A Personal Remembrance by Founder Julian Wiles
After spending three college summers working with young people at Camp St. Christopher on Seabrook Island, I wanted to find a way to combine my love of working with young people and my growing love of the theatre. It started when some friends of mine from summer camp staff and I went up to New York to see Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Godspell. Joseph was the first Broadway production to surpass 1 million in production costs, and yet, I found it less exciting than Godspell’s more deconstructed set and imaginative performance. I found a natural intrigue with storytelling and picked up easily with all the improv we did working at summer camp.
My love of theatre didn’t come in a flash, lightbulb moment–slowly and surely I learned this was the path I wanted to embrace. I wasn’t sure how to go about this, but I did have the opportunity while a student at the College of Charleston to direct two productions for the Youth Group at St. Philip’s Church— Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and the opera Noye’s Fludde. Both were well received and caught the eye of the late Emmett Robinson, the long time Producing Director for the Footlight Players and a theatre professor at the College of Charleston. I took several of Emmett’s courses and he became a mentor. In 1974 I went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and, after I received my MFA in Dramatic Art, I came back to Charleston to serve as Emmett’s assistant. After he retired, I began looking for new opportunities to continue both my work in the theatre and my work with young people and came up with the idea of a youth theatre for Charleston.
Ignorance truly is bliss when it comes to starting a theatre company from scratch. I had no idea what it would take to do it. I applied to NYU which had a children’s theatre masters. I was accepted to do a fellowship there, but instead of going to study it more I decided to just get in and start it. The kind of youth theatre I wanted to do wasn’t in Charleston at the time–I wanted to provide a space for kids to perform for other kids. There were professional youth theatres being created in bigger cities that I was inspired by, such as The Minneapolis Children’s Theatre and The Young Vic in England. I think kids were very much in the “seen and not heard” category before the 70s, when we saw a huge youth movement that showed young people wanted influence. So adults began taking kids more seriously and, even today, this keeps growing.
A chance meeting in 1978 with Ellen Dressler Moryl, then the City of Charleston’s first Office of Cultural Affairs Director, led to a meeting with the newly elected Mayor Joseph P. Riley, Jr. who offered to take me onto the City’s new Cultural Affair’s staff to create what would become the Young Charleston Theatre Company. (We would become Charleston Stage in 1998). I worked part-time for the City on such projects as Piccolo Spoleto before working full-time to manage Charleston Stage two years later. The first Board was formed under the leadership of the late Ken Hough, then headmaster at the College Preparatory School. Ken joked that he was elected only because he was absent when his name was put in nomination, but Ken was a great cheerleader, mentor, leader and personal friend until his death in 2010. Though Charleston Stage at that point was just a dream, he believed in it and convinced others to believe as well. He secured the company’s first contribution—$250 from a generous and trusting Melvin Solomon.
Our first show in 1978 at the Dock Street Theatre was a production of A Christmas Carol. Greens brought down from the Calhoun County farm where I grew up decorated the lobby and stairs. Thanks to my parents and neighbor Doraine Wannamaker, the theatre looked festive and stunning with two huge, ceiling-high Christmas trees in the lobby and smilax entwined on the grand staircases. The wonderful decorations helped because we didn’t have much money to spend on sets and costumes. I sewed some of these costumes myself and was joined by volunteers and by my girlfriend (and soon to be my wife) Jenny Hane. In those days cast members did everything—acting, building sets, sewing costumes, labeling mailings, and more. Thanks to those many hands, the first show was a remarkable success and we were on our way! We also offered season memberships that first season. Two of our first season ticket holders were Bill and Elaine Simpson, whose son Marc was our first Tiny Tim. Bill and Elaine acted in many shows in those early years and are still season members 45 years later!
