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Theatre thriving in South Carolina

Theatre seems to be jumping across The Hub's radar this week, and for good reason: it's thriving in South Carolina. We thought it was due for a spotlight piece, so take your seats as we begin.

Act I: PURE Theatre

Co-founder and Artistic Director Sharon Graci (right) is featured here in a brief video from LowcountryBizSC this morning. PURE, a professional contemporary theatre group, set records for new and returning audiences during its 15th anniversary last season, and this year gets a new venue: the Cannon Street Arts Center, where they will be anchor tenant. Graci was the S.C. Arts Commission's acting fellow in 2010/2011 and Rodney Lee Rogers, PURE's other co-founder, was the playwriting fellow the same year. (Coincidentally, the two are married. - Ed.) PURE receives an operating support grant from SCAC, and Rogers helps the commission administer Artists U in South Carolina – a training resource that facilitates artist development.

Act II: Screenwriting fellow bringing play to Columbia

Leasharn Hopkins, who received the SCAC screenwriting fellowship for 2017/2018, will bring a play she wrote and directs to Columbia. Love Me or Leave Me focuses on the effects of drug addiction, mental abuse, and domestic violence in three couples' romantic relationships. Look for it Saturday, Oct. 27 at the Tapp's Arts Center. Go here for ticket information.

Act III: Drama Lady Theatre Group

Based in the rural Pee Dee region of South Carolina (Marion County, to be exact), the Drama Lady Theatre Group premieres Ntozake Shange’s award winning play: For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When The Rainbow is Enuf at the FMU Performing Arts Center in Downtown Florence on Saturday, Nov. 17. The Drama Lady Theatre Group is the brainchild of a collective of artists striving to use live theatrical performances to educate and promote wellness across diverse communities. The group received an FY19 Arts Education Project grant from SCAC.

SC Arts Alliance to host Creative Pillars forums

“What are some of the pillars needed in a community for a creative professional to have a high quality of life?” That’s the question the South Carolina Arts Alliance is asking as it hosts Creative Pillars forums this summer in Greenville and Charleston. Forum dates and locations:

An additional forum is being planned in the Pee Dee area. All forums are free to attend and will run from 5:30 - 7:30 p.m. Beer and wine will be available for purchase. Advance registration is requested and is available on the Arts Alliance’s website, www.scartsalliance.net. The forums, which are open to any creative professional or those with an interest in a creative field, will include group activities meant to identify key amenities that help attract and retain creative professionals and targeted discussions to dive deeper into specific topics. The Arts Alliance is interested in hearing from every kind of creative professional, from the freelance graphic designer to the touring musician to the nonprofit fundraising professional. “We wanted to create a way to gather insight into areas other than pure arts and culture and how they play a role in the quality of life for a creative professional," said GP McLeer, SCAA’s executive director. "We know that a high value on arts and culture is important, but what about access to healthcare, public safety, recreation, or even trash pick up - where do these kinds of issues lie in the hierarchy for the creative professional? Whether you’re an architect, designer, actor, musician, nonprofit arts manager, or even a board member, this is an important discussion to have as people look for ways to effectively make a difference in their community." Creative Pillars is also serving as a pilot for a new statewide leadership development program, CreativeSC, being planned by the South Carolina Arts Alliance in partnership with the South Carolina Arts Commission, the Gaylord & Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, the University of South Carolina, and Together SC, with additional partners expected to join in the coming months. The comprehensive program will include networking, workshops/forums, and a selective leadership program. The Arts Alliance is targeting an early fall 2017 launch of CreativeSC. The series is supported by a grant by the South Carolina Arts Commission, which receives funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. About the South Carolina Arts Alliance The South Carolina Arts Alliance is the only statewide nonprofit dedicated to advancing the arts for all South Carolinians through advocacy, leadership development, and public awareness. The SCAA is housed at the Younts Center for Performing Arts in Fountain Inn, SC.

Taking American tragedy to Bulgaria: Unique theater collaboration develops in Charleston

PURE Theatre's Rodney Lee Rogers' play "The Tragedian" will be performed in Bulgaria March 27. Rogers is the South Carolina Arts Commission 2011 Playwriting Fellow. (Photo of Rogers by Rod Pasibe.) From the Charleston Post and Courier Article by Adam Parker

