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Julian Wiles, Founder and Producing Artistic Director
Marybeth Clark, Associate Artistic Director

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40th Anniversary Retrospective
Memorable Performances

Memorable Set Designs
World Premieres 

40 Years of Memorable Performances

A Personal Remembrance by Charleston Stage Founder Julian Wiles

Hard to believe but over the past 40 years we have produced over 300 productions here at Charleston Stage playing to over a half a million theatregoers. There was something special about all of those productions, but there are those that are especially memorable—not just the ones that were the most successful but memorable because of something special about the production or sometimes because they were colossal failures. What follows are some my personal remembrances of many of these. I’m sure others have other memories, but these are mine, and I thought it be fun, as we celebrate our 40th Season, to share some of these memories.

 

 

A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol (1978)
Our very first show.

We opened our very first show in December of 1978 with a script for Minneapolis’s Children Theatre Company. Family and friends helped make the first costumes —including my wife-to-be Jenny. As I remember, they were sewing right up until the final rehearsal. There was a minimal set, a London street represented only by a few street signs. Much of the furniture, beds, tables, etc. actually came from my apartment. Music, accompanied by a single piano, was put together by the late Ben Hutto, a choral instructor at Porter Gaud who would go on to become a music director at the National Cathedral in Washington. Thanks to Ben, we had some glorious carols.

The spirits were played by kids—a rather odd casting choice, but I had started the company as a youth theatre (we were then known as the Young Charleston Theatre Company, modeled somewhat on London’s Young Vic). I remember Christmas Past was a little boy hidden in the canopy of Scrooge’s bed who plopped down to scare poor Ol’ Ebenezer! A few days before the show opened, my Mom, Dad and some family friends, Doraine and Luther Wannamaker, arrived from the farm where I had grown up with a huge truckload of greens. Doraine and my Mom fashioned over 30 live wreaths that hung from the sconces in the theatre, and my Dad and Luther helped put up two huge live trees in the lobby. I was able to lure the legendary Bill Bender, then in his early 70’s and perhaps the best-known Charleston community actor, to play Scrooge.

While we’ve produced more than 15 productions of A Christmas Carol over the years, each growing more and more elaborate, with spirits flying through the air, and now a live orchestra, that first production had its own magic. And when snow fell at the end of the show, it was (as it always is) a magical moment—Scrooge had been reborn and a new theatre company had taken flight.

 

 

the boy who stole the stars
 
the boy who stole the stars (1981)

My first play.

I worked on the boy who stole the stars when I was in my early 20’s. It grew out of a childhood obsession with astronomy—I grew up in the space age. The play evolved into a story about a boy and his beloved grandfather who became suddenly withdrawn because, we would learn later, the grandfather was dying. The play revolved around a legend the grandfather had told his grandson that if you could steal the stars and bring them to earth their would be no illness, no death, and so the boy sets out to steal the stars. Along the way, he would battle Draco the Dragon (it’s a constellation if you are wondering). It was a naïve, fantastical tale, and I wondered if audiences would take to a story for kids about death. At the time, most theatre-for young-people was along the fairy tale line. The show was pretty advanced for the time. It had projections (using slide projectors—remember those?), and it had a dazzling percussion score by David Maves of the College of Charleston, complete with tympani, xylophones and even gongs. I had a great cast, seventy-something Bill and Lenore Bender and 10 year olds Colin Somers and Jenny Presti. But, I had to wonder how a play about a little boy who loses his grandfather would be received. Of course, despite the theme, the play was not meant to be depressing, and I hoped it was filled with pathos and humor. I remember standing in the back of the house, pacing behind the last row, wondering what would happen. Then, there was a laugh, maybe two—and then a few more, and the laughter was infectious. That magic of live theatre took over and enchanted that audience. At the end of the show, came one of those moments playwrights live for—silence. The central character named Nicholas, had just concluded his final lines:

I think I see my grandfather in me sometimes
In the way I speak or turn my head
And sometimes I think I see everyone I have ever known
Walking in my shadow.

The lights faded, the curtain fell and I thought the silence would last forever, but it could only have been a few moments. And then there was applause, thunderous applause. And, I realized for the first time that something that meant so much to me could mean so much to others as well. I was hooked and in many ways have spent my writing career trying to recapture that moment.

