On July 10 the Post & Courier reported that Summerville theatrical company the Flowertown Players were fighting to retain $3,000 worth of accommodation tax funding after Town Councilman Terry Jenkins complained about some of the language in the January production of RENT. Jenkins didn't mince words: "It was one of the raunchiest things I'd ever seen in my life — and I'm far from being a prude. I just thought it was totally inappropriate for a neighborhood community." Apparently his fellow councilmen didn't agree and Jenkins' effort to retract the funding failed. However, Flowertown Players' artistic director JC Conway has been asked to attend an Aug. 11 finance committee meeting to explain the production of the Tony award-winning musical. Conway plans to begin his presentation with a little copyright law 101.
"I will tell you, I think it comes from a place of misunderstanding of how theater works," Conway says. "There's this idea in smaller communities that a play and what is written down is just a suggestion. But changing the phrasing — that's illegal and a violation of federal copyright laws. And it's unethical because that author wrote those words for very specific reasons."
RENT — which incidentally had a sold-out 11-show run at Flowertown — tells the story of a group of friends living in New York City in the mid-'90s. The cast includes a cross-dressing street drummer, three HIV positive characters, and an exotic dancer. And yes, there is cussing.
"Having a character who cusses a lot, that tells you something about that character and their view on the world. By changing the dialogue you're changing the essence of that show. You can't separate the language from the content. If the actors in RENT came out and said, 'Fudge,' that wouldn't make sense," Conway says.
But in this season of South Carolina censorship — the legislature has tried to deny both CofC and USC-Upstate funding for their reading choices — it's all beginning to feel like a time warp in the Palmetto State.
Whether Councilman Jenkins disagrees, we don't know. He did not return our calls. But given the requirements of the funding, Jenkins' issues with the show appear to have no bearing as the grant allocated to support tourism-promoting organizations requires that a program:
• will promote dining at restaurants, cafeterias, and other eating and drinking establishments in the Town of Summerville.
• will generate overnight stay in the Town of Summerville lodging facilites
• will promote and highlight the Town of Summerville's historic or cultural venues, recreational facilities and events, and the uniqueness and flavor of the local community.
And even with an expletive-laden script, Conway says RENT met those specifications. "For that show, 61 percent of ticket revenue came from zip codes outside of Summerville," Conway reports.
For RENT, Flowertown used 2013 accommodations tax money to post billboards. As for this year's $3,000 grant, Flowertown has plans to upgrade their facilities with new LED lighting. "It's more environmentally friendly, uses lower electricity, and will improve our overall volunteer actor experience while giving our patrons and visitors a better show," he adds — which is basically the purpose of the grant.
"The object of giving the funding is to help an organization draw visitors to the town so we can accommodate them here in the town," says Summerville accommodations tax committee member Linda Shelbourne. The owner of Linwood Bed & Breakfast, Shelbourne says her team reviews each arts organization's application, as well as recommendations from the town's staff. "This was the first year our committee and the town staff were all in agreement for who should receive money and how much," Shelbourne says.
So what's the problem? What makes theater-goers in Jenkins' "neighborhood community" different from those anywhere else? And why would Summerville be better served with diluted drama or more conservative fare? We wish Jenkins was available to answer that question, but one can only leave so many voice mails. From our perspective, early 1900s Spanish poet and dramatist Federico García Lorca's thoughts on the importance of creative freedom ring most true: "The theater is one of the most expressive and useful vehicles for the edification of a country's people, and a barometer that marks the country's greatness or declines." Due to his outspoken liberal viewpoints, García Lorca was shot and killed by the fascist Nationalist militia in 1936 and his work subsequently censored under Franco until 1953.
Of course, nothing near as dramatic is happening in Summerville, but Conway argues that threats to cut funds due to content puts town council on a slippery slope.
"Were not going to do anything to make Summerville look poorly," Conway defends. "We're doing a good job of making Summerville seem like a bit more open-minded community." And whether Jenkins likes it or not, plays like RENT bring in Flowertown's biggest return. "We spent $15,000 to produce that show," says Conway. "And we made $35,000 from RENT and that allowed us to pay for the rest of the shows for the season. If we had not done RENT we would have had to change what we're doing for the rest of the season." This year's lineup includes Hairspray, Dracula, and the innocuous raindrops on roses of Sound of Music.
So, in the words of RENT's popular theme song the question remains: Five hundred, 25,600 minutes. How does a theater company, measure a year? In actors? In tickets? In line flubs? In standing ovations? In costumes? In missed cues? In laughter? In censorship strife? How do you measure a year in a theater's life?
How about love ... in the form of a check?
"I appreciate all the support and emails," says Conway. "But buying a season memberships, or making a donation, that will make a difference to our theater company."