The second show, CaroliniAntics, based on South Carolina folktales, was my first effort to celebrate the rich heritage of the South Carolina Lowcountry onstage. My new wife Jenny provided much of the research on Afro-American songs and games, which she used in her classroom at Memminger Elementary. She also organized lobby demonstrations featuring quilt-makers from John’s Island, Scrape Nelson, a cast-net maker from Edisto, Mary Bennett, a sweetgrass basket-weaver from Mt. Pleasant, as well as a talk by Charleston blacksmith Philip Simmons. CaroliniAntics also featured a young high school actress named Evie McGee who is now Mrs. Stephen Colbert–she played a rabbit!
That first season ended in 1979 with the premiere of Seize the Street!, an original skateboard musical that we performed atop the George Street parking garage. It became Charleston Stage’s (then Young Charleston Theatre Company’s) first bona fide hit. The music was written by Thomas Cabannis, a 17-year-old Wando High Student. Thomas is now a renowned musical theatre, classical, and opera composer in New York, where he has served as Director of Education for the New York Philharmonic among many other positions. A later production of Seize the Street! in 1982 featured Thomas Gibson (Star of CBS’s Dharma and Greg and Criminal Minds) as a dim-witted construction worker. In 1983 yet another production of Seize the Street! was invited by a British actor performing at Spoleto to tour youth theatres in Great Britain. For two weeks we journeyed across England and Wales with a skateboard ramp and cast of 30 Charleston young people in tow. One of the kids in that show was Asa Somers, who went on to an ongoing Broadway career. His brother Colin, who was also in Seize the Street!, is now a filmmaker and educator in Chicago.
One of my goals in starting Charleston Stage was to produce shows that respected the intelligence of young audiences. Back then most plays for young people were fairy tales, and in my work with kids I knew they were capable of more sophisticated fare. I wrote the boy who stole the stars, a play about a young boy confronting the death of his grandfather. Opening our third season (1983), it was one of the first original dramatic works I created for the company and was the first of my plays to be published by Dramatic Publishing and produced around the country. It was later anthologized in Ten Plays for Young People With Mature Themes, which is used as a textbook for Children’s Theatre programs in colleges around the country. I wrote the two lead adult roles of the grandmother and grandfather in the boy who stole the stars for the late and great Bill and Lenore Bender, who for over 50 years were mainstays of many performing arts groups in Charleston. Also in 1983, the company’s first school matinee performances were held. In those days school day performances were held at Memminger Auditorium, now known as Festival Hall. Later, because Memminger was in disrepair, these matinees were moved to the Dock Street Theatre. Over the years more than a half-million school students from all over South Carolina and beyond have come to see Charleston Stage school matinees.
Original adaptations were a hallmark of many of our early shows. I adapted Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1984), and many of Twain’s classics such as Tom Sawyer (1979), Huckleberry Finn (1983,) and a musical version of Life on the Mississippi (1985) with music written by composer Laura Manning Turner. A high school student at the time, Laura is now a professor of Children’s Theatre at the College of Charleston. An original adaptation of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1983) featured the debut of costumes by Barbara Young, who continued to make literally thousands of costumes over the 34 years she was with the company. Barbara also served as a sounding board for many of the plays I’ve written, and several such as Nevermore: Edgar Allen Poe (1994), about Poe’s days as a youth stationed at Fort Moultrie, would never have reached the stage without her encouragement and support. Of all my published plays, Nevermore is the one that is most widely produced. Barbara Young’s husband, Andy, a wonderful craftsman, provided many special effects along the way including a pterodactyl that flew over the audience’s heads in my original play, Night of the Pterodactyls (1987). Andy is a great example of one of Charleston Stage’s many golden volunteers we have had over the years–he even filled in to build whole sets when we were short-handed in our shop. Dedicated volunteers have always been part of the lifeblood of Charleston Stage. Sadly five of those early supporters, the late Gene Glave, Sid Katz, Ken Hough, and Leah and Seymour Barkowitz, are no longer with us.
Many of those who became involved with Charleston Stage in the early years were drawn in by their children. One of these people was Barb Nicolai, whose sons Bob and Andy appeared with her in In Dixieland I’ll Take My Stand (1985) and Robin Hood (1986), which was performed outdoors in Washington Square Park. This would be the beginning of Barb’s more than 20 year involvement with the company. She served as stage mom, actress, the company manager, my administrative assistant and the company’s official chocolate chip cookie baker–they became an opening night tradition. She even sent some by airmail from Germany where she and her family lived for a time. Barb retired from Charleston Stage in 2006.
