Alfred Hitchcock liked to turn a murder mystery around, letting the audience in on the whodunit secret at the start and then conspiring with viewers against the villain throughout the movie. The suspense was a result of the tension between an audience that knew what was going on and characters in the film who didn’t.
Among Hitchcock’s great successes was “Dial M for Murder,” which was based on a 1952 stage play by Frederick Knott. That play has been performed many times since, and now The Footlight Players will present it March 9-25 at the historic theater on Queen Street.
The story, a sort of psychological thriller about a man whose plot to murder his wealthy wife is foiled, will be rendered traditionally by The Footlight Players in a production directed by Shannon Horn and featuring actors Michael Okas and Maureen Renee Hughes. More information and tickets are available at https://footlightplayers.net/events/dial-m-for-murder/.
The play is the first presented by Footlight under the general leadership of Brian Porter, who last month was named executive director of the 87-year-old community theater company. Porter said “Dial M for Murder” is the sort of classic play that “speaks to what Footlight’s image really is in the landscape of Charleston.”
While other local companies pursue heady ensemble works or quirky alternative plays or large-format musicals, Footlight has long concentrated on popular plays and musicals that don’t require expensive effects or enormous casts, productions such as “Annie” and “The Addams Family,” or the forthcoming “Singin’ in the Rain.”
Finding his way
Porter co-founded What If? Productions nine years ago with Kyle Barnette and quickly made a name for himself by starring in the company’s straight-out-of-the-gate production of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” He has appeared on stage in several other local productions, including Charleston Stage’s “Cabaret” in 2010, “The Producers” in 2009 and 2015, “Sheer Madness” in 2016 and “Peter and the Starcatcher” in 2017.
Porter also likes to present a piano cabaret show featuring famous songs from musicals. (He’s a huge Stephen Sondheim fan.)
For most of the time he’s been in Charleston, Porter worked at Charleston Stage, adding to his experience as a theater administrator. He earned his bachelor’s degree in theater from Purdue University, interned at Playhouse in the Square in Memphis, where he met Barnette. He tried to help get a new theater initiative off the ground in upper Michigan, then moved with Barnette to Atlanta in 2005 where Porter became a media buyer for an ad agency.
A couple of years later Porter and Barnette were in the Holy City. Barnette had landed an internship at Charleston Stage and then a job with a local ballet company, and Porter went to work for a short-lived media company before appearing in Charleston Stage’s 2009 “Producers” and working for a spell with a Daniel Island company as a technology director.
By 2011, he was executive assistant at Charleston Stage, then director of administration, overseeing the box office, marketing and other business operations.
When Jane Broadwater decided to step down as Footlight’s executive director after three years at the helm, it occurred to Porter that he might be a good candidate for the post.
“I know how to do it, I know how to do it all,” he mused, “so why not?”
Though her tenure was brief, Broadwater played a critical role at Footlight, according to artistic director Don Brandenburg. Intending from the start to be an interim director, she strived “to advance local talent by giving more variety to our play selections while working with the board and our patrons on improving the production areas of the theater, such as lighting and sound,” she told The Post and Courier last year. “We must continue to make small improvements to the building, increase our attendance and creatively use our space for non-theater events.”
Brandenburg credited her with strengthening Footlight.
“Now that Jane has decided to move on to other interests, we are all excited and optimistic that Brian Porter’s selection as the new executive director will keep Footlight moving in a positive direction with a new level of energy,” he wrote in an email. “Brian’s performance, production and business background is a perfect fit for Footlight.”
Porter is only now settling into his new post. The current season, determined long before his arrival, continues. He’s getting to know Footlight’s board members, physical space, financial status and more. He said he wants to build upon Broadwater’s accomplishments, even as he continues to keep a toe in the waters of What If? Productions.
“We’re in a unique position,” he said of Footlight. “We own our building.”
And the building, a former cotton warehouse located in the heart of the historic district, is big. The 250-seat theater space is up front. Behind it are dressing rooms and a platform for a live orchestra. Behind that is the set shop. Behind that is the costume shop. Upstairs on the second floor is a rehearsal space and more offices.
So Porter and his new colleagues are thinking about ways to make the space more accessible to other groups and to turn it into a small arts center that hosts not just theater productions but rock concerts and beauty pageants and stand-up comedy and magic acts.
But first things first, he said.
Barnette, who remains in charge of What If? Productions, noted there are local theater companies in need of regular performance venues, and others, like his own, that would jump at the chance to collaborate with Footlight.
He said Porter brings a wealth of experience and know-how to his new job.
“To see a theater that old get a new punch of energy — only good things can come of it,” Barnette said. “It’s hard to find somebody that has that much artistic credibility and administrative experience.”
Draw them in
Horn, a drama teacher at Pinewood Preparatory School in Summerville, said her version of “Dial M for Murder” is true to the original. The stage is set just like it was in the movie (and original play), and Hitchcock’s imprint is detectible.
“We certainly want to give a nod to him,” she said. So music will help set the mood and tone, and a few subtle lighting effects will pay homage to the great filmmaker. “The objective is to get the audience into the story, to draw them in,” Horn said.
Porter is keeping out of the way. Instead, he’s thinking about what to do with the back of the building — maybe create a black box? — and what to produce next season, and how to create a community theater space that serves more of the community.
Horn said the transition from Broadwater, who continues to serve on the board, to Porter has been smooth.
“It’s like he’s always been there,” Horn said, “and he’s only been there a month.”