All was not perfect however. In between scenes, a poet would appear, a little boy grown up reflecting on things years later through poems he had written. With each appearance, it seemed to stop the show dead. It was played by Thomas Gibson who went on to fame in movies and TV (Dharma and Greg, Chicago Hope, Criminal Minds). Reviewers hated this character, said it was unnecessary (they were right). One critic called Thomas’s character a “poetry-spouting twit”, and we had a T-Shirt made for Thomas with that quote on it. Fortunately, my rookie playwright stumble didn’t seem to spoil Thomas’ career. Later when I revived the play and the show was published, I dropped this character. The original production, produced at the first Piccolo Spoleto Festival in 1979, was a total sellout with an extra holdover show having to be added. The best moment for me was when I walked out of the theatre behind Dottie D’Anna and her companion Kitt Lyons. Dottie and I had knocked heads the year before when we both worked for the Footlight Players. She was the established veteran professional director, and I was the brash, upstart kid. Often, we had not seen eye to eye. I had left the Footlight Players only a year before to start a new theatre company then called The Young Charleston Theatre Company (which would later become Charleston Stage). As Dottie and Kitt were leaving the theatre, Dottie noticed me behind her and turned to say, “that was wonderful, moving, you should be very proud of this”. And, I was. I am.

 

 

Seize the Street 


Seize the Street (1983)

From the top of a Charleston parking garage to the streets of London (1983).

The original production of Seize the Street was the finale of our first season and was a great production. It was produced atop the George Street Parking Garage. In many ways, it put us on the map with its imaginative setting and a giant half pipe skateboard ramp that appeared in the finale. This was years before X-games or skateboard parks, and our skateboard ramp, at the time, was probably one of the first ever created in Charleston. The show featured an original score by then 17 year-old Thomas Cabaniss who would go on to Yale, become a leading composer and musical educator working with Lincoln Center, The New York and Philadelphia Orchestras. Today, he teaches at the Julliard School.

The show tells the story of a neighborhood where people don’t get along so well—old people annoyed by young skateboarders and a somewhat segregated neighborhood where people didn’t know each other well. When a freeway project is planned to destroy their neighborhood, the disparate neighbors come together to Seize the Street, demonstrating together to preserve their homes.

We revived the show to great success in 1982 and in our audience one night, was an English actor, Charles Lewsen, appearing in a Spoleto Show at the Dock Street Theatre. He was amazed by the show, introduced himself and asked if we’d consider touring it to Great Britain where he thought it would be a big success—especially considering that at that time youth theatre and shows for young people were all the rage in Britain. Almost every town had a youth theatre of some kind. The idea of a tour seemed far-fetched and quite frankly I forgot about it. Months later, Charles called from London (a really big deal in those days) and said he had spoken to a British Youth Theatre Association, and if we could raise the money to fly the cast to England, this Youth Theatre Organization would arrange for our transportation and for the cast to stay with families while we toured youth theatres in England. But once we added up the cost, transportation alone was a whopping $60,000. Still, some parents stepped in, notably Flori Fair, whose daughter Bernie was in the show and months of bake sales, chocolate bar sales and fundraising followed. Soon, we begin to close in on the travel costs. We announced plans to remount the show at the next Piccolo Spoleto Festival to raise the remaining funds. This time, the show was mounted atop the just completed Cumberland Street Parking Garage. The show opened to great reviews and packed houses. In previous productions, we had gotten lucky and not had to cancel a single performance due to rain, but this time, we were not so lucky, a huge thunderstorm descended on Charleston with brutal winds, so brutal that they destroyed all of our scenery atop the parking garage. However, we just happened to have a duplicate and smaller set, designed to go to England with us sitting in the then unrestored Memminger Auditorium, so we moved the final performances there. Then, we were off to Atlanta complete with a giant skateboard ramp, which had been disassembled and packed in three huge wooden crates. We had checked with Delta on the size of the crates, but when we arrived in Atlanta, we discovered the crates were too large to fit through the door on the plane. Fortunately, this was before the age of TSA and security, and the pilot allowed us to take our tools, which we had brought with us to reassemble the set, and take the crates apart and feed the disassembled skateboard ramp piece by piece into the belly of the 707! We arrived in London with a cast of 30 kids, adults, dancers, skateboarders and a live band of five musicians. A bus met us, and a truck drove us out to retrieve the skateboard ramp from the belly of our plane. Our first performance was in a London East End school with performances at youth theatres and communities from Reading to York with our final performance at a posh Boarding School in Wales. The American TV Show “Fame” had just become a hit in England, and many communities and British kids were convinced we were from that show. We didn’t mind, and remarkably, to me, a show about neighbors coming together in Charleston, South Carolina had an international appeal. Audiences just loved our young performers. Ironically, I had gotten the idea for this show the year before when I had backpacked as a recent grad student in London. Britain’s National Theatre had just opened on the banks of the Thames, and underneath was a huge parking garage (what the British call a Car Park). When I went to see a show there, I found scores of young British kids skating up and down the ramps of the parking garage, and the idea for Seize the Street was born. And so, taking it back to Britain brought the show full circle. Though this was Charleston Stage’s one and only international tour, we had a great trip and a great adventure.

