Nobody's saying there's a history of animosity among Charleston performing arts groups. But let's not kid ourselves: in any population of like-missioned businesses, where naturally dramatic administrators scrabble for the same limited resources — namely, audiences and operating revenue — the fruit of behavioral psychology will inevitably ripen and drop, liberal arts sensibilities be damned. Competitiveness comes as naturally to arts managers as it does to Wall Street tycoons and wild dogs. They just salivate less when indulging it.
So it's something of a happy surprise to see Charleston's biggest theatre companies, after sparring for years in their independent efforts to raise money and put butts in seats, climbing aboard the cooperation train and working toward a common cause. The administrators of Charleston Stage Company, PURE Theatre Company, Footlight Theatre, the Village Repertory Company, and Art Forms and Theatre Concepts formed the League of Charleston Theatres a year ago. But only in recent weeks, with the hiring of an executive director, has the League — now known simply as Theatre Charleston — taken its first real steps toward becoming a force that's greater than the sum of its parts.
Theatre Charleston first coalesced in July 2005, after five Charleston theatre companies sent representatives up to Chicago on the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation's dime. The team spent a long weekend powwowing with six of Chi-town's best known theatre companies and the umbrella advocacy group they all belong to, the League of Chicago Theatres, which has 40 member theatres. The theatre admins, who'd been little more than sometime acquaintances prior to the trip, returned bonded by the experience, and invigorated by the knowledge that their organizations could achieve much more for themselves, and for Charleston audiences, by working together than they could independently, as they have for decades.
New director Emily Wilhoit, who became the group's director six weeks ago., has been acting since the age of eight, and earned her BFA in Musical Theatre at Catawba College in Salisbury, N.C. After graduating, she worked with several regional theatres across the U.S. before landing an acting internship with Charleston Stage Company in 2001. While in Charleston, she performed in shows there, at Footlight Theatre, and at the Village Playhouse, including Dinner with Friends; The Philadelphia Story; I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change; West Side Story, and Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf.
Wilhoit was herself living in Chicago when the Charleston group visited last summer, having moved there from Charleston in 2004 with her boyfriend — now husband — Josh Wilhoit. With extensive experience on a number of Charleston stages between them, the pair decided to move to the Second City "to stretch their acting legs."
Even with legions of theatre companies to target, though, the going for the pair in Chicago was rough. Last winter, Josh was contacted with an offer too good to pass up from former Charleston employer Blackbaud, and the two returned to the South in January. While filling in at the Charleston Stage box office in March, Wilhoit heard about the director's position and applied immediately. Her first day on the job was June 20, though with most of her charges' new artistic seasons beginning in less than a month, she laughs that she wishes it had been a month earlier.
Last season, the League's efforts were limited to promotional flyers dropped into the playbills of the five groups' shows, listing all the member companies' next productions. But with Wilhoit's hiring, Theatre Charleston's efforts are about to step up several notches. A handful of additional area theatre companies have been invited to join as full-time members, and the organization is hoping to create a strong web presence with a site that can act as a clearinghouse of resources for member organizations, local actors, and Charleston area theatregoers.
According to Wilhoit, that website should be up and running this week. "We plan to feature weekly theatre listings there, similar to how you can find weekly movie times in the paper," she says. "It'll also have links to all member theatres' websites." Visitors will be able to search performances by date and browse through a complete calendar of everyone's 2006-07 program.
Wilhoit says she eventually hopes to post links to reviews and other press.
Charleston Stage founder and director Julian Wiles sees the effort as a way to highlight the breadth of live entertainment that's programmed here. "What the website will do more than anything is showcase the incredible variety of theatre we all produce," he says. "There are prices for everybody, and a show for every kind of taste. There are really very few cities of our size with as many theatres and different kinds of theatre offerings as we have here, particularly in the coming season."
At present, Theatre Charleston is being funded by a $40,000 grant from the Donnelley Foundation. September will see the first collection of full member dues, which range from $150-$1,000 annually and are calculated on a sliding scale according to annual budget. The League has also begun offering individual memberships: $50 gets discounts on all member theatre productions, an e-mail newsletter, and a variety of resources for actors.
"It'd be great to let individual members also contribute comments on the website about what they thought of a show," Wilhoit says. "But there will also be audition listings and job postings. It's also a site where people can find performance spaces to rent. So it's an artists' and an audience website as well."
Wilhoit notes that a number of additional funding measures are on the table, including the possibility of a small ticket surcharge, as most theatre leagues levy. But for the moment they're relying on the Donnelley grant and dues from existing members and a number of potential new ones.
To date, the League has made overtures to Theatre 99, the College of Charleston Department of Theatre, Actors Theatre of South Carolina, and Summerville's Flowertown Players. Wilhoit says she's hopeful that all five will agree to join and the League can double its size immediately.
"We no longer require that members have a permanent performance space of their own, as we did when we started," she observes. "But members have to have been producing for at least two seasons and must produce at least one show a year. They also have to be fully incorporated as a not-for-profit organization." On applying and being accepted into the League, theatres become associate members for a year. Only then are they eligible for full membership.
"We tried to get the North Charleston Performing Arts Center to join," she says, "but since they don't produce their own shows, that's been kind of tricky."
Eventually, Wilhoit says, Theatre Charleston hopes to embrace other kinds of performing arts organizations as well, such as dance and music. But for the time being, she'll be satisfied seeing the formerly independent producing companies working under a big, happy umbrella to create better theatre and grow audiences for everyone.
"Chicago is obviously a much larger city than Charleston, but we look at their league as sort of a model," says Charleston Stage's Wiles. "Chicago's league has very much made that town a theatre destination, and they did it by working together. We're only the beginning of what could be an explosion of theatre here. That would be really exciting."
At the end of the day, Wilhoit's professional background is as an actor, not an administrator. She's happy to be working in the industry she loves, but it's the stuff that happens onstage that brings her to the edge of her chair.
"Maybe eventually we can do a little version of our own local Tony Awards," she says, musing on what lies in Theatre Charleston's future. "That would be fun. It would raise awareness for all local theatre and really bring a lot of attention to the talent here in Charleston."
She smiles. It's a big smile — an actor's smile. "I'm really excited about moving past the bylaws and administrative stuff and getting into those sorts of things."
Patrick Sharbaugh is the Arts and Screen Editor of the City Paper. Comment on this article at at www.charlestoncitypaper.com.