Charleston theater companies contemplate their futures while mired in a very uncertain present

The Show (May) Go On

Ruta Smith

It was mid-March when Charleston theaters started asking for money on Facebook. Humbling as a plea for funds may be, the area's small and resilient theater companies are used to operating on small budgets. Nonexistent ones, though, were something new.

Online fundraisers were just the beginning of a new way of navigating a world without live theater.

The coronavirus pandemic has forever changed the way we view entertainment. The concept of dinner and a show seems like something from a very distant past. And while our favorite restaurants are doing their best to still provide us with dinner (to go, of course), theaters are struggling to put on shows — at least in the ways we're used to. They're also struggling to put on shows in a way that makes enough money for theaters to continue to operate.

"Like most nonprofits, we work and live show to show," says Brian Porter, executive director of Footlight Players. In March, the company was weeks away from opening the final show of their 88th season, Matilda, which Porter expected to be a "big money maker."

Then a worldwide pandemic reached South Carolina and dreams of season finales and box office records were cut short.

Village Repertory Company, which operates out of Woolfe Street Playhouse, has been shut down since March 15, losing out on the chance to put on the final two productions of their season, including a big Spring musical.

In addition to housing Village Rep, the Woolfe Street Playhouse serves as a popular venue for other arts organizations and productions in town, including Spoleto Festival USA. The annual festival, generally held for three weeks during the end of May and early June, was cancelled on March 24.

"Spoleto is such an important part of our yearly budget and how we function," says Village Rep's executive director Keely Enright. "That loss is really devastating."

Charleston theaters aren't the only ones hit hard by the pandemic; the curtain has closed on live theater all over the country, forcing companies big and small to rethink how they operate — and if continuing to operate even makes any sense.

Last month, the Wall Street Journal explored the "Harsh realities for theaters closed by coronavirus after plays go online," looking at how theater companies in major cities like San Francisco and Chicago have attempted to transition to virtual offerings.

In March, San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater presented a webcast of their current production, Toni Stone, an online production that WSJ critic Terry Teachout called "hugely impressive." And yet as successful as the online show was, there's no way to predict how audiences will continue to engage with live theater presented through a screen.

"I wish I'd done a better job archiving past productions," says Enright, who is struggling with a lack of online content to present to Village Rep's audience. She could not have known, of course, that an unprecedented pandemic would shutter folks in their homes for months.

And while Enright is "kicking herself" for the lack of archival footage, she says that there's not much else a theater could have done to prepare for the situation we're in now. As the stewards of Woolfe Street Playhouse, Village Rep has to maintain a 17,000 square foot warehouse space. "In great times you have your own venue and you get to call the shots," says Enright. "Now, in this situation it's the biggest liability."

Unlike Village Rep, which is in charge of Woolfe Street Playhouse, Charleston Stage operates out of city-owned Dock Street Theatre. The company has asked the city for rent abatement for 2020 and 2021; that request has not yet been granted.

One of the city's largest theater companies, Charleston Stage has implemented several fundraising initiatives. Most recently they launched the Curtain Up Fund, which allows patrons to make a one time gift to the company or schedule a recurring donation.

Founder and producing artistic director Julian Wiles has been sending out messages of hope to Charleston Stage patrons, promising "great shows and great days" in the not so distant future. The company has released its schedule for their 2020-2021 season, slated to begin this August.

Footlight Players, too, has a decent grasp on the fundraising side of things; Porter says that supporters of the company have been "very generous." These interim cash buffers are greatly appreciated, but the burden of uncertainty still weighs heavy on local companies' directors.

"The biggest problem is we don't know the impact of this, especially for nonprofits and arts groups and live theater," says Porter. "Even when we come out of this and people are allowed to come out, will they come? Will they have the money to come anymore?"

That WSJ article quotes executive director of Chicago's Goodman Theatre, Roche Schulfer: "People staring at screens? They're really over it."

"We all miss the communal aspect of theater," says Enright. "It's very hard when you walk away from it." While she wishes Village Rep had more filmed content to share, she can't help but admit that she was never really interested in filming productions. "There's always something lost in translation," she says.

Live theater, for those who know and love it, is irreplaceable. Porter is grateful that he can still fund his full-time staff, but he mourns the loss of this time for actors and individual artists. "They're not able to practice their lifelong art," he says.

"There's a certain weird grieving process if you're in the business of live performing arts," says Enright. "At the end of the day, I don't make a lot of money out of this, but I get the satisfaction of being a storyteller, I get to experience people seeing the story you're telling. Now, you're afraid that you're not going to be able to do that as you've always done it."

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