 

 

Hugo Monologues
 
The Hugo Monologues 1989

In September of 1989, Charleston was hit by Hurricane Hugo, a near Category Five Hurricane. No one had seen a hurricane like this in Charleston for a generation. Power was out for over 3 weeks, schools were closed for a month and the city was under curfew. When I came home to my house in Mt. Pleasant, with 12 trees on the roof, I had to hike into my neighborhood because roads were closed with downed trees. The farce Scapino was in rehearsal, and fortunately, the set had been finished and was waiting in our scene shop, which, along with the Dock Street Theatre, escaped the storm unscathed. But, we were determined the show was to go on; the opening for Scapino was 2 weeks away. The biggest challenge was finding the cast who had been scattered across 5 states. And in an era without cell phones, it took time to track everyone down, but at last, the cast returned to town. But without electricity and with a curfew in place, we had to rehearse during the day opening the loading door of the scene shop for light.

Scapino opened on time, now billed as “comic relief”—performances were offered on a pay-what-you-can basis and audiences loved it. But the Hugo show I remembered was another. At the time, I taught a Master Class for our High School TheatreWings Apprentices. When we returned from the storm, gathering for the first time, I gave them an assignment to write and perform a monologue about their Hugo experiences. Their stories ranged from the few who stayed and weathered the storm and its terror, many dealt with their evacuations far and wide and many dealt with the recovery—eating food out of freezers before they spoiled, neighborhood cookouts, etc. Their monologues were powerful and heartfelt because these were events they have lived through . . . not just scripts they had picked up. I knew these monologues needed to be shared and we arranged a performance for family and friends.

The following spring, Charleston County Schools planned an evening of performances drawing on high school students from different arts programs in the area. There were musical and choral groups, and our TheatreWings students were invited to perform. The venue, however, was the 800 seat Sottile Theatre—years before we had amplification. I was fearful their intimate performances would be lost in this large theatre, but we showed up to perform. We were late in the program, it was getting late, and the audience was getting a little restless. Just before we performed, a chorale group took the stage and sang something in Latin. It was lovely as I remember it, but I feared the audience was being lulled to sleep. I really felt sorry for our young performers as I thought the audience would not want to sit still for a group of performances. We were announced, and the audience was obviously restless. I thought the night would be a disaster. And then there was magic—the magic of live theatre.

As each story unfolded, you could hear a pin drop. Because our audience had lived through Hugo and its aftermath, they were a perfect match for us. The monologues ranged from those who experienced the terror of the storm first hand, to family’s and friends that had been drawn together in the aftermath. Unfortunately, the performance wasn’t recorded, and sadly, I did not keep copies of the monologues these imaginative students had written. But the monologue I remember most was one that ended something like this.

“No power, schools closed, thousands of trees down, National Guard helicopters overhead, thousands of volunteers pouring into our neighborhood clearing roads, downed trees, helping to repair our homes, and day after day, the sound of chain saws buzzing in my ears. And now, three weeks later, I’m heading back to school and I realized, damn, it’s over!”