In 1985 Board Member Tom Waldrep suggested an event that came to be known as Director’s Circle. Joyce Darby ably coordinated the first year of this opening night philanthropic society that now raises over $100,000 each season. More than a million dollars has been raised through Director’s Circle gifts over the years to support the company’s school matinees and other education programs.
The apprentice team, or “A-Team,” was created in 1986 to teach technical theatre skills to high school students. In those days the sets for the mainstage productions were created on Wednesday afternoons by the first A-Team: Clay Young, Allison Kennedy, Bob Nicolai and Julie Mathis. These four teenagers helped me build all of the sets and Barbara Young and I delivered them to the Dock Street in our station wagons and vans. When the scenery didn’t fit into our vehicles, the kids walked the big scenery pieces down the street from Memminger Auditorium, our makeshift scene shop, to the Dock Street Theatre.
For Charleston Stage’s 10th Anniversary in 1987, famed composer John Williams (Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and dozens of other movie scores) wrote Fanfare for Ten Year Olds, which the Charleston Symphony performed to open our 10th Anniversary Season. I wrote a simple letter to Mr. Williams asking him to compose something for our 10th anniversary, and he generously sent us this fanfare. I called it our “32¢ fanfare” because that’s how much it cost to mail the letter to Mr. Williams.
A highlight of the 11th season was a major production of the original Peter Pan in the spring of 1989. This show featured Flying by Foy, 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, a massive undertaking, created by a mostly volunteer set and costume crew, was a grand audience pleaser.
An apprentice acting program for high school students called SuperTroupe was also added in 1989. One of their most memorable performances included original monologues based on students’ personal experiences during Hurricane Hugo which had hit Charleston in the fall of 1989. There was hardly a dry eye in the house when these moving monologues were performed. Despite the hurricane, we were still able to open our first show of the season, a Molière farce called Scapino! on a pay-what-you-will basis and billed it as “comic relief”. We filled the house. Amazingly, Charleston had a blizzard the Christmas following Hurricane Hugo which helped inspire me to write Blitzen. In that play a little boy writes to Santa asking him to fix his room up after a hurricane. In actuality, my daughter’s room was still a disaster that Christmas since a tree had come through the roof in her room. I don’t think my daughter Marianna has ever forgiven me for changing her from a girl to a boy in this play!
As Charleston Stage’s programming expanded to add a wider range of productions rather than exclusively children’s theatre, the name was changed to Charleston Stage in 1994. But our commitment to education continued. A-Team and SuperTroupe were combined to become Charleston Stage’s TheatreWings High School Apprentice Program, which over 300 young people have participated in. My own children, Marianna and Nicholas, went through the TheatreWings program when they were in high school, both becoming great techies and eventually stage-managing mainstage productions. As a high school English and Theatre teacher in Portland, Oregon, my daughter directed her first show, Pippin, in May, 2022.
In 1991 Charleston Stage launched StageFest, a foray into professional summer theatre with productions of The Glass Menagerie, Driving Miss Daisy and A Gershwin Serenade. We found that we and Charleston were not yet ready for summer theatre or the expense of professional actors; the company suffered a significant financial setback. We launched our next season on schedule, however, and postponed our plans for a fully professional theatre until later.
Artistic Director Designee Marybeth Clark first joined the company as an actor in Moon Over Buffalo in 1997 and was dazzling in the lead role of Bette in Christopher Durang’s The Marriage of Bette and Boo (2001). She joined the company full-time as Director of Education in 1999 and has been delighting audiences and her students ever since. In 2005 she also became the company’s Associate Artistic Director. In 2003, under Marybeth’s imaginative leadership, our annual Summerstage Musical Theatre camp program debuted with a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Our Joseph, Matt Schingledecker, went on to appear on Broadway in Rent, Wicked and West Side Story. In subsequent summers productions of Seussical, Aladdin, and The Wiz followed. This past summer we produced a teen production of Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach that sold out each performance. Today Charleston Stage’s education programs are some of the most comprehensive in the state and include after school classes for hundreds of students, special school matinees attended by over 12,000 students each season, our TheatreWings Apprentice program, and outreach programs in schools with great need.
