A Personal Remembrance by Founder Julian Wiles
I am often asked if Charleston Stage is the fulfillment of the dream I had for this company when it was founded way back in 1978. And the answer is no. The success of Charleston Stage has far exceeded anything I could have imagined and that so many people over the past forty years have shared in the imagining—and in the hard work to make dreams a reality.
While Charleston Stage has grown from a small youth theatre with a staff of one (me) and a budget of $20,000 to a full-time staff of 25 (and more than 140 part-time actors, musicians, technicians, etc.) and a budget of $2.2 million, the core values from its founding are still the heart and soul of Charleston Stage. I wanted a theatre that not only produced the most professional productions possible, but also one that could provide theatre education opportunities as well. It was always my goal to have a staff of professional theatre artists dedicated not only to producing the best shows possible but also committed to sharing their talents with the next generation. These commitments to professional production and theatre education remain the core values of Charleston Stage.
So how did it all begin? 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. I wasn't sure how to go about this but while a student at the College of Charleston I was given the opportunity, by the Rev. Ralph Byrd of St. Philips Church, to direct two productions for his large 100+ Youth Group— Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and the opera Noye's Fludde. Both were actually lavish productions with original sets and costumes and both were well received. These productions caught the eye of the late Emmett Robinson, the long-time Producing Director of the Footlight Players and then theatre professor at the College of Charleston. I took several of Emmett's courses at the College and he became a mentor to me. 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 serve as Emmett's assistant. After he retired, I began looking for new opportunities to continue my work in theatre and to work with young people and came up with the idea of a youth theatre for Charleston. 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 support to what would become The Young Charleston Theatre Company. (We would change our name to Charleston Stage in 1994). While getting the theatre company up and running, I also worked part-time for the City Department of Cultural Affairs on such projects as Piccolo Spoleto and its theatre offerings then leaving in 1980 to focus full-time on Charleston Stage. The first Board of Trustees was formed under the leadership of the late Ken Hough, then headmaster at College Preparatory School. Ken joked that he was elected only because he was absent when his name was put in nomination at the first meeting but Ken became a great cheerleader, mentor, leader, and personal friend until his death in 2010. Though Charleston Stage in 1978 was just a dream at that point, Ken believed in it and convinced others to believe in it as well. He secured the company's first contribution— a generous $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, complete with a lobby decorated in greens brought down from the Calhoun County farm where I grew up. Thanks to my Mom and Dad and neighbor Doraine Wannamaker, the theatre looked festive and stunning with two huge, ceiling-high Christmas trees in the lobby, smilax entwined on the grand staircases and dozens of wreaths hanging from the sconces in the theatre. 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 then 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. I am most pleased that Bill and Elaine are still season members 40 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 on stage. My new wife, Jenny, provided much of the research on Afro-American songs and games, which she had used in her classroom at Memminger Elementary. She also organized lobby demonstrations featuring quilt-makers from John's Island, Scape Nelson, a cast-net maker from Edisto, Mary Bennett, a sweetgrass basket-weaver from Mt. Pleasant and a talk by 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 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 1982 production of Seize the Street! featured Thomas Gibson (star of CBS's Dharma and Greg and Criminal Minds) as a dim-witted construction worker. In 1983, still 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 traipsed 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 a Broadway career. He is currently an understudy for the father on the new hit Dear Evan Hansen. His brother Colin, who was also in Seize the Street!, is now a filmmaker and educator in Chicago. The 17-year-old piano player for this show was Laura Manning Turner who went on to Julliard and NYU and is now a professor of Youth Theatre at the College of Charleston. Laura also composed the incidental music for our original productions of Nevermore! and The Secret Garden.
One of my goals in starting Charleston Stage was to produce shows that respected the intelligence of young audience members. Back then, most plays for young people were fairy tales and the like 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 in 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 Lenore and Bill 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. 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 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. An original adaptation of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1983) featured the debut of costumes by Barbara Young, who has continued making literally thousands of costumes over the 29 years she has been with the company. Barbara also served as a sounding board for many of the plays I've written and several, like Nevermore! Edgar Allan Poe (1994), would never have reached the stage without her encouragement and support. It is also published and is widely produced around the country. Barbara Young's husband Andy, a wonderful craftsman, provided many special effects in the early days 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. Andy even filled in to build whole sets when were were shorthanded in our shop. Dedicated volunteers have always been part of the life blood 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 has served as stage mom, actress, the company manager, my administrative assistant and the company's official chocolate chip cookie baker. The cookies became such an opening night tradition that 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 opening night for this giving society that now raises over $100,000 each season to support the work of Charleston Stage. More than a million dollars has been raised over the years through Director's Circle gifts 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 our first A-Team: Clay Young, Allison Kennedy, Bob Nicolai, and Julie Mathis. In those days 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 all the way down the street from Memminger Auditorium (where we built scenery in those days) 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 had written a simple letter to Mr. Williams asking him to compose something for our 10th anniversary, and he generously sent us the fanfare. I called it our "32 Cent 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 for the first time, a huge cast, and five sets (including a full scale pirate ship). Flying was provided by Flying by Foy which was responsible for the flying in the original Broadway production of Peter Pan with Mary Martin which I had watched over and over again on TV when I was a kid. This show, a truly 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 opened our first show of the season, a Moliere 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 Santa to ask 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 the night of the hurricane. I don't think my daughter Marianna has ever forgiven me for changing her from a girl to a boy in this play.
