Theatre in Charleston 

Theatre with an -Re: Charleston's scene a decade ago impressed this Seattleite

click to enlarge Sheri Grace Wenger brought the scene to life with musicals at her midtown theatre
  • Sheri Grace Wenger brought the scene to life with musicals at her midtown theatre

(Forgive me if this feels a little like Ren singing, "MEM-or-eeeez....")

My wife, children, and I had just moved to Charleston in 1998 from Seattle, Washington, where I had been involved in theater since 1992, but where I had changed course in 1996 and started moving into the medical profession. My plan was to get an MD at MUSC (we had kids, we had family in Chucktown...), but I was sad to leave theatre altogether. So I thought I could stay involved in some small way by being a critic. I had not only loved the theatre in Seattle, but also loved both of the weekly rags there — especially The Stranger (Dan Savage's "home base"), a hip new pub when we had moved to Seattle. I wanted to emulate the funny, poignant, and progressive criticism that appeared within it. And being a theatre critic would be a perfect job — free tickets, get to know Charleston's theatre scene, and make a little money writing!

We had been to Charleston a bunch, but I had never seen a City Paper on the streets until we actually moved there (which made sense; it was about as new as we were). It looked good! I forget what my first show was — some Shakespeare play at the College of Charleston. It looked good! Woo-hoo! I rented the computer at the Kinko's and sent off a review to the CP's editor the next day. (I decided to use a pseudonym for my writing. I didn't know much about the medical establishment or Charleston except that they both sounded pretty conservative by reputation, and they might not take too kindly to sarcastic, Seattle-styled, smart-ass journalism. As an inside joke, I egomaniacally chose the pseudonym "S.E. Barcus" — named after a critic at The Stranger, "N.W. Barcus," who happened to love ME and MY play, eMpTyV in 1993.) Well, goodness gracious, the editor, Stephanie Barna, liked the piece, and they were looking for a theatre critic, and could I do some writing for their fall arts preview? Biddy-bing, biddy-boom.

So that began the CP-theatre-critic part of my life. I ended up writing tons of theatre pieces for CP, from the fall of 1998 to 2002ish, covering the theatre seasons, the previews, the "best-of's", the Piccolo and Spoleto festivals, not to mention a few "non-theatrical" articles. (My Yankee ass wrote a "can't we all just get along" tirade about that goddamn Confederate flag during that whole brouhaha. I'm from south of the Mason-Dixon — Maryland and Virginia — but as I quickly learned, in Charleston, North Carolina only barely cuts it as the real South.)

Early on, I remember Julian Wiles "spying" on me during the intermission of my first Charleston Stage Company (CSC) play. I was sitting on that weird joggling board thing at Dock Street, bouncing wine all over myself, and he came up and nonchalantly asked if I liked the play, hmmm??? I held firm and didn't admit to being a critic. I wanted to be incognito! (I never did properly introduce myself, Julian. Hi there!) I liked the Midtown guys' way of dealing with my anonymity better. They'd give me my freebie tickets with a Monty Pythonesque "nudge nudge wink wink say no more."

I must say, looking back, I was pretty impressed with the Charleston theatre scene. I mean, the town has, what? 500,000 people in the entire "metropolitan area"? Boonies, fer Chrissakes! And yet it was quite alive. Midtown Theatre was doing its thing in the present Millennium Music space, putting on decent "community theatre" musicals like Little Shop of Horrors, and some gems — like Pluff Mud's production of Charles Busch's Psycho Beach Party. And of course the ragtag group of comedians, The Have Nots!, were improvising away. I saw them go from no space to Theatre 99; from pissed-they-were-dissed to freakin' running their own kick-ass program in Piccolo. There was Crab Pot and Pluff Mud and Art Forms and Theatre Concepts. CofC always had at least one yearly juicy surprise, whether newish SubUrbia or oldish Machinal. I'm sorry I mostly missed out on the developments at The Village Playhouse, PURE Theatre, and theatre/verv/. They sound pretty groovy ... and, golly, they have such sexy websites! (Although I still get rubbed the wrong way when folks spell "theater" with an "-re".)

click to enlarge sheri-grace022.jpg

Then there were the old standards: CSC and the Footlight Players. The productions there were "more professional" (i.e. bigger budgets for costumes and crap), but they never quite felt as "alive" or as "fun" to me, if truth be told. Not that they were bad — just not my cup of tea. I don't drink tea. Some people do. A lot of Charlestonians do. So Footlight and CSC filled their cups with Christmas Carols, and that was great. And I did see some great shows, like Sondheim's Company at Footlight and Julian Wiles' very own Helium at CSC. (BTW: Thank you, Mr. Wiles! About time someone based a play on Denmark Vesey; the Heywards' own piece [that Dorothy completed] still has never had a premiere in Charleston!)

Which brings me to Spoleto and its production of the Heywards' own Mamba's Daughters. I freaking loved that performance. (Too bad New Yorkers had to bring it to us.) That was an awesome year for Spoleto, as we also saw Laurie Anderson and Kurt Weill's Die Burgschaft. Writing about Spoleto was always a huge perk of being a critic for the CP. Not to say that Ellen Dressler Moryl's Office of Cultural Affairs' Piccolo Festival (Jesus what a mouthful) is "chopped liver." Piccolo is an amazing achievement. There's so much stuff going on, you get disheartened that you can't see it all. Some nice memories? My buds from Seattle every year (theater simple), Second City out of Chee-ca-go, and all the awesome visual art, which my wife would take me to. I have many fond memories from Piccolo, including my interview with Spalding Gray, whom I loved and miss, and who performed one year thanks to Theatre 99.

Looking back, I am thankful to the CP for letting me basically say whatever the hell I wanted, and to all the artists who worked their butts off. I took them and their work very seriously. I spent a lot of time and thought on those reviews, mainly because I wanted to support the artists and get Charleston stoked about live performance. (Screw Hollywood!) Speaking of which, I was sorry to hear that Charleston lost longtime Post and Courier Spoleto critic and all-around arts lover Robert Jones. He was a wonderful guy and a great critic.

Anyway, I hope y'all are still plugging away on dem stages.


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