daydreaming in my high school English class, bored by my teacher and thumbing through the anthology that was our textbook, when my eyes fell upon Poe’s poem, The Bells. With its alliteration and pounding repetitions (at times Poe repeats the word “bells” seven times in a row), I was hooked. I loved his use of unusual words like the ringing “tintinnabulation”. My English teacher would have called this onomatopoeia–I called it cool! Soon I was reading Poe’s other poems on my own, A Dream Within A Dream, Annabel Lee, and I purchased my own complete works (I still have it) and plowed through his stories: Tell Tale Heart, The Oblong Box, The Red Death, The Pit and the Pendulum and more. I found that Poe was a favorite of mine and of many of my classmates as well, like an old-school Stephen King.
Fast forward to 1994: I was looking for a new Halloween play and remembered Poe’s tales of the macabre. Since moving to Charleston, I had learned that Poe lived on Sullivan’s Island for a time when, as a young soldier, he was stationed at Fort Moultrie. I thought this might be the making of a great play and headed to the library for a Poe biography. I quickly learned that we know little of Poe’s stay on Sullivan’s, certainly not enough for a full play. As I read on, however, I was intrigued by the circumstances of Poe’s mysterious death, and the spark that would become Nevermore was ignited.
I dashed off the first few scenes, most involving Poe waking up from a dream and finding himself inside his own stories. With the cockiness and confidence of youth, I announced the premiere of Nevermore for the fall of 1994. And then, I ran into the stiffest of walls—the dreaded writer’s block. Nothing would come, and I thought I would have to cancel the production. In despair, I thought I’d write a scene about writer’s block itself but, to my delight, that scene provided a path for the plot of Poe’s descent into darkness and my way out of my writer’s block maelstrom!
Still, after the first few rehearsals I was ready to throw in the towel and substitute with another show but Barbara Young, our costume designer, encouraged me to keep going. So I kept writing, getting new pages to the cast right up until the last dress rehearsal. I went home from the final dress rehearsal convinced the audience would be lost, but Nevermore premiered to great acclaim. A few years later, it was published by Dramatic Publishing and has been produced around the country.
Celeste Hardin as Eliza Dolittle and Sid Katz as Mr. Dolittle in My Fair Lady (1996).
My Fair Lady (1996)
The opening night from Hell.
This is one I’d rather completely forget! At the final dress rehearsal, volunteers prepared a lovely meal for everyone in the cast and crew. Since we were an all-volunteer theatre at that time, it was great to have a meal for folks racing from work to evening rehearsals.
The next day was opening night. We had a gala planned with a reception for donors before the show and as the day began, my phone kept ringing. First one, then two, then three cast members called saying they had food poisoning or a bad stomach virus. They were so violently ill that it was clear they couldn’t perform. An hour before opening, over a quarter of the cast was sick. Fortunately, the actors playing Eliza and Henry Higgins were hale and hearty, and we hoped we could run a performance with a reduced cast. But by curtain time, another 10 actors were ill, and it was clear there was no way we could perform the show!
I gathered the remaining actors together, including our Eliza and Higgins, and explained that we’d perform whatever musical numbers we could. I went onstage to explain the situation to the black tie audience and we presented the shortest version of My Fair Lady ever. Our donor audience was very gracious and we offered them tickets to later performances. Fortunately, most of the cast was back the next night and the show went on as planned.
The debut of Charleston Stage's Resident Professional Acting Company.
Under Board President Laura Hewitt and a gift for free housing at the old Sgt. Jasper Apartments from The Beach Company, we had the delight to launch our first full time Resident Acting Company (then called Acting Interns). The first four were Matthew Myers, Brian Bogstad, Virginia Vogel, and Laura Patterson, and the first show to feature these Professional Resident Actors was Pippin in our 23rd Season. Over the years more than 120 talented actors have appeared onstage as part of this professional acting company, leading our shows with their talent and providing invaluable teaching resources for our TheatreSchool students.
Marybeth Clark as Bette and Josh Wilhoit as Boo in The Marriage of Bette and Boo (2001).
The Marriage of Bette and Boo (2001)
Charleston Stage takes on a more weighty (and wacky) production.
