Village heads to city Village Playhouse to move downtown, occupy renovated warehouse Theater cluster adds to what some call the ‘Upper King Street arts corridor’

The Village Playhouse, established for years in Mt. Pleasant, is moving downtown to an interesting warehouse space on Woolfe Street. (Alyssa Murkin/postandcourier.com)

Out with the old, in with the new.

The Village Playhouse, for 11 years a beacon of the arts in Mount Pleasant, is giving up its strip mall location off Coleman Boulevard and moving to what some have coined the Upper King Street Arts Corridor.

The theater company will occupy a renovated meat-packing warehouse on Woolfe Street and change its name to “The Village Rep on Woolfe.”

It’s apropos: Versions of the word “wolf” have turned up in theater circles for years. There’s George C. Wolfe, the famed Broadway director and playwright. There’s the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago. Narberth, Pa., has its Wolf Performing Arts Center.

And now Charleston has reinforced the association.

Also reinforced is the idea of an arts cluster, something common to other cities, says Emily Wilhoit, executive director of the League of Charleston Theatres.

“It’s fantastic to have a cluster,” Wilhoit says. “It’s great that we’ve got several theaters now in walking distance of tons of bars and restaurants.”

It also makes it easier for the theaters to sell tickets to walk-by patrons, she said. “That’s how it’s really done.”

New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco — all have theater districts that draw patrons like magnets.

On or near Upper King Street are several arts groups and venues: Pure Theatre, the Charleston Music Hall, Redux Contemporary Art Center, the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art and Rebekah Jacob Gallery. On or near Lower King Street are others: Threshold Repertory Theatre and The Mezz jazz club.

Chris Price, president and CEO of the PrimeSouth Group, a real estate company that controls much of the property along King Street, said arts groups have been operating in the area for years, and it’s important for a city to help them flourish.

“We’re very fortunate to have an urban environment where the public can come wine, dine, shop, go to a performance, work, live and play all in the same arena,” Price said.

Now The Village Rep on Woolfe will help strengthen the Upper King Street arts base and, hence, the community, he said.

Keely Enright, artistic director of The Village Playhouse, said the move has been a long time in the making. “We long outgrew our space,” she said, referring to the storefront in Brookgreen Town Center.

Five years ago, she and managing director David Reinwald started fantasizing about constructing a stand-alone theater building next to the Starbuck’s on the site, but then the recession struck. “So we hunkered down,” Enright said.

A study commissioned by the Donnelley Foundation a few years ago showed that theater companies in the Charleston area likely had sufficient patron support to sustain their operations, but not quite enough to pay for a dedicated multimillion-dollar facility, Enright said.

One thing was certain: A move was necessary. A space only 3,600 square feet, with no rehearsal studio, no work area and no bathroom for the actors was simply not going to work anymore.

“We made the most of it, but we were busting at the seams,” Enright said.

People loved that there was theater in Mount Pleasant, but “true respect” — municipal support, patron enthusiasm and growth — would most likely come only if the troupe moved to the peninsula, she said.

In July, the lease is up. Renewal was unrealistic; the landlord wanted to keep its options open.

“In comes Doris Meddin,” Enright said.

Meddin, a longtime supporter, controls a prime piece of property on Woolfe Street that had been sitting empty for years. When Enright and Reinwald saw the Meddin Bros. warehouse, with its shimmering silver exterior, they called Doris Meddin.

“We figured out pretty quickly that we could make it happen,” Enright said, referring to the necessary renovations.

So for about the same rent they were paying in Mount Pleasant — $7,000 a month over the course of a 12-year lease — they will operate downtown.

“The potential down here is 100 times what it is over there,” Enright said, adding that a shuttle service for Mount Pleasant patrons is in the works.

Wilhoit noted that the vacuum left east of the Cooper by the relocation of the Village Playhouse will leave the suburban town a little high and dry when it comes to the arts. But the Woolfe Street playhouse is just over the Ravenel Bridge, and parking is available across from the building, she noted.

And in Mount Pleasant, Wilhoit said, one door closes, another opens. There are other theater companies in search of a venue that might walk through it and fill the void.

With the big decisions made, Enright and Reinwald are getting nervous. The renovation, to be undertaken in phases, is a little daunting, and the goal is to open the doors in time for the onset of the 2012-13 season this fall.

Phase One will see the main theater area prepared, the lobby and bar set up, an office assembled and the facade reworked. Local architect Bill Huey has designed the project, and Lowcountry-based Chastain Construction will do the heavy lifting.

Down the road, the Village will add a mezzanine and upstairs bar, renovate a large back room that can be used by school groups and other theater companies and do something cool with the roof.

The theater will seat about 150 at cabaret-style tables, Enright said.

All of it is being made possible by a $300,000 fundraising effort under way. About $100,000 was raised quietly thanks to 60 or so loyal patrons, Enright said. Another $100,000 arrived from an anonymous source with a matching condition. So far, about $35,000 has been collected to meet the matching challenge.

George Stevens, president and CEO of the Coastal Community Foundation, which manages endowments and grants for area nonprofits, said the Village Playhouse’s fundraising successes so far indicate how much people in Charleston care about the theater.

“The thing that I find interesting about this project is that one success, like the Village Playhouse’s, can build on the momentum of Upper King and create a really new feel for that part of town,” Stevens said. “We’re so used to arts organizations being migrants.”

In this case, however, “donors are saying, ‘Let’s help them build a permanent home.’ ”

That shift can be contagious, he said. It can help make people aware that this is more than another fundraiser: “This is about changing the arts scene in Charleston. And, of course, the Community Foundation is pleased to be involved,” Stevens said.

Susan Lucas of the King Street Marketing Group said the relocation of the theater company will help beautify a stretch of downtown that’s been underutilized for years.

And it’s a good fit, Lucas said. “Upper King Street’s always had this kind of vibe, kind of an artsy SoHo vibe, so this kind of stuff happening up there is really great.”

It’s part of a mini-boom. New restaurants such as The Grocery, The Macintosh and chef Mike Lata’s soon-to-open seafood place are popping up inside the “corridor.” And businesses such as the tech firm PeopleMatter are bringing jobs to the district, employing the sort of people who like the arts.

A Holiday Inn is on the rise at Meeting and Woolfe streets, and a multiuse development soon will consume a whole city block between Spring and Woolfe streets and King and Meeting streets.

The Upper King Street zone is benefiting in part from a paucity of commercial real estate downtown.

“There is nowhere else to develop,” Price of PrimeSouth Group told The Post and Courier in February, referring to Upper King. “There is available property there, and it’s becoming the hip area to be in.”

Enright eyed the warehouse space with a cautious excitement.

“If we can find a way to anchor this part of town with this theater, we’re going to find quickly that other arts bubble up,” she said.

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