In 1995 Charleston Stage’s board of trustees, which up to this time was mainly made up of volunteers and parents, began to expand to include business and community leaders. Corporate Sponsorships, initiated by Board President Leslie Fellabom, soon followed–Bankers Trust and First Federal were two of the first to sign on. Scores of others have joined us as well, including long-time sponsorships from community corporate leaders such as The Beach Company, First Federal of Charleston, Nexsen Pruet, Piggly Wiggly Carolina Company, Publix Super Markets Charities, SCANA, South Carolina Bank & Trust, Wells Fargo and others. Additionally, we’ve received generous grants for many years from the City and County of Charleston and North Charleston, the South Carolina Arts Commission, which receives funding from the National Endowment of the Arts, and longtime foundation support from The Dubose and Dorothy Heyward Memorial Fund, the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, the Pearlstine Family Fund of Coastal Community Foundation of SC, Dr. and Mrs. Fred E. Pittman, The Henry and Sylvia Yaschik Foundation, The Joanna Foundation, The Mark Elliott Motley Foundation, Samuel Freeman Charitable Trust, and the Saul Alexander Foundation, as well as many others.
Many creative Board of Trustees fundraising ideas followed. In 1996, thanks to an idea brought to us by wine enthusiast and Board Member Robert Maguire, Charleston Stage held its first Auction and Dinner Gala. That first year the Auction earned around $2,000. Under Board Member and Gala Chair Jo Ann Nipper’s four-year leadership, the Gala grew to become one of Charleston premiere fundraising events and now generates over $100,000 each year to support the company’s education programs. Since 1995, more than $1.5 million has been raised at this annual event made possible by a committed Board of Directors, area merchants, and especially dozens of leading restaurants and wine distributors that provide dinner and wine for 300 guests each year.
In 1998, under the leadership of Board President Laura Hewitt, funds were raised to launch the company’s professional resident acting internship program. A $50,000 grant from donor Larry Laws and housing donated by the Beach Company helped launch this program, which has become integral to the professionalism of Charleston Stage. Since that date more than 120 young professional actors have become members of Charleston Stage’s Professional Resident Acting Program—performing onstage, teaching in our after-school programs, and leading workshops in the schools. Several have returned for guest appearances, including Ben Larvie (Nevermore) and Nakeisha Daniel (Ragtime) Drew Archer (Inga Binga), Crystin Gilmore (Chicago, The Wiz, The Seat of Justice, Mamma Mia!, and Black Pearl Sings!), and Vanessa Moyen who returned to play the lead in Legally Blonde the Musical. This season Patrick Brett will return to play Lurch in The Addams Family - A New Musical and Jacob Marley in A Christmas Carol, and Gabriel Wright will return to play Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol.
In 2010 Charleston Stage produced a revised version of Helium, a play I had originally written in 1990 about a family dealing with an aging and failing grandmother. It is based on my mother-in-law, the late Margaret Hane, who passed away in 1998 having battled dementia in her last years. I also relied on memories of my grandmother, Debbie Black, who lived to be 100. Because it is so personal, Helium remains one of my favorite plays. It also touched many—audience members often gathered as they left the theatre to share remembrances of their own grandparents, aunts and uncles and friends who were touched by the fog of dementia. Helium was later successfully produced in Greenville and has been published and made available to other theatres around the country.
