Charleston Stage has announced an ambitious expansion of its operations that coincides with its 40th anniversary.
Centered firmly at the Dock Street Theatre, Charleston Stage will continue to mount its large-scale productions — six musicals and plays each season — and its four Family Series shows in the historic theater, and it will maintain offices there, but all of its education programming will relocate from its Mount Pleasant studio space to the new Charleston Stage West Ashley Theater Center.
The 10,000-square-foot center is located in the Ashley Landing shopping center in the triangle between Sam Rittenberg Boulevard, Charlestowne Drive and Old Towne Road. It's double the size of the theater company’s current Mount Pleasant studio, which it will give up once the new space is ready in late spring 2018.
The theater center will include two rehearsal rooms, a small theater of about 120 fixed seats and offices for 14 educational staff members. It will accommodate all of the company's students and host rehearsals and small-scale productions produced by Charleston Stage.
But staff members don’t think the theater will get constant use by their own actors, students and production team, so it will be made available to other arts organizations in need of a modest performance room.
“We’ve been planning to expand for a long time,” said Julian Wiles, Charleston Stage founder and producing artistic director. But then circumstances in Mount Pleasant changed, which suddenly made the move more urgent. “We started this in earnest 10 months ago.”
The space, a former CVS drugstore in a strip mall, is secured with a seven-year lease and will require several months of construction before it’s ready for use. The Middleton Group Architecture Studio is providing the design plans.
The location is about a half-mile from Charleston Stage’s scene shop and costume shop, and in a part of West Ashley that could see additional revitalization efforts. Already, the area is home to several restaurants, Frothy Beard Brewery, the Steinway piano showroom, a new ballet studio and a music school.
The city of Charleston recently purchased a vacated Piggly Wiggly store for nearly $3 million, and already there has been informal talk among area residents, artists and others about developing greenspace, performance space, offices and more at and around the site.
Marybeth Clark, associate artistic director and director of education, said she will devote much of her time working in the new space, which includes ample parking and a small outdoor area that might be used as a lounge in better weather.
Clark said that about half of her current students travel to the Mount Pleasant studio from neighborhoods west of the Ashley, so switching locations could be convenient for many, even if others will have to travel some distance to reach the new facility. The theater center is a short drive from the Cosgrove Avenue bridge, accessible from I-26.
Luck played a part: “There is not a plethora of spaces out there that are available and affordable,” she said.
While Charleston Stage will use the theater, Wiles and Clark hope it can become a community space, they said.
“We’re definitely going to program it ourselves but we won’t fill it up in the first few years,” Wiles said. So they will make it available to school groups and other theater companies in need of space, and invite special needs advocates to schedule events there, too.
Already, Charleston Stage hosts autistic children for sensory-friendly productions. During Piccolo Spoleto earlier this year, Clark teamed up with Sharon Graci of Pure Theatre and HEART Artist Guild & Theatre Company to mount an adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet” starring actors with a variety of special needs. Clark said she hopes to do more of that in the new West Ashley space.
The first big show of the 2017-18 season, "Disney’s The Little Mermaid,” opens Wednesday and runs through Sept. 24 at the Dock Street Theatre.
“It’s going to be a spectacle,” Clark said. She is directing the musical.
The production includes original sets and costumes (as usual), the addition of water nymphs to include some young theater students, choreography by Cara Dolan and a live orchestra led by Sam Henderson.
The costume crew includes five who recently graduated with master degrees from the North Carolina School of Arts, Clark said. They are making puppet jellyfish, manta rays and other sea creatures.
“We build all the sets and costumes here, so we’re re-imagining all the shows here,” Wiles said.
Charleston Stage was founded by Wiles in 1978 as a youth theater. Over the years it has become a cornerstone of the city's theater scene. The company has produced 303 shows, including 29 world premieres, some authored by Wiles. It now operates with a $2.5 million annual budget and full-time staff of 25.
The new season also includes productions of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “A Christmas Carol,” “Junie B. In Jingle Bells, Batman Smells!,” “The Giver,” “Billy, Goat, Gruff: The Musical,” “Helium,” “Avenue Q” and “Shakespeare in Love.” For more information, go to charlestonstage.com.