With those final words, the audiences erupted in cheers and applause, and in an era when there are too many standing ovations, I knew this one was truly heartfelt. I don’t know if I have ever enjoyed an ovation more. For here were simple, heartfelt stories—no sets, no costumes, no mikes and no special effects—touching an audience in a special way—that beautiful moment, all too rare when an audience and performers share a special moment together. It doesn’t get much better than that.

 

 

Nevermore
 
Nevermore, Edgar Allen Poe, The Final Mystery (1996)

While Edgar Allan Poe is probably best known for his wild and fantastical tales, it was one of Poe’s poems that first caught my attention. I still remember daydreaming in my high school English class, bored by my teacher and thumbing through the anthology that was our textbook, when my eyes fell upon Poe’s poem, The Bells. With it’s alliteration and pounding repetitions (at times Poe repeats the word “bells” seven times in a row), I was hooked. I loved his use of unusual words like the ringing “tintinnabulation”. My English teacher would have called this onomatopoeia. I called it cool. Soon I was reading Poe’s other poems on my own, A Dream Within A Dream, Annabel Lee, and I purchased my own complete works (I still have it) and plowed through the stories, Tell Tale Heart, The Oblong Box, The Red Death, The Pit and the Pendulum and more. I found that Poe was a favorite of mine and of many of my classmates as well, kind of the old school Stephen King.

So, in 1994, when I began looking for a new Halloween play, I was quite familiar with Poe’s tales of the macabre. And since moving to Charleston, I had learned Poe lived on Sullivan’s Island for a time when, as a young soldier, he was stationed at Ft. Moultrie. I thought this might be the making of a great play and headed to the library for a Poe biography. I quickly learned, however, that we know little of Poe’s stay on Sullivan’s, certainly not enough for a full play. As I read on, however, I was intrigued by the circumstances of Poe’s mysterious death, and the spark that would become Nevermore was ignited. I dashed off the first few scenes, most involving Poe waking up from a dream and finding himself inside of his own stories. With the cockiness and confidence of youth, I announced the premiere of Nevermore for the fall of 1996 (this was midsummer). And then, I ran into a wall — writer’s block. Nothing would come, and I thought I would have to cancel the production. In despair, I thought I’d write a scene about writer’s block itself, and not to give away the plot, that scene provided a path for the plot and Poe’s descent into the darkness and my way out of my writer’s block maelstrom.

Still, after the first few rehearsals, I was ready to turn in the towel and substitute some other show, but Barbara Young, our costumer, encouraged me to keep going. So I kept writing, getting new pages right up until the last dress rehearsal. I went home from the final dress rehearsal convinced the audience would be lost, but Nevermore premiered to great acclaim in 1996. A few years later, it was published and has been produced around the country.

 

 

 My Fair Lady
 
My Fair Lady (1996)

The Opening Night from Hell.

This is one I’d rather forget. At the final dress rehearsal, volunteers prepared a lovely meal for everyone in the cast and crew. Since we were an all-volunteer theatre at that time, it was great to have a meal for folks racing from work to evening rehearsals.

The next day was opening night. We had a gala opening planned with a reception for donors, and as the day began, my phone began to ring. First one, then two, then three cast members called saying they had food poisoning or a bad stomach virus. They were so violently ill that it was clear they couldn’t perform. An hour before opening, over a quarter of the cast were sick. Fortunately, the actors playing Eliza and Henry Higgins were hale and hearty, and we hoped we could perform with a reduced cast. But by curtain time, another 10 actors were ill, and it was clear there was no way we could perform the show. I gathered the remaining actors together, including our Higgins and Eliza and explained we’d do the musical numbers we could. And so, I came onstage and explained the situation to the black tie audience, and we presented the shortest version of My Fair Lady ever. But the audience was appreciative, and we offered them tickets to later performances. Fortunately, most of the cast were back the next night, and the show went on as planned.

