MOUNT PLEASANT - When Jimmy Ward met with Mayor Linda Page at her family-owned Page's Okra Grill last spring, the two got to talking about a few of the town's quirky old characters.
It led to an idea: What if Ward, founder and artistic director of the Crabpot Players, crafted a play about the town's history? He had just moved his community theater company to the town.
The mayor knew that any play Ward writes, even about history, won't be dusty or dull. Because if his own history is an indicator, the play will zing those who need it, touch a few hearts and be terribly, comically honest.
It also will reach beyond the town's Mount Plastic reputation as a vanilla sprawl of hoity-toity subdivisions overrunning the once-quiet bedroom community.
He's calling the play "Shem Creek." For anyone following the Save Shem Creek bumper stickers and the sensitive disputes over how to preserve the center of old Mount Pleasant, you know Ward could well get run out of town.
And attract some big audiences to see it.
Which is all what Mount Pleasant leaders want to do: infuse more arts and encourage pride in the booming town's cultural heritage. The effort began in earnest last year when the town created its Culture, Arts & Pride Commission to bolster precisely those efforts.
"It's fantastic the type of talent we have here," says Ashley Richardson, the town's community development and tourism officer. "We want to make sure the whole Charleston area is aware."
With support from her office, the commission has been developing plans, including one that's giving the town crabs.
Phillip Hyman is a crafty, creative kind of guy. So when the commission called for artists to submit design entries for a local public art project, he came up with a 4-foot wide prototype of a blue crab.
Local guy with a local blue crab competing with artists from off. How could he lose?
Hyman is a widely known, prolific local painter and sculptor who at one point was known for the gigantic T-Rex with LED lights in his front yard, at least until the city of North Charleston made him move it to his backyard.
"Anything people can think of, they call Phillip Hyman," he says proudly.
And now his blue crabs are coming to Mount Pleasant as part of a Crab Crawl on Coleman Boulevard.
Remember Charleston's Turtles on the Town? Ever heard of Greenville's Mice on Main?
Well, Mount Pleasant is getting its own public arts critter.
While details haven't all been ironed out yet, the town aims to display the giant blue crabs in public parks along Coleman such as at Shem Creek and the pocket park.
More crabs could infiltrate other parts of town.
"It fits with Coleman Boulevard to have a Crab Crawl," Richardson says. "We're certainly very excited."
Crabs would be unique, painted or otherwise adorned by different artists. They can alter designs and materials to fit their unique visions of crab (crabs with fishing poles, crabs holding flowers). The prototype is made of oak with plans to build 3-, 4- and 8-foot statues.
Hyman presented a prototype to town officials in May.
"Mount Pleasant is soon to have crabs," Councilman Mark Smith joked.
But these giant crabs are pretty cute. And they're sturdy for outdoor display, Hyman added.
"Everybody who sees them wants to touch and go play with them," Hyman said. "That's an immediate draw."
Committee Chairman Chris O'Neal offered up his 3-year-old son to test for durability.
"I think this looks really cool," O'Neal said. "It brings something new to the community as far as art."
The town has commissioned Hyman to build three with plans to roll them out most likely this fall. Next, they will call for local artists who want to paint them. Hyman painted the first.
"We're hoping they take off, and there will be a movement to do more," Richardson says. "It all depends on the buy-in and interest."
The committee sent Hyman off with unanimous claws up.
"They are looking at having a public art showcased," Hyman says. "That's exciting."
With its money and size, he thinks Mount Pleasant can compete with local arts heavyweight downtown Charleston.
"The community needs it," Hyman says.
The Culture, Arts & Pride Commission has rolled out several smaller endeavors, as well.
In May, town officials dedicated two new sculptures set in Coleman's pocket park. Named Hope and Infinity, they were created by College of Charleston art students Colin Clarke and Emily Meisler.
Hope is a 24-inch salvaged steel water pipe in keeping with the park's theme of sustainability. Clarke described the crimson and gold sculpture as a portrayal of hope.
"It is the human condition to strive onwards and upwards. Hope springs eternal," Clarke says.
Meisler's Infinity sculpture features an open infinity symbol woven into a rebar covered in expanded mesh and papier- mache.
"I wanted to create a piece that represented the coastal energy of the region: its serenity, infinite beauty and mystery," she said.
Now, the town is looking for other locations to bring public art.
And the commission's efforts to bring public art to the ... well, the public, even reach into the mayor's office.
When Page moved into the space, she stared at blank walls. Today, local artists' paintings hang for her visitors to see. Every two months, the artwork changes to feature a new artist. Becky Taylor's watercolor "Beach Boys" hangs there now.
What once was a fitness center now is Crabpot Players' permanent digs. No more floating among theaters, including the Isle of Palms recreation center, and the uncertainty that it brought.
In April, Ward opened the new Crabpot Players Performing Arts Center on Johnnie Dodds Boulevard, not a bad move given about 70,000 vehicles zip by its doors each day.
The new space means adding classes, rehearsals and camps and even welcoming New York City's Joffrey Ballet Concert Group for performances. Although Ward is adding more all-adult casts, he's long been known for his quality plays featuring younger actors.
"A lot of these kids have grown up in Crabpot," Ward says. "I got to know their parents and become good friends."
In khakis and flip-flops, the Isle of Palms councilman is a CPA and writer with a weakness for satire. He founded the nonprofit in 1993.
"It started as a lark and this year will do a minimum of eight productions," Ward says.
To christen the new space, Ward presented Neil Simon's comedy "Last of the Red Hot Lovers" on opening night. He played Barney Cashman.
Who played Barney's mother? Mayor Page.
Half of Town Council showed up. "They've been very supportive," Ward says.
For now, the theater seats 85 with a capacity of 140. Ward plans to expand that later. Between sophisticated lighting, sound and myriad remodeling expenses, the 63-year-old figures he already has sunk about $90,000 of mostly his own money into the new place.
That's why he recently appeared at a Town Council committee meeting to apply for a grant. He requested $25,000, figuring he'd get zero.
When he arrived, the committee was cutting expenses, namely grant requests. He watched them go down a budget page, slicing and dicing other nonprofits' requests.
His was one of the last.
When they got Crabpot, they cut his request in half. Someone said the theater was new to town, unproven.
Ward stood up. "I've been around 21 years!" he said.
And then he reminded them how much money he had put into the town's new theater. They unanimously approved $12,500.
Mayor Page, who appeared in "Red Hot Lovers" with Ward, leaned forward after the vote.
"Next time, you make me your lover and not your mother," she grinned, "and you'll get it all."
The audience howled. And Ward left to get ready for his next show: "Greater Tuna" opening in September.
Ward's "Shem Creek" is set to open in April. Watch for Page, former Mayor Billy Swails, the Magwoods and other town characters to appear in this "historically accurate, heartwarming, and somewhat satirical show," as he bills it.
Given Mount Pleasant has become the state's fourth-largest city, Ward shouldn't have trouble attracting audiences. We'll see if they run him off.
Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563 or follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes.
After auditioning for an upcoming production, Larry Pinker (left) and Jerry Squires leave the Crabpot Players Theatre Company on Johnnie Dodds Boulevard in Mount Pleasant.×
Jimmy Ward (right) directs Michael Golino and Caitlyn Miller as they rehearse “I, the Jury,” a one-act play being put on at Crabpot Players Theatre Company in Mount Pleasant.×
Artist Phillip Hyman adds spray paint to a wooden crab he designed to be displayed as public art.×