For as long as he can remember, Theatre Charleston's new executive director Joseph Demerly has known his future would be intimately connected with theater. "As a child," he says, "I would gather the neighborhood kids, auditioning, casting, writing, directing, acting in, making posters for, and selling tickets to our annual community play." Even when the performances played only to what he remembers as a "full house of lawn chairs," his passion for the stage never wavered. "My love and knowledge of live theater has only grown," he says with the conviction of someone who feels as though he's doing exactly what he was meant to do.
Unlike many who relocate to the Lowcountry, Demerly wasn't looking for an excuse to come to Charleston. Prior to accepting his new post, he was the managing director of Buffalo, N.Y.'s Kavinoky Theatre, a professional company affiliated with D'Youville College. According to The Buffalo News articles announcing his departure, he was a deeply loved member of the local theater community — he'd been the Kavinoky's managing director since 2008, and began working at the theater as a box office representative in 1997, while he was still a college student.
But when a friend sent him the job posting for the executive director position at Theatre Charleston (also known as the League of Charleston Theatres), which former executive director Emily Wilhoit had decided to vacate early this year, he thought it couldn't hurt to investigate further. "I researched the area, spoke to a few colleagues who worked down here, and discussed the possibility with my family," he says. The League of Charleston Theatres is an alliance of 15 troupes that works to promote awareness and visibility for live theater in the Charleston area. As Demerly learned more about the League, and gave the opportunity serious thought, everything began to fall into place.
While Demerly is excited to start a new act in his life, he's honest about how difficult the change was. "Making the decision to leave the Kavinoky Theatre and the Buffalo theater scene was extremely difficult," he says. "I wouldn't have moved if it weren't for the fact that my sister and her family live here. I have three amazing nephews who mean so very much to me. I didn't want to watch them grow up on Facebook."
Wilhoit served on the search committee for her replacement and was immediately impressed by Demerly's resume. "Being the sole employee, you have to be able to do a little of everything," she says. The position's responsibilities include development, marketing, administration, and anything else that might come up, and Wilhoit was pleased to find that Demerly had "everything the committee was looking for and more."
"I especially love that he isn't from Charleston," she adds. "Every once in a while you need someone from outside the community to come in and provide fresh perspective."
While his long career in theater has prepared him well for the job, Demerly expects to meet plenty of new challenges as he tackles the role. But so far, he says, the transition has been an easy one. "I've been met with open arms and expect that with everyone's support we will continue to make great things happen in Charleston's theater community," he says.
And although he has ideas he's eager to implement, Demerly makes it clear that he's not looking to reinvent the wheel. Rather, he wants to build upon the past successes of the League of Charleston Theatres, such as the annual Unified Auditions — a single day of auditions that theater directors, producers, actors, and backstage crew from across the entire state can attend — that Wilhoit started. "Coming into a new community, I'm more interested in learning what currently works and what, if anything, members of the theater world hope to change or implement," he says.
"Community" is a word Demerly uses a lot, and he considers that community to include theater professionals, volunteers, and audiences, in addition to the theaters that directly participate in the organization he now runs. "The League of Charleston Theatres has the potential to be stronger than the sum of all its parts," he says.
Perhaps more than anything else, Demerly wants local residents and visitors to feel comfortable participating on multiple levels. "See a show," he says. "Introduce live theater to your kids or grandkids. Volunteer a few hours a month at your favorite theater. Feel the heartbeat of your theater community."