While I was proud of the work Charleston Stage had produced under a youth theatre banner, as the company grew I wanted us to expand to produce a wider range of shows. Shows for young people and their families would remain part of our mission so we began to experiment with shows that were a little more offbeat. There’s hardly any writer more offbeat than Christopher Durang, and The Marriage of Bette and Boo is one of his best plays. It tells the story of Bette and Boo’s rocky marriage and their son Matt (who was based on Durang himself). The role of the alcoholic Boo was played by the great local actor Josh Wilhoit, and his wife Bette by a newcomer to Charleston Stage named Marybeth Clark. Marybeth would go on to become our Associate Artistic Director and Director of Education for Charleston Stage, and soon to be the company’s new Artistic Director.
Bette and Boo is a hard play to explain—a dark comedy that even has a running joke around stillborn babies. I know it sounds horrible but, in Durang’s hands, this sad situation becomes both tragic and absurdly hilarious—part of the playwright’s legendary offbeat humor. We knew we were taking a chance with this quirky show but trusted that shows that look at the world from wildly different perspectives are often some of the best scripts. We still wondered if audiences would enjoy this show, but they came through in embracing its special take on life. And more than that, it gave us the courage to produce others shows with slightly warped perspectives—Bat Boy: The Musical, The 45th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Picasso at the Lapin Agile, and Avenue Q.
Matt Schingeldecker as Joseph in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (2003).
Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (2003)
Our first SummerStage production.
SummerStage is our Summer Musical Theatre Camp for over 80 students grades kindergarten through high school. I must admit I was skeptical when this summer offering was in the planning stages, especially when the idea was to take whoever signed up with no auditions. But our Director of Education and Associate Artistic Director Marybeth Clark assured me it would work, and work it did. Thanks to Marybeth’s vision, the kids that summer proved that in a short three weeks they could produce an amazing, fully staged musical. Joseph set the stage for many SummerStage productions that followed—Seussical the Musical, Disney’s Aladdin, Jr, High School the Musical, Jr., etc.—lighting up the Dock Street Theatre Stage summer after summer. And in the title role that first summer was 14 year-old Matt Shingledecker, who has gone on to appear on Broadway in Rent, Spring Awakening, West Side Story and Wicked as well as the international tour of Les Misérables. Not every kid who has been a part of SummerStage has ended up on Broadway but, in these special performances each summer, each kid is indeed a star.
The cast of the 2007 production of Gershwin at Folly at the Sottile Theatre.
Gershwin at Folly (2003, 2007, 2013)
The American songbook is set to a true story in 1930s Charleston.
Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess is part of the artistic fabric of the Lowcountry. I vaguely knew that Gershwin had vacationed on Folly Beach in 1934, where he and Charleston native DuBose Heyward began their work on their landmark opera. I began some research and found that Gershwin had a great summer, enjoyed the beach, visited nearby black churches and black juke joints, and even took time out to judge the 1934 Miss Folly Beach contest. I wondered if I could spin this story into a new Gershwin musical.
First off, I had to secure the rights to the music from the Gershwin and the Heyward estates. The Gershwin family was a bit skeptical but George Gershwin’s great nephew Adam Gershwin took an interest and persuaded the family to consider the possibilities. The catch was that they wanted me to write the play before they would consider granting the rights. So I set to work and, thanks to Adam’s efforts, the seven family members not only agreed to allow me to use Gershwin’s music, but also granted me access to any of the more than 200 songs he had written. Permission from the Heyward estate (Heyward wrote most of the lyrics for Porgy and Bess, including the legendary Summertime) was also granted. My friend Chris Donison, Music Director of the famed Shaw Festival in Canada, agreed to do the orchestrations and the first draft of the show went into rehearsal. Of course, the actor playing Gershwin not only had to act but had to play the piano and tap dance as well. So I headed to New York to audition actors. Luckily Jonathon Brody, who actually looked like Gershwin and had played him in a PBS Special, was available and came down for the world premiere production.
The heart of the play is not just Gerswin and Heyward’s writing process of Porgy and Bess but how Gershwin, who had never been to Charleston, was charmed by the Lowcountry and its rich Gullah culture. A New Yorker through and through, he loved to discover other places and cultures—his An American in Paris and The Cuban Overture are two examples. Never had he absorbed so much of the music and rhythms of another culture as he did that summer on the South Carolina Sea Islands. Added to Gershwin’s great show tunes were traditional Lowcountry spirituals—Hush Little Baby, We Will All Pray Together and Everybody Who is Livin’ Got to Die—songs Gershwin would have likely heard on his visit that would become the models for Summertime and other original melodies he would create for Porgy and Bess. A traditional boy meets girl subplot was added at the legendary Folly Beach Pavilion along with bathing beauties and a horde of tap-dancers and, thus, a new Gershwin musical was born. The show took the town by storm—breaking all box office records and selling out show after show. Revived and expanded in 2007 and 2013, Gershwin at Folly remains the best-selling show in Charleston Stage’s history.