As The Young Charleston Theatre Company’s programming expanded to add a wider range of productions, our name was changed to Charleston Stage in 1994. But the commitment to education continued. A-Team and SuperTroupe were later combined to become Charleston Stage's TheatreWings High School Apprentice Program. To date, over 300 young people have apprenticed through this program. Apprentices Scott Fitzgerald and Cary Grayson utilized skills they learned in TheatreWings to design scenery that we used onstage at the Dock Street for our productions of Wit (2001) and Beneath the Sweetgrass Moon (2004). My own children, Marianna and Nicholas, went through the TheatreWings program when they attended the Academic Magnet High School, both becoming great techies and eventually stage-managing mainstage productions.
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 - especially the expense of professional actors, and the company suffered a significant financial setback. However, we launched our next season on schedule and postponed our plans for a fully professional theatre until later.
Associate Director Marybeth Clark first joined the company as an actor in Moon Over Buffalo in 1997 and then 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 she has been delighting audiences and her students ever since. 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, is now a seasoned Broadway performer (Rent, Wicked, West Side Story). In 2005, she also became the company's Associate Artistic Director. In subsequent summers, summer student productions of Seussical, Aladdin, and The Wiz have followed. This past summer they produced Disney’s 101 Dalmatians KIDS and Xanadu JR with over 90+ talented students. Today, Charleston Stage's education programs are some of the most comprehensive in the state. They include afterschool classes for hundreds of students, special school matinees attended by over 12,000 students each season, our TheatreWings Apprentice program and outreach programs in the schools.
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 leading 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 followed, including long-time corporate sponsorships from such community corporate leaders as The Beach Company, First Federal, Nexsen Pruitt, Piggly Wiggly, Publix Super Markets Charities, SCANA, SCBT, Wells Fargo, Merrill Lynch, Boeing and others. In addition, we've received generous grants for many years from the City and County of Charleston, the city of North Charleston, and the South Carolina Arts Commission (which receives funding from the National Endowment of the Arts). Longtime foundation support has come from The Dorothy and Dubose Heyward Foundation, The Gaylord and Donnelley Foundation, the Pearlstine Family Fund, the Henry and Sylvia Yaschik Foundation, the Joanna Foundation, the Saul Alexander Foundation, and the Albert Sottile Foundation as well as others.
Many creative board 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's premier 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 great 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 - plus donated intern housing from The Beach Company - allowed us to bring talented young professional actors to spend 10 months with us each season performing and teaching. Since 1998, more than 90 young professional actors have become members of Charleston Stage's Resident Professional 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 2006), Nakeisha Daniel (Ragtime 2007), Drew Archer (Inga Binga 2011), Crystin Gilmore (Chicago 2011, The Wiz 2012) plus Vanessa Moyen this past year (Legally Blonde and The Underpants.)
In 2010, we produced a revised version of Helium, a play I had originally written in 1990. It is about a family dealing with an aging and failing grandmother, a play I 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 continues to be one of my most favorite plays and returns this year for our 40th Anniversary. It also touched so many as audience members often gathered together to share remembrances of their own grandparents, aunts, uncles, and friends who were touched by the fog of dementia. Helium was later successfully produced in Greenville and other theatres around the country.
Charleston Stage was one of the first local theatre companies to embrace non-traditional casting... casting roles without regard to race. Dracula, King of Vampires (2000), with African-American Actor Clay Middleton in the lead role, is an example of very successful non-traditional casting.
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), Next to Normal (2014), The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (2011), and Avenue Q (2012) - which returns this season - have followed.
A lavish production of Cyrano, directed by Marybeth Clark, opened the 25th Anniversary season in 2002. The play adaptation featured a script by me (under the pen name of Etienne Colbert). Bobby Owen, my graduate-school 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 our next Board President, Celeste Patrick, spearheaded the lobbying efforts that helped to lead to the major and invaluable renovations of the Dock Street Theatre.
