Act One: The curtain rises on a polite, plucky young man from a South Carolina cotton farm, who has found his way to the big city of Charleston. There, he lands a spot at a storied, ornate theater, gathers a few folks, starts putting on shows — and in the process elevates the community through the transformative power of theater. Sound like the setup for a feel-good Broadway musical?
It pretty much is, if on a meta level. After all, the story of Charleston Stage is its own "Hey, kids, let's put on a show" proposition. Forty years ago, a little-theater-company-that-could launched as the Young Charleston Theater Company and took to the Dock Street Theatre stage — as well as venues from the top of the George Street parking garage to the now-shuttered Garden Theatre on King Street — to infuse the local theater scene with scrap, hustle, and the unapologetically earnest aim of immersing local youth in the disciplined, empowering practice of making theater.
Evolving shortly thereafter into Charleston Stage, the present-day powerhouse that spans high-dazzle musicals and probing original work is a theatrical feat in and of itself. Today, it boasts returns that most regional theater companies can only dream of: a loyal subscriber base that accounts for 28 percent of its ticket sales; enviable production values as the resident theater company at the well-appointed Dock Street; theatrical chops, thanks to a resident actor company augmented with visiting guest actors; a roster of original plays and revivals-in-waiting; educational outreach that exposes new audiences to the art form; and, this just in: plans for a considerable expansion in West Ashley.
This impressive momentum and staying power reflects the rare mix of altruistic zeal and subtle savvy that are the hallmarks of that former farm boy, Julian Wiles, the company's founder and producing artistic director. More than likely, Wiles is either blanching or blushing from this characterization, as he is famously quick to cede credit for the success of Charleston Stage to its staff of 15, as well as the approximately 150 actors, musicians, technicians and others that the company employs over the course of a season.
Anyone who has spotted Wiles in the lobby chatting nervously and smiling wanly before an opening — or stealing onstage before the show to thank staff, sponsors and subscribers — would likely come to the conclusion that he is not in it for the spotlight. Barbara Young, costumer emeritus, who has turned rags into riches for hundreds of shows over the past 34 years, seconds this. "The reason I stayed around for so long is that we don't work for anyone; we work with everyone."
So, if it's not for those two showbiz workhorses — applause and acclaim — what's it all about, Julian? "I'd fallen in love with the city and wanted to stay here," says Wiles, who discovered Charleston when working at Camp St. Christopher and then transferring to the College of Charleston. "I invented a job so I could do that." Since he loved theater and working with kids, Wiles combined the two, hatching a plan for a youth theater company modeled largely on the Young Vic in England.
In 1977 he cast his lot with the City of Charleston, setting out to increase theater offerings in the soon-to-launch Piccolo Spoleto Festival. With the access to space at the Dock Street, Wiles formed the Young Charleston Theater Company. "Mayor Riley and Ellen [Dressler Moryl] were very supportive, especially of the youth mission," he says.
Over the years, Charleston Stage's all-star hit parade of former Julian acolytes has grown with each season. Consider Carrie Preston, the Emmy Award-winning actor who has starred in stage, TV, and film productions, including roles as Elsbeth Tascioni on CBS's The Good Wife, Arlene Fowler on HBO's True Blood and, most recently Polly on TNT's Claws and Susan in the Netflix film To The Bone.
When Preston was a freshman at the College of Charleston in the '80s, Wiles cast her in the role of Anne Frank of The Diary of Anne Frank. "Before that, I had only done community theater in my home town of Macon, Ga. and a small straight-to-video film in Atlanta," recalls Preston. "Charleston Stage has a strong reputation in the theatrical community, and to be cast as a lead gave me confidence and affirmation that my chosen profession was the right one." To express her appreciation, Preston returned to Charleston Stage in 2010 with her husband, actor Michael Emerson, to appear in a benefit performance of A.R. Gurney's Love Letters.