 

 

The Marriage of Bette and Boo
 
The Marriage of Bette and Boo (2001)

While I was proud of the work Charleston Stage had produced under a youth theatre banner, as the company grew, I wanted us to expand and produce a wider range of shows. Shows for young people and their families would remain part of our mission, but we began to experiment with shows that were a little more offbeat. And there’s hardly any writer more offbeat than Christopher Durang, and The Marriage of Bette and Boo is one of his best plays. It tells the story of Bette and Boo and their rocky marriage and their son Matt (who was based on Durang himself). The role of the alcoholic Boo was played by the great local actor Josh Wilhoit and his wife Bette by a newcomer to Charleston Stage named Marybeth Clark. Marybeth would go on to become Associate Artistic Director and Director of Education for Charleston Stage. Bette and Boo is a hard play to explain. It is a dark comedy and even has the running joke of stillborn babies. I know it sounds horrible, but in Durang’s hands, this sad situation becomes both tragic and absurdly hilarious—part of Durang’s legendary offbeat humor. We knew we were taking a chance with this quirky show, but shows that look at the world from wild different perspectives are often some of the best scripts. Still, we wondered if audiences would take to this show, but they did embracing its special take on life. And more than that, it gave us the courage to produce others shows with slightly warped perspectives—Bat Boy, the Musical, The 45th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Picasso at the Lapin Agile and this season’s Avenue Q.

 

 

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
 
Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (2003)

The First SummerStage

SummerStage is our Summer Musical Theatre Camp for over 80 students grades kindergarten thru high school. I must admit I was skeptical when this summer offering was in the planning stages, especially when the idea was to take whoever signed up with no auditions. But our Director of Education (and Associate Artistic Director) Marybeth Clark assured me it would work, and work it did. Thanks to Marybeth’s vision, the kids that summer proved, that in a short three weeks, they could produce an amazing fully staged musical setting the stage for many SummerStage productions that followed—Seussical the Musical, Disney’s Aladdin, Jr, High School the Musical, Jr., etc.—lighting up the Dock Street Theatre Stage summer after summer. And in the title role that first summer was 14 year-old Matt Shingledecker who has gone on to appear on Broadway in Rent, Spring Awakening, West Side Story and Wicked. Not every kid who has been a part of SummerStage has ended up on Broadway, but in those special performances each summer, each kid was a star. SummerStage has continued summer after summer since, most recently this summer with the musicals Disney's 101 Dalmatians KIDS and Xanadu JR.

 

 

Gershwin at Folly
 
Gershwin at Folly (2003)

Who Could Ask For Anything More?

Gershwin and Porgy and Bess are part of the artistic fabric of Charleston and the Lowcountry. I vaguely knew that Gershwin had vacationed on Folly Beach in 1934 where he and DuBose Heyward began their work on their landmark opera. I began some research and found that Gershwin had a great summer, enjoyed the beach, visiting nearby black churches and black juke joints —even taking time out to judge the 1934 Miss Folly Beach contest. I wondered if I could spin this story into a new Gershwin musical. First off, I had to secure the rights to the music from the Gershwin and the Heyward estates. The Gershwin family was a bit skeptical, but George Gershwin’s great nephew Adam Gershwin took an interest and persuaded the family to consider the possibilities. The catch was, they wanted me to write the play before they would consider granting the rights. So I set to work, and thanks to Adam’s efforts, the family not only agreed to allow me to use Gershwin’s music, but I was allowed to use any of the more than 200 songs he had written. Permission from the Heyward estate (Heyward wrote most of the lyrics for Porgy and Bess including the legendary Summertime) was also granted. My friend Chris Donison, Music Director of the famed Shaw Festival in Canada, agreed to do the orchestrations, and the first draft of the show went into rehearsal. Of course, my lead, the actor playing Gershwin, not only had to act, but he had to play the piano and tap dance. So, I headed to New York. Luckily, Jonathon Brody, who actually looked like Gershwin and had played Gershwin in a PBS Special, was available and came down for the world premiere production. The heart of the story, however, was not just the writing of Porgy and Bess, but how Gershwin, who had never been to Charleston, was charmed by the Lowcountry and its rich Gullah culture. Gershwin, a New Yorker thru and thru, loved to discover other places and cultures—his An American in Paris and The Cuban Overture are two examples, but never did he absorb the music and rhythms of another culture as he did that summer on the South Carolina Sea Islands. Added to Gershwin’s great show tunes, were traditional Lowcountry spirituals—Hush Little Baby, We Will All Pray Together and Everybody Who is Livin’ Got to Die—songs Gershwin would have likely heard on his visit and would become the models for Summertime and other original melodies he would create for Porgy and Bess. A traditional boy meets girl subplot was added at the legendary Folly Beach Pavilion along with bathing beauties and a horde of tap-dancers, and thus, a new Gershwin musical was born. The show, quite frankly, took the town by storm—breaking all box office records and selling out show after show. Revived and expanded in 2007 and 2013, Gershwin at Folly remains the best selling show in Charleston Stage history.

