A circle of thrifted couches, some with red pinstripes and others with paisley pillows and gold fringe, serves as the stage at Park Circle Creative.
It's not as much a stage as an immersive space for both performance artists and showgoers. You're not just attending a show; you're part of it. The performers are literally sitting on the couch next to you.
That was the goal of Steph Emge when he opened Park Circle Creative. He's invested in the space, too, adding in an $18,000 A/C unit and a new $8,000 glass door.
While artist workshops and figure drawing classes are still a significant part of Park Circle Creative, Emge has crafted a vision of dancers, plays, storytelling sessions, comedy shows and battles of the bands.
And he wants all of them to break the fourth wall.
"There's usually this line between the audience and a performer, and I don't like it," says Emge, who, in part, draws inspiration from old-school variety shows.
The former vagabond, who has spent his time traveling through, and living in, dozens of countries (among them Egypt, Vietnam, Holland, Switzerland and Spain), settled in Charleston five years ago with a bevy of world experiences that have taught him that everyone, everywhere, is more alike than different.
His goal is to channel the universal appreciation of art and entertainment into something unique and enlightening right here in Charleston. He also hopes to rent out spaces not only to visual artists but to bands who are looking for somewhere to store equipment and practice.
There's even a bar for some light refreshments during performances.
He wants Park Circle Creative to serve as a multipurpose art space, and he's got a lot of lofty ideas. He says he's open to ideas from the community and he's itching to collaborate.
"If you have an interesting thing, you'll find someone who appreciates that interesting thing," Emge says. "I'm still waiting for that to happen here, though."
Josh Woolwine, a Charleston native and art lover who has helped promote some early shows at Park Circle Creative, says that Charleston is a particularly hard market to tap into, despite being touted as an arts town.
"I think Charleston is a city of wallflowers," Woolwine says, referencing the large number of locals who rarely attend shows, particularly when there is an element of surprise or something that might be deemed non-traditional or experimental.
Emge is fighting that perception with hopes of growing a steady audience for events he's hosting, like figure drawing each Wednesday, a storytelling session every other Thursday and "Comedians on Couches" every other Monday. Each is under $10.
"We need the art scene to help promote the art scene," Emge adds. He says he is trying to offer something that adds to what other venues are doing, not something that competes with them.
During last Monday's "Comedians on Couches" event, three local comedians sat down next to audience members, and their improv routines were based largely on information those audience members provided during conversation.
For the "bad date" theme, second-time Park Circle Creative event attendee Sarah Hooper got to sit in the "hot seat," a particularly plush love seat with a spotlight lamp above and a flickering wax candle beside. She recounted her tale of being "catfished," or fooled by her date.
"It makes you pay attention more, makes you more engaged," Hooper says of the experience. "And they help you to be funny, which is much appreciated."
Comedian Jeanine Peters poked fun at a divorced couple in attendance, who were going to spend Valentine's Day together later in the week, and she provided her own hilarious content. Andy Livengood of Theatre 99 added quips between audience commentary to keep up the laughter. Host Vince Fabra kept things moving.
It seemed more like hanging out in someone's living room with a large group of funny friends than attending a show. And that's the point.
"I want people to be present for a show, and I want to teach people that they can grow in one place by coming back repeatedly," Emge says. "It's truly different every time."