Wiles similarly bolstered the talents of Thomas Cabaniss when he was a teenage composer, enlisting him to compose the score for the 1979 Seize the Street!, a skateboard musical staged atop the George Street parking garage. These days, Cabaniss is a professor at the Juilliard School, teaching dancers and musicians, and leads arts education projects at Carnegie Hall. "The amazing and almost unreasonable thing was that Julian Wiles trusted us to create and perform the music for the shows he wrote and directed," he says. "When I hear myself advocating for the importance of high stakes projects for young people, I can hear echoes of Julian Wiles."
"I think for the young people who work with us," Wiles says, "it gives them a safe place for their specialness or their own creativity to be celebrated. And it embraces so many things — from art to literature to music to dance to lights to technology." Charleston Stage not only folds kids into the process, it reaches out to 18,000 students from roughly one half the counties in the state. "A lot of these kids will have never seen a live performance," says Wiles.
Preston, who also taught at Charleston Stage, notes, "They make education paramount in their mission, giving young people access to creative expression and an understanding of the art of theater that they can take with them no matter what they choose to do with their lives." Wiles knows of former Charleston Stage kids who are now working for NASA or becoming doctors or writers. "We never set out to send a bunch of kids to Broadway," says Wiles, though admittedly he delights in the successes of former Charleston Stage kids like Preston and Cabaniss (as well as others like Asa Somers, who is currently on Broadway as an understudy in the celebrated Dear Evan Hansen and Thomas Gibson, who has been featured in starring roles in television shows like ABC's Dharma & Greg and the CBS series Criminal Minds.)
Others come to Charleston Stage a bit later in their professional trajectory, like Kyle Barnette, founding artistic director of What If? Productions, who was first introduced to Charleston Stage as an intern in the 1998-99 season. "I was just a young, starry-eyed actor when I came there," says Barnette, "but the internship required me to see the theater business from all directions, from fundraising and management to design and marketing."
Students and mentees are not the only ones Charleston Stage champions. The company has a longstanding tradition of embracing diversity — one that was decidedly progressive in its earlier days in town. "Theater has always been a place of acceptance," says Wiles. "We're reflecting the whole world, so to exclude someone from that doesn't seem to make sense."
Many of Wiles's original works are set in Charleston, including Beneath the Sweetgrass Moon and The Seat of Justice, and fittingly reflect the diversity in this community. Cabaniss recalls the impact on him of the intentionally integrated cast of Seize the Street!, which explored themes of community and urban development, and was inspired by the demolition surrounding the building of the Crosstown. "It was at a time when theater classes and programs were by and large racially separate in Charleston."
"Julian is the conscience of the arts community," says Dressler Moryl, pointing out how the company encourages young kids to think about hard things. She also praised Wiles's early commitment to colorblind casting. "He did it with style and grace, but he was insistent on doing it."
And, like any story worth a staging, there have been plenty of hiccups along the way. There was the time the company organized a potluck cast party for the final dress rehearsal, which resulted in a large percentage of the players getting stricken with food poisoning opening night, and soldiering onto a gracious donor-filled house. There have also been funding challenges during recessions and space upheavals — like the closing of theater houses the company relied on in the early days or its temporary displacement during the Dock Street renovation.
What's next? "I do hope we can take a show into the parks in Charleston and do a local tour, and that's on our drawing board," Wiles says. The company has also just announced the addition of a new venue in West Ashley, scheduled to open in the spring of 2018, which will house a dance studio, classrooms and a 150-seat performance venue.
But for now, it's on with the shows for the 40th season, starting with Disney's The Little Mermaid, and also featuring Helium (a Wiles original), Avenue Q and Shakespeare in Love. Beyond that? "I do think that the company has really matured. How we take this creative engine we've taken 40 years to build and where we can drive that — that's what's next on the horizon." For the moment, however, feel free to mingle and reminisce in the lobby — that is, until you are summoned to take your seats for Charleston Stage's crowd-pleasing, awe-inspiring, and altogether meaningful next act.