Arthur Gilliard, 67, began performing while in high school, and he spent the 1970s as a fledgling actor in New York City. When he returned to his hometown of Charleston, he helped run the MOJA Arts Festival and he produced plays in the basement of Emanuel AME Church.
Before long, city officials asked him to form a theater company that would emphasize African-American playwrights and works that shed light on the black experience in America. It was to fill a void, he said.
Twenty-one years later, Art Forms & Theatre Concepts is still going. It has survived ups and downs, fundraising struggles, space challenges and more, but Gilliard seems unstoppable.
Q: Tell me a little about yourself. How did you first get interested in the theater? When did you start directing plays?
A: I’m a native Charlestonian who started life “back da green” on the Charleston peninsula, and attended A.B. Rhett Elementary School and Simonton Junior High School before graduating in 1967 as senior class president from Burke High School. A scholarship to Bishop College in Dallas, Texas, allowed me to build on what I had learned growing up in Charleston, and joining the college choir allowed me to tour the East Coast and the West Coast every other year.
After graduating from Bishop College in 1971 and after a brief stay in the U.S. Navy where I served as a yeoman, I accepted a (public relations) position … on Wall Street. During this time, I decided that theater was going to be my profession; I did not like being in management on Wall Street.
Q: You have run Art Forms & Theatre Concepts for many years, mounting productions in every Piccolo Spoleto Festival and MOJA Festival. Do you think the local market could support a year-round regular season in which Art Forms presents several plays highlighting aspects of the African-American experience?
A: In short, yes. There is an abundance of talent here in the Lowcountry, and many are readily available once they realize you value them and their contributions to the world of art. I have found many diamonds in the rough locally that didn’t know how talented they were — and are.
Art Forms simply offers a slice of the African-American experience, using whatever talents are available on our stages. We have an abundance of stories to tell, and I believe with the community’s support we’ll continue to tell those stories. That’s our mission.
We are also preparing 30-minute vignettes that can tour the schools and other community (venues). Like many other nonprofits, a major challenge we face is our need for additional supporters and donors. We have not found that “theatre angel” yet, but I keep hoping.
Q: Expanding the work of Art Forms would require that the company find a stable venue and enlarge its annual budget. What’s the status of the organization?
A: Short-term, we are again looking for a space to call home, or at least a space where we can conduct workshops, classes and rehearsals while handling day-to-day operations with the assistance of volunteers and interns. The board of directors is actively seeking a space right now.
Long-term, the new budget has increased to reflect the need for an executive director and securing and operating that new space. Fortunately, we do receive great support from Mayor John Tecklenburg, city council and numerous supporters, including the South Carolina Arts Commission and the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation and others throughout the Lowcountry. …
Finding an affordable space to mount additional productions and keep the tickets affordable is the challenge. … In the meantime, we have added a production in December at Christmas for visitors and residents, and in February as a salute to Black History Month.
Q: For years, you have been heavily involved in organizing (and participating in) the MOJA Festival, even serving as chairman for a while. If you could wave a magic wand and change something about MOJA, what would it be?
A: I think, conceptually, MOJA is an absolutely wonderful festival. I would like to see it focus more on its core mission of celebrating more African-American and Caribbean Arts, and making it more national and international in scope, working more closely with embassies and ambassadors from African and Caribbean countries and showing their connections to the Lowcountry.
It would also be a great opportunity to highlight some of the talent that at one time resided in the Lowcountry, since there are many out there making it. It would also be great to move the festival dates to a part of the year when more tourists are in town on vacations, family reunions are planned and schools are out.
Q: For Piccolo Spoleto Festival, Art Forms is presenting James Baldwin’s play “The Amen Corner,” which considers the role of religion and racial prejudice in the life of a black family. Tell me about your approach to the play, about the particulars of this production and about the message you hope the show will deliver to Piccolo audiences.
A: For me, the play shows that true love never really dies. It’s just that sometimes we don’t know how to handle it so we find ways to escape, without considering others’ feelings, even the ones we claim to love. Though Baldwin was treated harshly in America, and criticized terribly, he never gave up on himself or his beliefs. And in “The Amen Corner,” Margaret, I believe, really loves Luke, and Luke really loves Margaret, but they didn’t become one as they thought they would.
The story is so unencumbered, so simple and straightforward. All of the characters are so clear, and I’m sure we all know some of them. But, like Maya Angelou says, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” That is all I ask of the actors in the play. Stay in the moment. Be believable and let us experience your emotions.