Guest actor Marjorie Johnson as Ruby Cornwall in the original production of The Seat of Justice (2004).
The Seat of Justice (2004, 2016)
A special performance for the people of Clarendon County, South Carolina.
Rarely as a playwright do you get to tell a story where some of the participants and their families are still with us. But that is the case with The Seat of Justice, an original play of mine we first produced in 2004 to honor the 50th anniversary of the landmark Brown v Board of Education Topeka Supreme Court Ruling—a ruling set in motion by the actions of the citizens of rural Clarendon County, South Carolina.
I was inspired to write this play from my personal connection to the land–I was born on a cotton farm just across the Santee River from Clarendon County during the same years as the events in the play took place. As I began to research this story I met two of the actual participants—Joe DeLaine, whose father had led the organization efforts in Clarendon Country, and Ruby Cornwell, who had sat on the front row of the first desegregation trial held in the Federal Courthouse in Charleston. I also was able to interview Joe Elliott, grandson of Roderick Elliott, then chairman of Clarendon County’s all-white school board that had not only fought desegregation but school equality as well. And while I did not know other participants in the case I knew the kinds of communities that shaped them, for a similar community shaped me, too. I was born into a very segregated world.
More than anything it was the tenor of those times that I set out to capture in The Seat of Justice—that age-old human aversion to change and how remarkable it is when people step forward and look at things not as they are but how they could be. That was certainly the case of the Briggs litigants: they were not judges or lawyers, they were mothers and fathers who wanted a better and fairer world for their children. They are the heroes of this story. While there certainly were important players such as Rev. DeLaine, Harry Briggs Jr, Thurgood Marshall, Judge Waties Waring, and others, it quickly became clear to me that this needed to be a play with no central player. Rather, it was a story in which many individuals found themselves standing before the Seat of Justice. I felt this long-forgotten story must be told and so I went to work on it.
When the show opened in 2004 we had a special performance for the descendants of those who had been involved in Clarendon Country in the 1950’s and whose parents and grandparents had led this monumental effort, as well as the descendants of the school board members who had fought their efforts. A similar performance was offered to the descendants for the 2016 revival and, that year, the cast journeyed to Liberty Hill Church to worship in the church where it all began. I suppose what moved me most was that the descendants, black and white, felt I had told all of their stories in a fair and truthful way. For a writer, it doesn’t get much better than this.
Both the Charleston and Lowcountry communities responded warmly to the show, filling each performance and cheering at the curtain call. In 2017 The Seat of Justice was published by Dramatic Publishing, making the show available to other theatres around the country.
Norma Lynn Higgins as Sabina and Terry Davey as Mr. Antrobus in The Skin of Our Teeth (2005).
The Skin of Our Teeth (2005)
The most loathed of all Charleston Stage productions.
I love Thorton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth. I had seen a production at the Sumter, South Carolina Little Theatre when I was 16 years old and I was hooked. Here was a hilarious, off-the-wall show about ideas—this Pulitzer Prize-winner shows how mankind has survived age after age by the skin of its teeth. Act one is set in the Ice Age, act two the Great Flood (Noah’s), and act three at the end of a World War (the show premiered in 1942 in the midst of World War II). As much as I loved the show I knew it had been problematic. It confounded audiences and critics when it opened in 1942—even the NY revival with John Goodman in 1988 played to very mixed reviews. Still, I wanted to give it a fighting chance in Charleston.
While we had a great cast, audiences were just confused by the craziness of the show—the Antrobus family, in act one, have pet dinosaurs for instance. The second act of the show is set at a convention in Atlantic City where there is a great flood (á la Noah’s Ark) and the third act in the wasteland of a world war. Now I can admit that the show has never really worked. Audience members left in droves, and I got many angry letters that reinforced the lesson that while a show that may seem like a great, imaginative work on the page, it doesn’t always translate onstage. I’m sure someone, somewhere will find a way to make it work.
It’s still a mystery to me how it worked in that community theatre production in Sumter all those years ago. And this is one of the realities of the theatre—even with a great cast and a great production, some shows just plainly don’t work–it happens every season on Broadway. So when we have a show like this that doesn’t seem to hit the mark, we’re in good company. In 2022 there was yet another revival of The Skin of our Teeth at the Lincoln Center In New York, and there were confused audience members who walked out of that production as well.
