Welcome to ‘hemp house’ Sottile Theatre combines tradition and innovation

Leroy Burnell/Staff Cast members from the play “Encore” during a performance at the Sottile Theatre.

Perhaps no performance venue in Charleston is relied on more than the College of Charleston’s Sottile Theatre.

It’s central location, large size, flexibility, comfortable seating, old-fashioned aesthetic and dedicated crew make it ideal for all kinds of presentations, from symphony concerts to film screenings and special lectures.

And now that the Gaillard Municipal Auditorium is shut down for a three-year renovation, the demand on the Sottile is especially high, its managers said. Good thing the staff is prepared for all the action.

“We keep the venue as ready as possible for the largest event possible at all times,” technical director Jeremiah Lewis said. “When you’re always loaded for bear, when squirrel comes along, it’s no problem.”

Lewis works closely with events coordinator Kelly Biscopink, who’s responsible for the schedule, among other things.

The theater is pretty much booked solid until next summer, she said, except for a few scattered openings on weekdays.

The Charleston Symphony Orchestra has relocated there and will offer two performances of each Masterworks program throughout its season.

The Charleston Concert Association has relocated there and will mount four large productions in the space, from a musical revue to classical ballet.

The four-day Nuovo Cinema Italiano Film Festival recently wrapped up at the Sottile, and the Charleston International Film Festival is preparing for its April run.

Lawyer Alan Dershowitz, a hawkish defender of Israel, will speak there at 7 tonight.

The Robert Ivey Ballet Company presents its “Hunchback of Notre Dame” at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

And Spoleto Festival USA occupies the venue each spring, presenting various stage productions.

And then there are the spelling bees, piano recitals, political speeches, student concerts and more. And so it goes for the foreseeable future.

All of this is happening while the Sottile undergoes phased improvements. The college allocated $800,000 for the purpose, said Jan Brewton, director of business auxiliary services. And the project began in 2009 with a formal study identifying necessary technical upgrades and establishing a scope of work.

A digital movie projector and two 35 mm projectors have been procured and installed. The sound-deadening curtains were removed. The walls have been repaired (and murals exposed). The acoustics have been improved. New catwalks are being installed, along with upgrades to the hemp rope rigging system.

Yes, the Sottile is a “hemp house,” notes Lewis enthusiastically. Fewer and fewer of them remain, as hemp ropes, pulleys and sandbags are replaced with steel cables and solid weights. But the Sottile will adhere to tradition and maintain its hemp and heft, Lewis said.

It will mean ordering custom sandbags from a theatrical supply company. It will take brute strength to install and lift the weights. It will require more human finesse and skill, less reliance on new technologies and more pride in successful stage operations, he said.

It will mean an occasional bag tear and trickle of sand to the stage below. “But we’ve never dropped one,” Lewis said.

The Sottile team — Lewis, Biscopink, supervisor Amy Orr and Brewton — loves that his theater retains this and other traditional practices.

“It’s part of the history of the theater,” Brewton said.

“It’s also part of the charm,” Lewis added.

Michael Wise, co-artistic director of the Ivey Ballet Company, said his dance troupe has always used the Sottile, and he has no plans to abandon the space. He has booked performances as far ahead as possible, through 2017.

“To be properly organized … we would have done as much of that as possible,” Wise said. “But because of Gaillard closing, it took it from a magnitude of ‘we should do this’ to ‘we have to do this.’ ”

There was no way he was going to risk being shut out of his favorite hall.

“It’s one of the best theaters in Charleston, the conditions are great,” he said. “Part of the quality is the facility itself” — and the crew. “We get along so well.”

At the Sottile, he said, one feels enveloped by the feeling of the theater, which is meant to transport audiences into a dimension of make-believe and spectacle.

And then there’s the practical reasons, including the fact that it’s easier to fill 785 seats than 2,700 (old Gaillard) or 1,400 (new Gaillard).

But most of all, Wise likes working with Lewis, he said.

Give a theater manager the respect he deserves, and you’ll usually get a lot of help. In Lewis’ case, he bends over backward to make things work well, Wise said.

“They make our productions better,” he said. “That’s the best way to put it.”

Lewis said he often looks forward to Spoleto Festival productions, which can stretch his abilities and challenge his mathematical mind.

He has a specialization in stunt work and rigging, which means he’s especially adept at managing shows with aerial and acrobatic components. He takes an active role in setting up the ropes and bridles for flying performers and spends hours making the necessary calculations and taking into account complex variables, he said.

For example, there was one time when a dancer had to be moved up and down and across to her mark at the same time. That was tricky.

Biscopink, who has a degree in theater and stage management and who has worked on a number of Broadway touring shows, said it costs a baseline $850 for a for-profit company to rent the place for a day, plus labor and extras.

Brewton said it’s a win-win for the community and the college. And it makes for an authentic theater experience.

“We’re mixing history with modernization,” she said. “Some of the newest cutting-edge technology is sitting on rigging that’s been there since the beginning of the theater.”

Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at www.facebook.com/aparkerwriter.