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Charleston Stage’s Julian Wiles pens play about pivotal civil rights case, Seat of Justice

Note: Charleston Stage receives an annual general operating support grant from the South Carolina Arts Commission. Visit the Charleston Stage website for Seat of Justice ticket information and to read background about the play's development. Related: View trailer for Seat of Justice   From Charleston City Paper Article by Helen Mitternight, photo courtesy Charleston Stage

julianwilesGrowing up in a white, South Carolina community, Charleston Stage founder Julian Wiles didn't know about the historic 1950 court case Briggs v. Elliott, a suit which later became the nucleus of the ground-breaking Brown v. Board of Education case. It wasn't until he was an adult that he learned about this amazing story that took place so close to home. He knew he wasn't alone, so he decided to write a play about the pivotal moment in the Civil Rights Movement. "I don't think it's just black history, I think it's everybody's history," Wiles says. "I don't presume to know exactly how people felt. But you know, I grew up in a segregated world, I went to a white school, so I know that part of the equation." Wiles' Seat of Justice tells the story of a group of African-American parents who simply wanted the school district to maintain the bus their children rode to the rickety, blacks-only school they attended in Clarendon County, Silver School. While Clarendon County School District 22 officials refused to spend money on the bus, they had no problem paying for a new school for white children. The case was eventually taken up by future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Twenty parents signed on to the lawsuit, and, Wiles says, for their actions they would all lose their jobs or be harassed. "In many ways, most people in South Carolina lived in one of three worlds: white or black or working together," Wiles says. "And those were parallel universes. Everyone accepted that this was the rule of how we should live. What's really amazing to me is how a group of very simple people — sharecroppers, teachers — decided the way the world worked was just not fair." Of course, before writing this historical drama, Wiles had to do his research. Fortunately, he was able to speak with someone who witnessed the original case, Charleston civil rights activist Ruby Cornwell. "I had a great time with her," Wiles recalls. "I had read so much and I knew so many of the players from the research. I was bringing up people she knew so well. Being 100, she had lost her contemporaries, so there was no one to talk to in a lot of detail about it. I got to do that." Wiles also spoke with descendants of the original petitioners, like the son of the Rev. Joseph A. DeLaine, Silver School's principal. When the play opens at the Dock Street Theatre this week, Wiles says several of the litigants' descendants will be in the audience, as will the son of the white local school board chair who denied the funds for the school bus. Photos from that time will be on display upstairs from the stage, and the legendary civil rights photographer Cecil Williams — who was just a boy when he snapped the photos — will also be on hand. The one person who will not be seeing the play is Ruby Cornwell, whose experiences became the voice of the play's narrator. "She almost made it," Wiles said. "She lived to almost 101. She was very sweet. She read a number of drafts and made suggestions. The day she turned 100, the play wasn't ready, but we took an excerpt from the play, her opening monologue, and I had an actress from the college read it at her church that day. She loved it." While Briggs v. Elliott was ultimately folded into the Brown v. Board of Education case for political reasons — Brown originated in Kansas not the Deep South — the Clarendon case was the focal point of Marshall's argument before the Supreme Court. Wiles says he was struck by the complexities of the issue, particularly as it involved school district superintendent L.B. McCord and principal DeLaine. "It wasn't just good guys or bad guys. The case has what drama is, the personal interactions between people, people who worked together. For instance, domestics almost became part of the family in some odd way, and I was trying to explore how that dynamic worked and what happened when those dynamics began to break down," he says. "In the end, L.B. McCord winds up firing the Rev. DeLaine, but they had a good working relationship until this all collided." And on Feb. 21, there will be a post-show panel sponsored by the International African-American Museum and moderated by College of Charleston history professor Bernard Powers. Special matinees will be performed for students, including those in Clarendon County, where the case began. "I hope the takeaway from this play is: It's not over," Wiles said. "We still need people to take their seats in the seat of justice all the time and work to make our world better. We can't wait on politicians, judges, elections. We have to all take stands and do things and be the people who will make our world more harmonious. It's our responsibility."