Warnell Berry, Jr. as Coalhouse Walker and Nakeisha Daniel as Sara in Ragtime (2007).
Our final show before the Dock Street Theatre’s three-year renovation.
We decided to blow it out with a huge production of the Charleston premiere of the Broadway smash Ragtime before the Dock Street Theatre went under renovation for years. It featured an incredible 42-person cast, stunning sets and costumes, and a working Model T that drove onto the stage. It was at the time the largest production in Charleston Stage history and set the bar high for shows that would follow.
stephen colbert's wild holiday binge (2008)
A benefit for Charleston Stage from a childhood friend.
For three seasons Charleston Stage performed at other venues while the Dock Street underwent a $19 million renovation. Some productions were held at Memminger Auditorium and the American Theatre, while we performed others at the College of Charleston's Sottile Theatre. A highlight of our "vacation" from Dock Street included a benefit performance in December 2008 by Charleston's own Stephen Colbert. Stephen read from his book I Am America And So Can You and answered questions from the audience. Stephen claims he once auditioned for me and I didn't cast him years ago when he was in high school but, the truth is, he was offered a chorus part and turned it down. I guess he had his eyes on bigger things! Thanks to Stephen’s generous donation of his time and talent the benefit sold out in hours and injected thousands of dollars for the company in the middle of the Great Recession.
Jimmy Hager as Capt. Vesey and Henry Clay Middleton as Denmark Vesey in the world premiere production (2008).
denmark vesey: insurrection (2008)
When I first came to Charleston in 1976 a painting of Denmark Vesey had been placed in Gaillard Auditorium. Considered a hero by many but a terrorist by others, this was a controversial memorial and the painting was stolen but returned after a reward was posted. Over the course of 45 years, the city has come to acknowledge Vesey as a courageous fighter for freedom with a legacy worth remembering. Later the City of Charleston placed a monument to Vesey in Hampton Park but sadly it, too, has been vandalized at times. 2022 marks the 200th anniversary of his death.
In 2008 I wrote a play about Denmark Vesey and Captain Vesey, the man who brought Vesey to Charleston and sold him his freedom when Vesey won the lottery. I read everything I could find, including the original trial transcript in the South Carolina Archives. We premiered the show at the American Theatre as a part of Piccolo Spoleto.
The cast featured Clay Middleton as Denmark Vesey. Clay has played everything from Dracula to Thurgood Marshall over many years with Charleston Stage, and is also a director with the company. Capt. Vesey was played by Jimmy Hagar, who first appeared as Atticus in To Kill A Mockingbird and has since become a screen actor and screenwriter.
The cast of The Producers, A New Mel Brooks Musical (2009).
The Producers, A new mel brooks musical (2009)
Making magic in other venues.
At the 800-person house of the Sottile Theatre we had little choice but to continue to produce shows on a grand scale. We snagged the musical director from the national tour of The Producers, A New Mel Brooks Musical, Jose Simbulan, and with our growing Resident Professional Acting Company in lead roles and other fine local performers and musicians we set out to produce one of the most acclaimed musical comedies ever. It was a terrific production that packed the Sottile Theatre and assured our audiences that we could produce major works, whatever the venue.
The cast of Cabaret (2010).
Re-inventing a classic amidst chaos.
Cabaret is one of the best-known and most powerful musicals ever produced. From the original production to the movie and the 1998 Broadway revival, the show is always the same yet always feels new. Director Marybeth Clark continued this tradition when we set out to produce this iconic show. Brian Porter, who was once Charleston Stage’s Director of Administration and is now Executive Director of the Queen Street Playhouse, joined us as the Emcee for this production and brought his own special magic to the part. Marybeth added special touches from a live boa constrictor that appeared with the Emcee at the end of act one to the powerful image of the gates of Auschwitz at the end of act two. Many people worked hard to contribute to an amazing, exciting, and fresh take on the show.
But the production was not without its challenges. Our two-person tech staff at the time, Stefanie and Mike Christensen, had to give birth to their daughter early, so I found myself called back into duty as scenic designer. Getting scenery finished and painted came down to the wire. And then Sarah Claire Smith, our Sally Bowles, developed laryngitis the week before the show opened. Miraculously, her voice returned on opening night! And as they say, the rest is history—the show opened to rave reviews and packed houses.