Bat Boy! The Musical (2002) was one of the company’s first forays into more contemporary works and was well received. Such challenging works as Omnium Gatherum (2005) and Avenue Q (2010) have followed. We continued our forward momentum with a lavish production of Cyrano directed by Marybeth Clark to open the 25th Anniversary season in 2002. It featured Eric Dente, our first guest actor from New York in almost 10 years, and the adaptation featured a script by me (under the pen name of Etienne Colbert). Bobby Owen, my graduate-level costume design professor from Chapel Hill, helped us celebrate by providing the stunning costume designs.
While much of the growth of Charleston Stage has been seen onstage, other important milestones have taken place behind the scenes. Under Board President Barbara Burgess, important retirement and health insurance packages were expanded for our devoted staff to bring them in line with industry standards. Barbara, along with the next Board President, Celeste Patrick, spearheaded the lobbying efforts that helped to lead to the major renovations of the Dock Street Theatre.
For three seasons Charleston Stage performed at other venues while the Dock Street underwent a $19 million renovation in the later aughts. Productions were held at Memminger Auditorium, the American Theatre, and the College of Charleston’s Sottile Theatre. A highlight of our “vacation” from the Dock Street included a benefit performance in December 2008 by Charleston’s own Stephen Colbert. Stephen (who’s wife Evie appeared onstage in the company’s first season), generously donated his services to raise much needed funds in the middle of the Great Recession and our lack of a home performance space. Stephen read from his book I Am America And So Can You and answered questions from the audience, producing a fundraising hit. Stephen and Evie have been consistent contributors to the company even though Stephen claims he auditioned for me and I didn’t cast him years ago when he was in high school, but the truth is that he was offered a chorus part and turned it down. I guess he had his eye on bigger things.
In 2010 Charleston Stage returned to the beautifully restored Historic Dock Street Theatre. Festivities included a performance of Love Letters by Charleston Stage alum and Emmy-winning actor, Carrie Preston, who had been our Anne Frank 17 years earlier when she was a student at the College of Charleston. Her husband Michael Emerson (from CBS’s Person of Interest and Ben on Lost) joined Carrie for this very special performance. Both generously donated their services and made this a very successful reopening and fundraiser. That fall our first production in the “new Dock Street” was preceded by the unveiling of a grand show curtain entitled “Window of Wonder,” created especially for Charleston Stage by legendary artist Jonathan Green. As it was being unveiled, the world premiere of local jazz great Charleton Singleton’s Fanfare for a Rising Tide was played to great acclaim. Both the fanfare and the grand curtain were commissioned by former Board President Barbara Burgess and her husband, John Dinkelspeil, and were most generous gifts to Charleston Stage.
One of my longtime goals at Charleston Stage has been for the company to tell our own stories. Over the years the company has premiered over 30 literary adaptations and original scripts that I have written. Many have drawn on the rich history and heritage of the South Carolina Lowcountry. Along with CaroliniAntics (1979), The Siege of Charleston (1984), based on original diaries of Charlestonians in the American Civil War, was one of the first. Another Lowcountry story based on George Gershwin’s 1934 vacation on Folly Beach where he began work on Porgy and Bess with Dubose Heyward came to life in the original musical Gershwin at Folly (2003, 2007, and 2014). The Gershwin family generously allowed me to use any of Gershwin’s music for this original musical. The community was enthralled with Gershwin at Folly, and their interest made it Charleston Stage’s all-time best-selling show.
A moving performance of The Seat of Justice (2004) that celebrated South Carolina’s role in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, included an audience made up of descendants of those who had participated in those events 50 years before. The Seat of Justice featured professional actress Marjorie Johnson of New York as the late Civil Rights advocate Mrs. Ruby Cornwall. Mrs. Ruby sat on the front row of the landmark Briggs v. Elliott case in Charleston, and in her 99th year she reminisced with me about those experiences and allowed me to use her personal memories in the play. I was honored to receive a Special Recognition Award from the Charleston Branch of the NAACP for the premiere production of The Seat of Justice. The show was later revived in 2016 with former Resident Actor Crystin Gilmore in the lead. The work of telling stories of the Lowcountry continued with Denmark Vesey: Insurrection (2007), based on an alleged 1822 uprising of enslaved people of color in Charleston, which premiered at Piccolo Spoleto that year.