Charleston’s theater scene: keeping stage lights on a financial balancing act

From the Charleston City Paper:

Last month, a Summerville town councilman made waves in the local theater scene by trying to remove about $3,000 in funds directed to the Flowertown Players. He objected to the content of their 2013 production of the musical, Rent. But while his efforts to remove the accommodation tax funding failed, his actions beg the question: How much would the loss of $3,000 in funding affect a local theater? How much would it really hurt? To answer the question, we need a general picture of the economics of our local theaters and, to tell the truth, the picture changes from troupe to troupe — albeit slightly. We have theaters like Charleston Stage that pay upward of $250,000 per show, and we have smaller theaters like PURE Theatre or What If? that can keep production costs to under $20,000. To a larger theater, perhaps, $3,000 is a drop in the bucket, but no matter what, public funding is a big piece of the glue holding our theater community together. When it gets taken away, that money has to be found somewhere else in order for our theaters to thrive. Emily Wilhoit is the executive director of Theatre Charleston, an alliance of over a dozen local theaters. As such, she knows what's up, financially speaking. "The average nonprofit theater arts group budget income comes only from 50 percent tickets. The other 50 percent comes from grants, donations, and sponsorships," she says. Though those numbers can and do vary greatly. "All our theaters very much rely on grants, contributions, and sponsorships to run their seasons." Julian Wiles, founder and producing artistic director of Charleston Stage, arguably Charleston's largest theatrical group, agrees. "Ticket sales only make up about 47 percent of Charleston Stage's production costs. Without sponsors, donors, and public arts funding, Charleston Stage shows would all post a loss," he says. Smaller theaters, too, face the same challenge. At the PURE Theatre, a 100-seat blackbox, the numbers are closer to 54 percent tickets, 46 percent contributions, according to Managing Director Laurens Wilson. All our theaters, it seems, are reliant in large measure on funding received from methods other than ticket sales. So where does all that money go? Again, it varies greatly by theater and their season. At Charleston Stage, which is known for huge musical productions the money seems to flow to its employees. "The biggest costs are people. Although we use the most modern tools such as computers for sound, lights, set design, etc., theater is still very much a hand-made business and requires a lot of hands," says Wiles. "Over the course of a season we employ over 150 musicians, actors, directors, stage hands, choreographers, music directors, and production staff, costumers, scenery, lighting and sound designers, and technicians. As a professional theater all of these artists receive paid compensation." And then there's the royalty fee, which is the money paid for the right to be able to use a copyrighted script. "Royalties range from 10 percent to 13 percent of the gross," continues Wiles. "And royalties generally have to be paid in full before a single ticket is sold, so we are always taking a bit of a chance. For some shows we pay in excess of $30,000 for royalties." Over at PURE, things look similar, though on a smaller scale. Wilson says, "The biggest expense we have are artists. A show that has 10 actors is going to be more expensive than a show with two. If you look at the hard cost of the show alone, you're probably looking at around $15,000. That doesn't include staff salaries that would be applicable to the show." As Wiles said, it's a risk, every time. But are directors taking that into account, and only choosing shows that they think will sell well? You'd think so, but that's not always the case. Take PURE, a theater known for taking risks. Artistic Director Sharon Graci and the theater's board like to try all kinds of different plays. "Whether or not a show will be well-attended comes into consideration for sure," says Graci. "And we may make some adjustments to our season as a whole, knowing we're doing a show that won't be as accessible as another show. But it will never dictate our artistic selections." Some shows do better than expected. Russian Transport, PURE's February comedy about a Russian-Jewish immigrant family in Brooklyn attempting to live a perfect American life until uncle Boris arrives and upsets the balance, is one example. The play brought in far more in ticket sales than anticipated. However, other productions don't measure up, so theater directors make sure to plan each season carefully to at least average out. With ticket sales an unreliable form of income, the public funding and donor contributions become ever more important. Thus, the answer to our original question — How much would it hurt to lose $3,000 in public funding? — seems clear, at least to Wilson. "$3,000 would be impactful for anyone. We all fight for every dollar we get," she says. "In a market like Charleston, the pool of contributed income is limited. If you have something you're counting on like city money, and it goes away, it's often hard to go away and replace it."
Via: Charleston City Paper