Artist Jonathan Green’s “Window of Wonder” show curtain for the Dock Street Theatre. Scenic painting by Colleen Ballance (2010).
window of wonder/fanfare for a rising tide (2010)
The grand reopening of the renovated Dock Street Theatre.
The three year and $20 million dollar renovation of the Dock Street Theatre by the City of Charleston was finally completed in 2010 to our great delight. We returned with a special opening event that unveiled a new show curtain designed by artist Jonathan Green and the premiere of Fanfare for a Rising Tide by Grammy Award winning musician and composer Charlton Singleton, both commissioned by former Board President Barbara Burgess and her husband John Dinkelspeil.
Artist Jonathan Green (L) and Grammy award-winning musician Charlton Singleton (R).
Marybeth Clark interviewing Michael Emerson and Carrie Preston.
love letters (2010)
The company’s first show at the newly renovated Dock Street Theatre.
In Love Letters, Emmy Award winning actress Carrie Preston (The Good Wife/ True Blood), who played Ann Frank for Charleston Stage in 1986 when she was a student at the College of Charleston, returned to town with her husband, Michael Emerson, who was then ending an Emmy award-winning run on LOST. They generously donated their talent to help reopen the Dock Street Theatre with a benefit for Charleston Stage. Carrie and Michael performed A. R. Gurney’s moving play Love Letters, and at the end of the performance Marybeth Clark interviewed these two talented actors and moderated a lively Q&A with the audience.
Phil Mills as JFK and Gardner Reed as Inga Arvad in the original production of JFK and Inga Binga (2012).
JFK AND Inga Binga (2012)
A World War II Charleston affair takes the stage.
I have often found inspiration in my original works from great stories here in the Lowcountry, and there couldn’t be a much better story than young JFK’s affair with an alleged Nazi spy here in Charleston during World War II. It had everything—a blond bombshell named Inga Arvad (whom young Kennedy called Inga Binga), FBI agents in the next room, and reporters on the tail of these star-crossed lovers. Though I turned the story into a farce, it’s based on actual FBI files and love letters between Jack and Inga that I discovered at the Kennedy Library in Boston. New York actors Phil Mills and Gardner Reed played the leads and were backed by a wonderful supporting cast. Audiences loved the show–it became the best selling non-musical production in Charleston Stage history. While I hoped my writing contributed to this, the fact is that sex and the Kennedys sell! JFK and Inga Binga became my eighth published play and is now produced by other theatres around the country.
The cast of Next to Normal (2014).
Next To Normal (2014)
A powerful, contemporary musical.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning and Tony Award-winning Next to Normal is one of the most powerful musicals of recent years. Almost completely sung with a rock score by Tom Kitt and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, it took Broadway by storm and proved that musicals can tackle very serious, difficult themes. Next to Normal tells the story of a family struggling with their mother’s severe bipolar disorder. The show illuminates how such a struggle affects everyone in a family and brings the need for understanding and advocacy for mental health resources to a larger audience. While shows with messages seldom work, Next to Normal works because it has no answers. It simply, as great drama always does, presents a slice of life in all its human triumphs and tragedies.
Next to Normal is a challenging production for both its subject matter and difficult vocal parts. We brought in two guest actors, Sean Hayden and Annie Freres, who were joined by our resident actors Aaron Hancock and Joseph Dickey (recently seen on Broadway in the title role of Disney’s Aladdin). Rounding out the cast was Celeste Riddle, a talented theatre major at the College of Charleston.
This was a show that soared. It was moving to see how this musical impacted audiences and led many to share their own stories. We had "talkbacks” led by MUSC mental health professionals and moderated by Dr. Lee Lewis, himself a former member of Charleston Stage’s Resident Actor program, now a psychiatrist. This show set the stage to produce other serious productions in the future.
The cast of Catch Me if You Can (2015).
Catch Me If You Can (2015)
“Charlestonian“ Frank Abagnale, Jr.’s Amazing Story.
It’s not often the subject of a major musical lives in your hometown, but such is the case with Frank Abagnale, Jr. who has adopted Charleston as his home. I reached out to Frank once we secured the rights to this great show, and he could not have been more generous with his time and insights to help us make it a success. I met with him personally and he attended several rehearsals to speak to the cast and share his amazing experiences as a teenage charlatan. He befriended and worked closely with Corbin Williams, who played him in the show. The musical had a great cast and a wonderfully imaginative set with magical costumes and choreography–it turned out to be one of the best-selling musicals in the company’s history.