 

 

The Seat of Justice
 
The Seat of Justice (2004, 2016)

A Special Performance for the people of Clarendon County.
 
Rarely, do you get to tell a story where some of the participants and their families are still with us. But that is the case with The Seat of Justice which we first produced in 2004, the 50th Anniversary of the landmark Brown v Board of Education Topeka Supreme Court Ruling—a ruling set in motion by the actions of the citizens of rural Clarendon County, South Carolina.

In many ways, I was myself in a unique position to pen this play. I can’t pretend to understand all that went on in the era or during the struggle that would culminate in the filing of the Briggs v. Elliott case and that would lead to the Brown Decision, but I did know the lay of the land. I was born on a cotton farm, just across the Santee River from Clarendon County, South Carolina, and only a few years after the events in the play took place. My great grandparent's farm was within sight of Liberty Hill Church where Rev. De Laine led the effort that would launch the Briggs v. Elliott case, the first desegregation suit filed in America. I have no doubt that my grandparents and great grandparents must have known the key participants in this drama. Fifty years later, as I began to research this story, I met two of the actual participants—Joe DeLaine in his 70’s whose father had led the organization efforts in Clarendon Country and Ruby Cornwell—then in her 90’s who had sat on the front row of the first desegregation trial, which was held in the Federal Courthouse in Charleston. I also was able to interview Joe Elliott, the grandson of Roderick Elliott then chairman of Clarendon County’s all-white school board that had not only fought desegregation but school equality as well. And, while I did not know other participants in the case, I have certainly known people like them. And, I knew the kinds of communities that shaped them, for a similar community shaped me, too. I was born into a very segregated world.

More than anything, it was the tenor of those times that I set out to capture in The Seat of Justice—that age-old human aversion to change and how remarkable it is when people step forward and look at things not as they are but how they could be. That was certainly the case of the Briggs litigants. They were not judges or lawyers; they were just mothers and fathers who wanted a better and fairer world for their children. These are the heroes of this story. While there certainly were important players—Rev. DeLaine, Harry Briggs, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Judge Waties Waring and others, it quickly became clear to me that this was a story with no central player. Rather it was a story in which many individuals, high and low, found themselves standing before the Seat of Justice. I felt this long-forgotten story must be told, and so I went to work on it.

When the show opened in 2004, we had a special performance for the descendants of those who had been involved in Clarendon Country in the 1950’s and whose parents and grandparents had led this monumental effort and descendants of the school board members who had fought their efforts. A similar performance was offered to the descendants for the 2016 rival, and that year, the cast journeyed to Liberty Hill Church to worship in the church where it all began. I suppose what moved me most was that the descendants, black and white, felt I had told all of their stories in a fair and truthful way. For a writer, it doesn’t get much better than this.

And the Charleston and Lowcountry community responded warmly to the show, filling each performance and cheering at the curtain call. This spring, The Seat of Justice will be published by Dramatic Publishing making the show available to other theatres around the country.

 

 

The Skin of Our Teeth
 
The Skin of Our Teeth (2005)

Perhaps the most loathed of all Charleston Stage productions.