The unlikely drama duo is doing it again, this time in Bulgaria. The first time actor-playwright Rodney Lee Rogers and Bulgarian director Peter Karapetkov presented “The Tragedian” was in 2008 as part of Pure Theatre’s lineup. Rogers wrote the one-man play and starred in it. Karapetkov staged it. The play, about the great Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth, brother of John Wilkes Booth, was performed at Circular Congregational Church where its Shakespeare-laden text, innovative staging and compelling portrayal were much appreciated by audiences. Rogers’ research turned up lots of useful and interesting information about the Booth family, which was America’s premier family of the stage back in the 19th century. Father Junius Brutus Booth was an English actor of repute whose stiffer, declarative style was appropriate for his time. Edwin loosened things up and was esteemed for his naturalistic portrayals, and especially for his Hamlet, a role he performed hundreds of times. Rogers taps into all this, and into the inherent dramatic conflict that was part and parcel of the life of a great actor whose brother happened to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln. So just how exactly did Booth manage to bring together a local playwright and a Bulgarian theater maestro in Charleston? Karapetkov is a man with a history. He got his start as a theater actor in Plovdiv, attending the Bulgarian Theater Academy, then joined a small provincial theater company during the Perestroika years when Soviet communism was cooling down a bit and giving the economy a little elbow room. It was during those years that Karapetkov met set designer Petar Mitlev and actor Stefan Popov, both of whom are collaborating on the new production of “The Tragedian.” In 1989, after the bloody Tblisi Massacre in Georgia, Karapetkov criticized Soviet communism at an underground meeting, and the KGB arrested him. He soon escaped to Vienna, found his way to a refugee camp then came to the U.S., where he reinvented himself. He enrolled at Carnegie Mellon, got a second MFA degree and became an itinerant theater professor. His American wife, Hollynd Karapetkova, settled into academia but decided she wanted to become a doctor, so the couple, with their child K.J., moved to the Charleston area in 2005, encouraged by Holly’s parents, who lived on Seabrook Island. Once settled into their West Ashley home, Karapetkov naturally started exploring the theater scene in town. “I called Pure,” he said. “It was the only theater making sense from where I’m coming from.” It was innovative, serious, small-scale and eager to take risks. He was invited to direct a couple of productions, including “The Tragedian.” Holly, meanwhile, changed her mind about medical school and returned to academia. She is currently chairwoman of the English Department at Marymount University in Arlington, Va. The couple spends summers in Bulgaria exploring mythology and theatrical traditions with students. Holly, who is on sabbatical leave from Marymount, is translating “The Tragedian” into Bulgarian (along with another play to be produced in Australia). Rogers’ play will be mounted by the Plovdiv Drama Theatre on March 27. It will star Popov as Edwin Booth. Rogers will travel to Bulgaria to see the play, which could become part of Plovdiv’s repertoire. He and his collaborators hope to present both the Bulgarian and English versions in Charleston during the 2016 Piccolo Spoleto Festival, Rogers said. For the Bulgarian production, Mitlev said he’s designing a modular set that can be easily transformed into a cart, pieces of furniture and more. The cultural exchange is likely to be well received in Bulgaria, where theater is taken seriously. It receives state support and attracts a large segment of the population. One in seven go to the theater regularly, Karapetkov said. Rogers said “The Tragedian,” with its plethora of Shakespeare and themes of endurance and change, identity, conflict and second chances, leaves plenty of room for interpretation. “It’s so rich, directors can decide what theme or approach (to take),” he said. It’s also a play that’s very much about plays and acting and how the theater can provide a refuge from external cataclysm, Rogers said. The character, Edwin Booth, keeps reviving his version of “Hamlet,” even as his own life changes in dramatic ways because of the Civil War. “Life becomes so unbearable, the actor starts hiding in the theater,” in that realm of imagination, emotion and character-building, Karapetkov said. This unlikely collaboration between the American playwright and the Bulgarian theater director almost certainly will continue, generating projects in both countries and providing audiences with much food for thought. “It’s good for us as a company,” Rogers said. “I hope there is a lot more to come.”

“The Mountaintop” gives glimpse into King’s last night

From The State:

When “The Mountaintop” comes to the Midlands this weekend, audiences will get a glimpse into the last night of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life. The play, presented by Charleston’s PURE Theater on a statewide tour, is a fictional account of King’s last night, focusing on the interactions between the civil rights leader and a hotel maid, Camae, who delivers his room service at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn. While based on one of America’s most iconic figures, the play is more of an examination of its two characters than a piece of historical drama, said Joy Vandervort-Cobb, who plays Camae. “Audiences shouldn’t be frightened (off). It’s not a historical piece except for the fact that it’s about Dr. King,” Vandervort-Cobb said. “It’s funny, it’s touching and it gets to a part of Dr. King we’re not as familiar with.” Vandervort-Cobb said Camae is her favorite role of all the ones she’s had in her career as an actor. “There is a light about this woman who is this hotel maid that has this encounter with Dr. King,” she said. “Just as you think it’s going in one direction ... you can’t imagine what direction it is going in. I love doing this role and thinking about being this person.” The play humanizes King, painting him as a person as opposed to a figurehead, said Katie Fox, executive director of the Harbison Theatre at Midlands Technical College. “What excited us about this play was that Dr. King was treated as a person. We expect great things from our students, but it’s also important to say people who did great things had some regrets and weren’t perfect,” Fox said. “We don’t want you to be perfect, but to do your best for yourselves and your families. You don’t have to be superhuman to do very difficult things to help the world.” That theme is transferrable to modern day public figures, Vandervort-Cobb said. “It also extends that conversation,” she said. “We look at community leaders ... and we don’t ascribe to them any flaws. We put them on a pedestal and when we see a flaw, we kick them off.” The play is on tour around South Carolina with support from the South Carolina Arts Commisson, in an effort to increase the frequency of touring professional theater companies from within South Carolina, said director Sharon Graci.  

