Jay Danner, Threshold Repertory Theatre's new artistic director, grew up in Myrtle Beach, where he dabbled in theater in high school. But he had no intention of studying theater beyond that until he moved to Chicago at age 18, where he experienced what he calls a "very different culture."
"I was exposed to the arts like I never was in South Carolina," he says. He started going to more plays, and saw the wide range of possibilities in Chicago's theater world. That exposure quickly grew into a passion, and Danner started performing around the city, eventually attending Columbia College, where he and a group of friends formed a theater group, Nomenil Theatre Company.
"We wanted to do things that were avant-garde and controversial," he says of the burgeoning theater company. While the core group didn't stick together after college, Danner continued to pursue writing, acting, and directing, moving to Los Angeles to, as he says, "try to earn some money."
In L.A. Danner acted in commercials while working a day job as a retail manager. While he never broke into film and TV — Danner says that at 25 he was just too old for that market — he continued his theater education, moving to San Francisco to study at The American Conservatory Theatre.
"I went back to L.A. for another year [after San Francisco] and I wasn't sure why I was there," says Danner. So he decided to reboot, heading back to the East Coast to be closer to his family.
"I didn't know about all of the opportunities Charleston has," he says of the city's current theater scene. A lot had changed since Danner's early days in Myrtle Beach and he says all it took was a Google search to find auditions in the Charleston area, where he stumbled upon an open part in a Threshold Rep production.
He got the part, in the Donald Margulies' play, Dinner With Friends, and played opposite Pam Galle, Threshold Rep's then artistic director.
Just last year, in June 2015, City Paper wrote about Pam Galle moving to Los Angeles, ceding her position to Brendan Kelly, who acted as artistic director for most of last season. "Brendan needed to pursue other interests," says Danner, adding that the role of artistic director is pretty much a part-time gig. Danner, who still works as a retail manager during the day, says that taking over where Kelly left off was an easy decision. "How could I say no? I'm a big fan of black box theater; it's a lot of the way I was trained in Chicago. It was a no-brainer," he says.
So how has Danner transitioned from an actor and director to an artistic director? He thanks his day job for the skills he uses in the theater. "It's management," Danner says of his new position. "It's putting teams together to work to create something. The skills are kind of the same."
While some artistic directors are still active during a theater's season, Danner has decided not to act in any plays this season, the theater's seventh, so that he can focus on producing and directing.
Threshold Rep's season started on Sept. 1 with Becky Shaw, a dark comedy written and produced by House of Cards and Law and Order writer Gina Gionfriddo. "I love all the shows I picked, of course," says Danner. But he admits he has a special place in his heart for Becky Shaw, which he calls "really provocative." "It will definitely leave the audience with something to talk about," he says.
Danner wants to produce the most thought-provoking theater at Threshold that he can, saying, "If you do your best to produce theater that's professional, that's what people want to see." He says that things like Threshold's upcoming collaboration with What If? productions on Evil Dead The Musical, are what keep Charleston's theater scene interesting and thriving. "Everyone is dedicated and passionate," Danner says of the city's theater companies. "I like that different companies support each other. I hope I can do that, too."
Becky Shaw plays at Threshold Rep through this weekend, Thurs.-Sat. at 7:30 p.m. and Sun. at 3 p.m.