I love Thorton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth. I had seen a production at the Sumter, SC Little Theatre of all places when I was 16 years old, and I was hooked. Here was a hilarious off-the-wall show about ideas—this Pulitzer Prize-winner shows how mankind has survived age after age by the skin of its teeth. Act one is set in the Ice Age, act two the Great Flood (Noah’s) and act three at the end of a World War (the show premiered in 1942 in the midst of World War II). As much as I loved the show, I knew it had been problematic. It had confounded audiences and critics when it opened in 1942—even the NY revival with John Goodman in 1988 played to very mixed reviews. While we had a great cast, audiences were just confused by the craziness of the show —the Antrobus family, in act one, have pet dinosaurs for instance. And the second act of the show, set at a convention in Atlantic City, has never worked. Audience members left in droves, and I got a lot of very angry letters and learned the lesson that sometimes a show, which seems like a great idea and seems imaginative on the page doesn’t always translate when the show is put on stage. I’m sure someone, someplace will find a way to make it work. It’s still a mystery to me how it worked in that community theatre production in Sumter all those years ago. And this is one of the realities of the theatre—even with a great cast and a great production, some shows just don’t work. This happens every season on Broadway. So, when we have a show like this that doesn’t seem to hit the mark, we’re in good company.

 

 

The Producers
 
The Producers (2009)

Our First Big Musical

While we had produced other musicals over the years and some were fine productions, we had not yet reached the point where we really had the resources to produce Broadway musicals on the scale that they deserve. The production of Mel Brooks’s The Producers, under Marybeth Clark’s direction changed all of that. In some ways, we had little choice but to produce on a grander scale for we were performing that season at the 800 seat Sottile Theatre that the College of Charleston had generously made available to us while the Dock Street Theatre was under renovation. With a huge forty-foot stage, we knew we had to produce on a scale far beyond what we had done in the past. We snagged the musical director from the national tour, and with our growing Resident Professional Acting Company in lead roles and a growing contingent of fine local performances and musicians, we set out to produce one of the most acclaimed musical comedies ever. It was a terrific production that packed the Sottile Theatre and would set the stage for the many large scale musicals that followed, each better than the last—Cabaret (2010), Chicago (2011), Anything Goes (2013), Catch Me If You Can (2014) and The New Mel Brooks Musical Young Frankenstein (2015).

 

 

Cabaret
 
Cabaret (2010)

Re-Inventing a Classic Amidst Chaos
 
Cabaret is one of the best-known musicals and one of the most powerful ever produced. From the original production, the movie to the 1998 Broadway revival, the show is always the same but always seems new. Director Marybeth Clark continued this tradition when we set out to produce this iconic show. Brian Porter, who is now Charleston Stage’s Director of Administration, joined us as the Emcee for this production bringing his own special magic to this part. Marybeth added special touches from a live boa constrictor that appeared with the Emcee at the end of act one to the powerful image of the gates of Auschwitz at the end of act two. But the production was not without it challenges—our two person tech staff at the time, Stefanie and Mike Christensen’s daughter Tessa (who is how a precious six year old) decided to be born early, and I found myself called back into duty as scenic designer. Getting scenery finished and painted came down to the wire. And then Sarah Claire Smith, our Sally Bowles, developed laryngitis the week before the show opened, but miraculously her voice returned on opening night. And as they say, the rest is history—the show opened to rave reviews and packed houses.

 

 

Inga Binga
 
Inga Binga (2012)

JFK World War II Charleston Affair Takes The Stage.

I’ve often found inspiration in my original works from great stories here in the Lowcountry, and there couldn’t be a much better story than young JFK’s affairs with an alleged Nazi spy here in Charleston during World War II. It had everything—a blond bombshell named Inga Arvad (who young Kennedy called Inga Binga), FBI agents in the next room and reporters on the tail of these star-crossed lovers. Though I turned the story into a farce, it’s based on actual FBI files and the love letter between Jack and Inga that I discovered at the Kennedy Library in Boston. New York actors Phil Mills and Gardner Reed played the leads and were just amazing backed up by a wonderful supporting cast. Audiences loved the show, and it became the best selling non-musical production in Charleston Stage history—while I’m hoping my writing contributed to this, the fact is that sex and the Kennedy’s sell! Inga Binga became my eighth published play and is now produced by other theatres around the country.