These original works, along with the more than 30 years of outstanding imaginative and professional productions here at Charleston Stage, led the South Carolina Arts Commission to honor the work of Charleston Stage by awarding me its Individual Artist Elizabeth O’Neal Verner Award in 2010, the state’s highest award in the arts and now known as the Governor’s Award in the Arts. Along with my staff and supporters, we journeyed to the South Carolina Statehouse for this prestigious award in May of 2010.
Like everyone, Charleston Stage struggled with the Great Recession (2007-9) economic downturn. We had to downsize, endure staff cutbacks, and furloughs. Board President Brandon Guest and Finance Committee co-chairs Dave Marley and Suzanne Lynch were instrumental in steering a steady course through this difficult time, made more difficult because we could not perform at our home, the Dock Street Theatre while it was under renovation. Four longtime Charleston Stage supporters, John and Jill Chalsty, Celeste and Charles Patrick, Susan Pearlstine, and Anita Zucker, stepped forward as Next Stage Donors and pledged $120,000 over three years to reduce and eliminate Charleston Stage’s recession-incurred debt and to expand the company’s cash reserves. Our Annual Campaign and other challenge grants from longtime supporters Fred and Joan Pittman contributed to our recovery from this economic downturn. Not only did these gifts allow Charleston Stage to recover from the financial challenges of the last few years but they enabled us to focus on the future as well. Thanks to the generous support of the community and our longtime supporters, budgets and staff were fully restored in 2010.
Perhaps one of Charleston Stage’ greatest challenges has been the COVID Pandemic. This led to a shutdown in March of 2020 that lasted 17 months without live performances. Charleston Stage had to reduce its staff from thirty to ten, suspend performances, and offer educational classes only online. We are indebted to the amazing generosity of our donors and patrons, many of whom donated their unused tickets rather than asking for refunds, and the bi-partisan American Rescue Act that provided $2.4 million dollars in much-needed stimulus funds to Charleston Stage. In addition to stimulus dollars and major donations, a huge amount of support came from hundreds of smaller donors over the years. While we waited to reopen in person, we made available free online archive video performances of A Christmas Carol and The Seat of Justice, as well as free outdoor performances to schools.
Last August we were able to fully restore our staff of 38 actors, singers, dancers, teachers, directors, choreographers, set and costume designers, as well as support staff to once more fill the Dock Street Theatre with a full range of plays and musicals. Rehearsals resumed for the musical Bright Star in August 2021, though we had 14 breakthrough COVID cases in the first week and had to delay the opening by 10 days. Audiences came out in droves to see live theatre once again and graciously endured providing proof of vaccination and wearing masks all season. In our post-shutdown return we also launched CityStage and series of new community engagement programs, including free after school acting classes in selected Title One Schools, low cost IntroTix to make tickets available to new and underserved audiences, and a free tour of our locally-set adaptation of Treasure Island to various communities around the Lowcountry. Fred and Joan Pittman and Fred Thompson provided key and generous funding to achieve this new initiative.
This past spring I announced my planned retirement in May 2023 at the end of this special 45th Season. My longtime Associate Artistic Director and Director of Education, Marybeth Clark, will assume the title of Artistic Director and a national search is underway to add a Managing Director to oversee the company’s administrative functions. While the new Artistic and Managing Directors along with the Board will provide leadership and vision in the years to come, I will continue to direct shows here and there.
With over 320 productions and more than 2,000 performers and technicians, not to mention hundreds of volunteers, staff, donors and board members, Charleston Stage continues to grow, innovate and evolve. Those mentioned above are representative of hundreds and hundreds of others who have shared their very valued talent, time, treasures and imagination over the past forty-five years. Each of their gifts and contributions is much appreciated. It is truly remarkable how this city and this community have so embraced my 26-year-old dream that became Charleston Stage and absolutely grew beyond my greatest expectations. Charleston Stage’s 45-year legacy belongs to all of you who have given so much to ensure that this company endures. My profound thanks go to you all.