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 with most productions held at 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 read from his book I Am America And So Can You plus answered questions from the audience. Stephen claims he 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 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 Carrie Preston (who had been our Anne Frank 17 years earlier when she was a student at the College of Charleston). Carrie has had a major theatre and film career and can currently be seen on HBO's True Blood. Her husband Michael Emerson (now on CBS's Person of Interest and formerly Ben on Lost) joined her for this very special performance. That fall our first production in the "new Dock Street" was preceded by the unveiling of a the grand show curtain entitled "Window of Wonder", which was created especially for Charleston Stage by legendary artist, Jonathan Green. As it was being unveiled, the world premiere of Fanfare for a Rising Tide, by a local Jazz great, Charlton Singleton, 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 a most generous gift to Charleston Stage.
One of my goals at Charleston Stage was 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 and 2007). 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 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 to me about those experiences and allowed me to use her personal memories in the play. Subsequently, I was most honored to receive a Special Recognition Award from the Charleston Branch of the NAACP for the premiere production of The Seat of Justice. The work of telling stories of the Lowcountry continued with Denmark Vesey: Insurrection (2007) based on an alleged 1822 slave uprising 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 for 2010. Along with my staff and supporters, we journeyed to the Statehouse for that prestigious award in May of 2010.
Like every organization, Charleston Stage has struggled with the economic downturn of recent years. Like most businesses, Charleston Stage downsized and endured 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 and challenging time, made more difficult because we could not perform at our home, the Dock Street Theatre. Most fortunately, thanks to the generous support of the community and our long-time supporters, budgets and staff have now been fully restored.
Since our return to the Dock Street in 2009, tickets sales have continued to grow. Also, five long-time 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 plus expand the company's cash reserves. Annual Campaign and other challenge grants from longtime supporter Fred Pittman have been especially helpful in these efforts. This support has allowed Charleston Stage to not only recover from the financial challenges of the last few years but to focus on the future as well. This has also allowed Charleston Stage, in the last few years, to bring more and more guest artists and performers to Charleston. They include the great Equity actors Phil Mills and Gardner Reed, who played the leads in the world premiere of Inga Binga, the story of Jack Kennedy's exploits in World War II Charleston.
In the last five years Charleston Stage, thanks to expanded ticket sales and our generous donors, has become debt free allowing us to focus on our dual mission of education and professional production. On the production side, the scale has grown tremendously with full-scale productions of major musicals such as Young Frankenstein, Catch Me If You Can (with Charleston resident Frank Abagnale, Jr. in attendance), Disney’s Mary Poppins, and the legendary White Christmas. To produce on this scale Charleston Stage has expanded its design and production staff and in 2016 moved into new scenic and costumes shops over in West Ashley. At the same time, the size of our full-time Resident Professional Acting Company has grown each season. Because our Resident Professional Actors serve as instructors in our education programs, their expanded numbers have allowed us to continue to grow our extensive education programs, not only adding new classes, camps, and workshops but also providing in-school workshops in over 25 area schools each season.
Charleston Stage's Board of Trustees - under the strong leadership of Immediate Past President Gary White, has completed a major restructuring and expansion effort to ensure that the support needed to both sustain and grow great professional theatre in Charleston endures. Board Members have been – and certainly continue to be - instrumental to the financial health and stability of the company. More than 200 have served and their names are listed below.
Yes, I know, I've left out lots and lots of wonderful productions and performers which have been a part of Charleston Stage's amazing 40-year history. Having produced over 250 productions featuring more than 2,000 actors, singers, dancers, designers, and technicians - not to mention hundreds of volunteers, staff, donors, and board members - there's just no way to mention everyone. Know that those I have mentioned are representative of hundreds and hundreds of others who have shared their talent, time, treasures, and imagination over the past forty. Each of their gifts is much appreciated. It is truly remarkable how this city and this community have so embraced the dream that has become Charleston Stage. Its 40-year legacy belongs to all of those who have given so much to ensure that this company endures and for that… my profound thanks.
Today Charleston Stage continues to evolve. The West Ashley Theatre Center - which should open in spring 2018 - is in the works to serve our expanded classes and education programs, provide rehearsal space and will include a small performance space for theatre school and other performances. At the same time, our production department continues to expand to ensure Charleston Stage has the creative resources to produce even more imaginative productions in the years to come.
Forty years—whew! But rest assured, you ain't seen nothing yet! I have no doubt – whatsoever - that the best is yet to come.