 

 

Next to Normal
 
Next To Normal (2014)

Presenting a Serious Musical.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning and Tony Award-winning Next to Normal, is one of the most powerful musicals of recent years. Almost completely sung, with a rock score by Tom Kitt and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, it took Broadway by storm and proved that musicals can tackle serious themes. Next to Normal tells the story of a family struggling with their mother’s severe bi-polar disorder. The show illuminates how such a struggle affects everyone in a family and brings the need for understanding (and the need for mental health resources) to a larger audience. While shows with messages seldom work, Next to Normal works because it has no answers, it simply, as great drama always does, presents a slice of life in all its human triumphs and tragedies. Next to Normal is a challenging production, not only because of its subject matter but because the vocal parts are so difficult. We brought in two guest actors, Sean Hayden and Annie Freres, who were joined by our resident actors Aaron Hancock and Joseph Dickey (now seen on Broadway in the title role of Disney’s Aladdin). Rounding out the cast was Celeste Riddle, a talented theatre major at the College of Charleston. Guest Set Designer, Charlie Calvert, provided a brilliant set, and this was a show that just soared. It was moving to see a show that moved audiences so and led many to share their own stories. We had "talkbacks" lead by MUSC mental health professionals and moderated by Dr. Lee Lewis, himself a former member of Charleston Stage’s Resident Actor program, who is now a psychiatrist. This set the stage to produce other more serious productions in the future.

 

 

Catch Me If You Can
 
Catch Me If You Can (2015)

“Charlestonian“ Frank Abagnale, Jr.’s Amazing Story

It’s not often the subject of a major musical lives in your hometown, but such is the case with Frank Abagnale, Jr. who has adopted Charleston as his hometown. I reached out to Frank once we had secured the rights to this great show, and he could not have been more generous with his time and insights into how to make this show a success. I met with him personally, and then he attended several rehearsals to speak to the cast and share his amazing experiences as a teenage charlatan. He worked especially closely with Corbin Williams who played Frank in the show.

The show had a great cast and a wonderfully imaginative set. Costumes, choreography and lights were magical, and this turned out to be one of the best-selling musicals in the Company’s history.

Frank also attended the show’s opening and closing performances, spoke to the audience, and took questions, making this production and this story all the more real. After the show, he sent me autographed photos, which he inscribed with “To Julian, The Best Director in the World”. Not sure what Stephen Spielberg might think of that!

 

 

Peter and the Starcatcher
 
Peter and the Starcatcher (2017)

Imagination Takes Flight.

I conclude with this show because in so many ways it’s the epitome of great theatre and one of my favorite that I directed in recent years. Though it appears simple—a dozen actors make all the sets and props from ladders, ropes and other items, it was actually one of the most complex shows we ever produced. For though many folks might be surprised to learn, scripts don’t come with how-to-manuals of actually how to make the sets, props and costumes for each show, and a show like Peter and the Starcatcher challenges every theatre to find its own solutions for sets and staging. I had seen the show twice, the original Tony Award-winning Broadway production and later a production at Philadelphia’s famed Walnut Street Playhouse. While both had their strengths, I thought the story often got lost amid the cleverness and imaginativeness of their staging. I knew it would be important to work diligently to be sure the story and the plot remained front and center. One of our first choices, working with our designers, was to simplify the show somewhat—sometimes the simplest solutions are the best, and that was certainly the case with this show—hanging electric light bulbs became twinkling stars, ladders became the masts of ships, rope (like in the original) became doors, windows, waves and umbrellas became trees. Every rehearsal was a delight as my absolutely first rate cast used these simple items to create a voyage of the imagination that landed squarely in Peter Pan’s Neverland. And, part of the show’s enchantment was that the audience brought along their imaginations to play allowing a rubber glove to become a bird, an undulating piece of fabric to become an undulating golden pool and a few ropes, some sparkling fabric, a few strategically placed ship lights to become a gaggle of mermaids—complete with broom straw tails. Theatre truly is magic—characters conjured up by the actors, their flights of imagination sent soaring with creative sets, costumes, props, lightings and sound designs and with the conjuring in the minds of the audience itself—giving us one of life’s true wonders. I am proud to have a life in the theatre and the opportunity to bring these great stories to our great city.

There are many more great moments from the last 40 years I have not had space to remember and have no doubt there are many more. As we celebrate the last 40 years, we set the stage for the next 40 years to come.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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