The greater Charleston area has around 15 active theater companies. It’s no surprise that the peninsula-based companies get most of the attention since downtown is the cultural hub. But that doesn’t mean suburban theater groups are any less deserving.
Travel to James Island, West Ashley, Summerville and North Charleston, and you'll find theater alive and well and productions surprisingly varied, even cutting edge. Ambitions are big and expanding in the 'burbs.
5th Wall Productions
5th Wall Productions is Charleston’s newest and perhaps most innovative theater company. Consider its location, just a few storefronts down from Sears in Citadel Mall. “I believe (our space) was most recently a shoe store,” says 5th Wall artistic director Blair Cadden. “So that whole ‘doing theater on a shoestring budget’ kind of has a new meaning.”
The bizarre location certainly has its setbacks — limited space, low ceilings, exterior noise — but it also affords a unique opportunity. “I feel like we’re reaching some people who aren’t theater people,” says Cadden. “We get random people wandering by who would not necessarily drive downtown and look for a theater, but they’re walking through the mall and they see a poster and they come back that weekend for a show.”
But it’s more than just the location that makes 5th Wall unique. They strive to be an incubator space for new and original theater. “We are dedicated to having at least 50 percent of our season be original works,” Cadden says.
Through monthly workshops, The Writers’ Bloc and Rough Draft Readings, local writers can present their works-in-progress and receive immediate feedback.
The 5th Wall production that wrapped up this past weekend, "One Bear Lake" by R.W. Ridley, was a product of those workshops. “Month by month we heard new scenes, gave feedback, and actually got to see him incorporate that feedback. It’s really cool to get to actually engage with the playwrights that way.”
Midtown Productions has been around the Charleston area since 1989. Around being the operative word. They’ve set up shop at King and Calhoun streets in what is now Walgreens. They had a successful seven-year run on James Island. They’re now located just north of the peninsula on Azalea Drive. Different location, but at the helm as always is artistic director Sheri Grace Wenger and her signature productions.
When Wenger plans an upcoming season, it’s all about balance. “Having something screamingly funny, something touching and funny in spurts, and a musical or two,” Wenger says.
They specialize in modern classics from the '60s and '70s, Wenger’s personal favorites, but at the urging of her son and partner, Ryan Ahlert, they’ve produced some contemporary pieces as well. “We did 'Reefer Madness' a few years ago and it turned out to be one of my favorite musicals we’ve ever done,” Wenger says.
Their next production, the Tony award-winning 'Ain’t Misbehavin’,' opens this Friday. It’s a swinging tale about the music of jazz pioneer Fats Waller, complete with dynamic choreography and five-part harmonies. “The music is delightful. It’s like every single song is a story,” says Wenger. “You have to have strong singer/actors to pull off this play, and we do. I’m so excited about it.”
It’s that excitement that brings out the best of a production. When sifting through scripts, “It’s a matter of finding what you love, because that’s what you’re going to make the best,” she says.
Flowertown Players in Summerville is the poster child of community theater. And unabashedly so. “Theater is an especially great art form for a community because it gets so many different people involved,” says artistic director JC Conway. “Whether they’re actors or designers or painters or builders.”
The company even offers a "suggest a show" option on its website. And those suggestions don’t fall on deaf ears, or blind eyes as it were. “Usually half of our shows a year are made up of those suggestions,” Conway says.
That dedication to the community could potentially cause limitations — having to offer productions with mass appeal that are appropriate for all ages. So three years ago, they developed Flowertown Underground. “There, we tend to do more progressive, edgier productions,” says Conway. “We’re OK with using expletives. We’re OK with showing adult content.”
Opening Thursday, Feb. 9 is Flowertown Underground’s production of "Suicide, Incorporated." “It’s basically a show about, what if the Hallmark greeting card company wrote suicide notes for people,” says Conway. “It’s well-written. It’s got great characters. And while raising awareness of suicide, it’s still entertaining.”
That production will be followed by "Legally Blonde: The Musical." So if dramas about suicide don’t flick your switch, a lighthearted musical comedy might do the trick.
Charleston Performing Arts Center
Over on James Island, Charleston Performing Arts Center has found its niche. “What we do here are dance musicals,” says executive director Scott Pfeiffer. “So the focus is song and dance telling the story, with some dialogue to help weave it all together. But the main focus is dance and music.”
The intimate space on Folly Road is set up like a true cabaret theater with tables for seating and room for dancing. “We want to give people a completely different theatrical experience,” says Pfeiffer. “I like to call it 4-D, because you’re not just passively watching something happen, the entertainment is happening all around you.”
And in its current production, "Bandstand!," the audience can join in on the fun. Says Pfeiffer, “There are moments in the show where the Dick Clark character will say, ‘All right kids, get out of the bleacher seats and hit the dance floor.’ And patrons will get up and dance. Sometimes they’ll be dancing with our cast members, sometimes on their own.”
Every C-PAC production is original, the brainchildren of Pfeiffer and his partner Kirk Sprinkles. "Bandstand!" started as a loose concept about the music of the 1960s but blossomed into something much bigger. “This show is all about the civil rights movement as told through the lens of the American Bandstand camera,” says Pfeiffer. “It’s fun and engaging, has a strong message, but it leaves you feeling hopeful, feeling empowered. I think this has the bones to be the best show we’ve ever done.”
South of Broadway Theatre Company
What makes South of Broadway Theatre Company unique is its aspirations. “Our vision is to become this large destination for Broadway-quality theater,” says founder and producer Mary Gould.
Tucked in Park Circle in North Charleston, its 120-seat capacity, tiered black box space isn’t enough to make the vision a reality. Which is why building has begun at its new location on Daniel Island where the company is projecting an inaugural season of 2019-2020. “That will be a 400-seat house. It will also have rehearsal halls and experimental spaces.”
All necessities if South of Broadway wants to achieve its goal of joining the League of Resident Theatres, affording it the opportunity to partner with nationally and internationally renowned theaters and Broadway production houses.
That isn’t to say its current productions are anything to dismiss — far from it. Top-shelf entertainment is one of its core values. And first-year artistic director Kristin Kos has brought dynamic shows to the stage. “I really enjoyed this past season finding contemporary work,” says Kos. “It’s not that I’m against classics, but there’s so much relevant new work to see.”
Forward thinking always has been a big part of South of Broadway. And the future is only looking bigger. “It’s my hope that like the Guthrie Theatre put Minneapolis/St. Paul on the map, and they have god knows how many dozen equity theaters, we can be that for Charleston.”