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

PURE Theatre’s Lab focuses on playwrights

From Charleston City Paper:

On a recent night at PURE Theatre, several of PURE's core members gathered to read the first draft of a play called Romeo and Naomi Ramirez, written by playwright and Savannah College of Art and Design professor Kathryn Walat. This wasn't in preparation for an upcoming production — none of the actors had rehearsed, and there was no guarantee any of them would interact with the play again once the reading was over. The evening's focus was on the playwright, who would be hearing her characters' voices for the first time.Walat is one of the latest participants in PURE Lab, a play development program that's the quiet, cerebral sister to the theater company's more public face. The Lab has been a part of PURE since the company's founding 11 years ago, says co-founder Sharon Graci, when it was formed as a typical playwriting workshop, with several playwrights getting together to share their writing and critique each other's work. At that time, Lab participants were expected to produce something that would be staged at PURE — for example, Graci's husband and PURE co-founder Rodney Lee Rogers wrote Waffle Haus Christmas, which the company performed in 2011, as part of the Lab. The program's format has since changed. "It's had a lot of permutations through 11 seasons, and this one seems to be the best fit for us," Graci says. "It's grown into something that doesn't have production associated with it. [The process] can be what it's going to be." The Lab is designed to offer playwrights whatever they need in order to move their work forward, whether that's a first or second draft reading by PURE's seasoned actors, or conversations with directors like Graci to help conceptualize staging possibilities. Generally, the Lab spends 18-24 months helping develop a play, although certain works progress much faster. Sometimes, PURE commissions plays that also go through the Lab process; in those cases, playwrights often have a deadline, as the play is destined for one of the company's regular seasons. The Lab has ended up being a kind of complement for the theater company. "The company is very actor-centric, and the Lab is very playwright-centric," Graci says. That's especially true with established playwrights like former Lab participant Arlene Hutton (the playwright behind Last Train to Nibroc and As It Is in Heaven, both of which have been staged locally by the College of Charleston) and Walat, whose award-winning plays have premiered Off-Broadway and at celebrated theaters around the country. She met Graci when she moved to Savannah from New York four years ago. "I was looking for play companies interested in doing new, challenging work and developing new work," Walat says. That search led her to PURE, and she became a frequent audience member despite the two-hour drive to Charleston. Eventually, she and Graci began discussing her work, which led to the recent reading of Walat's play, Romeo and Naomi Ramirez, that Graci organized under the auspices of the Lab. "It's a loose reimagining of the Romeo and Juliet story, set in a Florida high school," says Walat. "The play is in its beginning stages, and this was the first opportunity to hear it outside my head and computer. That's so valuable for a writer." As is the policy for all Lab readings, the actors went in cold. Though it seems counterintuitive, a cold reading is much more useful than a rehearsed one for a playwright, allowing her to experience her work more objectively. "A lot of times a not-right actor in a role can do damage — the words will sound less than they are. And it works the other way too. A great actor in a not-great role can make it sound better than it is," Graci says. "So a cold reading is extraordinarily helpful." That goes for the actors as well, who have to find the voices of their characters on the fly. Romeo and Naomi Ramirez may make an appearance as a fully staged production on the PURE stage at some point, or it may not. Walat could even decide that she wants to workshop something else with the Lab, and that would be OK too. "For someone like Arlene Hutton or Kathryn, their careers are complex. Production's not always the best thing for that script," Graci says. "With Kathryn, what I would say is the Lab is more of a relationship with her, not with the work." And Walat is ecstatic about that. "It's been such an amazing experience," she says. "To be able to say, 'I really feel like I need to hear [my play]' and [Graci] to say, 'Great, we'd love to do a reading,' — that's allowed me to jump back into the writing. It's been so meaningful to relocate and find an artistic company like this."
Via: Charleston City Paper