Frank also attended the show’s opening and closing performances, spoke to the audience, and took questions, making this production and this story all the more real. After the show, he sent me autographed photos, which he inscribed, “To Julian, The Best Director in the World”. Not sure what Stephen Spielberg might think of that!
Frank Abagnale, Jr.
John Black as Peter and Madeline Glenn Thomas as Molly in Peter and the Starcatcher (2017).
Peter and the Starcatcher (2017)
Imagination takes flight.
I include this show because in so many ways it’s the epitome of great theatre. Though it appears simple—a dozen actors make all the sets and props from ladders, ropes, and other items, it was actually one of the most complex shows we ever produced. Many folks might be surprised to learn that scripts don’t come with construction manuals for building the sets, props, and costumes for each show, and a show like Peter and the Starcatcher challenges every theatre to find its own solutions for staging. Before we produced it I had seen the show twice, the original Tony Award-winning Broadway production as well as a later production at Philadelphia’s famed Walnut Street Playhouse. While both had their strengths, I thought the story often got lost amid the cleverness and imaginativeness of their staging. I knew it would be important to work diligently to be sure the story and the plot remained front and center.
One of our first choices in working with our designers was to simplify the show. Hanging electric light bulbs became twinkling stars, ladders became the masts of ships, rope became doors, windows, and waves, and umbrellas became trees. Every rehearsal was a delight as my absolutely first-rate cast used these simple items to create a voyage of the imagination that landed squarely in Peter Pan’s Neverland. Part of the show’s enchantment was that the audience brought their own imagination into play, even believing a rubber glove could become a bird, an undulating piece of fabric could become a golden pool, and a few ropes with some sparkling fabric and strategically-placed ship lights could become a gaggle of mermaids, complete with broom straw tails. Theatre truly is magic.
The cast of Shakespeare in Love (2018).
shakespeare in love (2018)
The finale of our 40th Anniversary Season
Although a portion of the set collapsed on opening night (no one was hurt and the show soon went on), Shakespeare in Love is a show that celebrates the magic of the theatre as we watch the famed poet and playwright create his classic Romeo and Juliet amidst his own romance. Highlights of the production were the original incidental score by Luke Walchuk, our Resident Sound Designer and Audio Engineer, the dazzling costumes, and thrilling swordplay choreographed by the College of Charleston’s Evan Parry.
16-year-old Jacob Feight as Christopher in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (2019).
the curious incident of the dog in the night-time (2019)
One of our most imaginative productions ever.
Curious Incident does what theatre does best—takes the audience into the world and mind of others. This play journeys into the amazing mind and perspective of 14-year-old Christopher Boone, who lives on the autistic spectrum. The cast was led by 16-year-old Jacob Feight, one of our TheatreWings apprentices, who made the part all his own along with a first rate ensemble cast who blew audiences’ minds night after night. This show also marked one of my favorite set designs that inventively reflected the interworking of Christopher’s mind.
Katelyn Crall (center) as Alice Murphy and the cast of Bright Star (2021).
bright star (2021)
The show must go on!
We were in rehearsal for Bright Star when COVID broke out and we had to cancel everything on March 15, 2020. A long seventeen months later, rehearsals began again. We were so excited to be back making a show, thinking that COVID was behind us. All of our actors and crew were fully vaccinated, but after the first week of rehearsal we had 14 breakthrough cases. Thankfully no one was seriously ill, but we had to postpone the opening for a week. That September, our live performances finally returned to the Dock Street Theatre. Although the cast were masked in rehearsals and backstage and audiences were required to show proof of vaccination and wear masks, but the show went on and audiences cheered this poignant and moving musical. This show was made all the more wonderful because it marked our return to live in person performances.
K’nique Eichelberger (L) and Jerquinez A. Gipson (R) as Lola in Kinky Boots (2022).
kinky boots (2022)
Just be who you wanna be. Never let them tell you who you oughta be.
Kinky Boots was the perfect finale for our first season after our COVID shutdown. This was the first show without masking the audience and requiring proof of vaccination, and everyone was thrilled. It featured the debut of new designers Courtni Riddick (costumes), Caleb Garner (lights) and Adam Jehle (sets), with a stunning company of players including not one, but two Lolas rotating in the leading role. The finale said it all: Just be who you want to be. With dignity, celebrate your life triumphantly!