Dispatch from Charleston

It’s a bit of a schlep.  Seven hours or so in a car filled with luggage, props and promotional materials. But the weather gods were smiling on us and we got into Charleston last Thursday in time for a leisurely dinner. 

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The view out our hotel window.

It was our first time at Piccolo Spoleto – an event I’ve heard of for decades, but had never attended.  We were honored that our show, Pardon Me For Living – A Biting Comedy, had  made it through the lengthy application process and been accepted by the powers that be. As far as we know, we’re the first Knoxville theatre company to be included. The show is ideal for traveling, a simple set suitable for any stage, and a powerhouse performance by its author, Staci Swedeen. We were scheduled for 3 shows over two days but other than that, we really didn’t know what to expect.

 The morning of our first full day in town, Staci performed a two minute snippet of the show on Low Country Live, at the local ABC affiliate. There’s an art to taking a stage piece and adapting it for television. You have to pull in your energy and narrow your focus – something that doesn’t always come easily to us theatre trained actors. But Staci pulled it off beautifully – getting laughs from the crew (always a coup!) and then we were off to our only tech rehearsal at the Woolfe Street Playhouse – a 150 seat venue in the northern part of the historic district.  It has a wide, shallow stage and we were using the existing lighting from their current show, Love Loss and What I Wore.  Such are the challenges for a peripatetic theatre company – always adaptng to current circumstances! But the show worked well in the space.

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The Woolfe Street Playhouse

 The local arts paper – Charleston’s version of Metropulse, had interviewed Staci on the phone and gave us a nice write-up under the caption, “Shit Happens!”.  Couldn’t ask for a catchier headline! We dropped off some postcards and posters at the festival box office and then set off to see some sights.

 Charleston is not a town for sightseeing on a tight schedule. Things run more slowly there – expect to wait for a table at a restaurant (and sometimes for service once you’re seated). Traffic moves at a glacial pace – even more so on a Memorial Day weekend with a major arts festival in town!  Narrow, uneven sidewalks with lots of obstructions and crowds of window shoppers slow determined strides down to a meander. You quickly learn to stop fighting it and go with the flow.

 The crowds for our three shows were small, but appreciative.  We’d wondered if shows at 9:30 and 10 PM would sell well, and the answer is not so much….but those were the slots we were assigned.  The people who did see the show loved it and we met some wonderful theatre-goers. And our generous donors on indiegogo and on our Board of Directors gave us the luxury of having the trip paid for in advance, so we were free to focus on doing a great show and learning all we could.

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Staci on stage at the Woolfe Street Playhouse

 Our last day, we saw a production of Venus In Fur (add that one to the to-do list!) in a small theatre in the heart of the historic district. Not a perfect production, but a good one. I spent the pre-show minutes doing research  – checking out the seating, the lighting, counting the possible codes violations, dissecting the set.

 Here’s my list of some of those valuable lessons and questions:

1. We saw several small theatres – each different in layout and organization. Could one of them be a model for our own space? We certainly brought home plenty of good ideas.

  • 2. Just because an organization has been in existence for years, doesn’t mean it’s chaos-free. It seems every step and phase has it’s growing pangs.  Good to know.

3, Is cabaret style table seating the wave of the future, or do we lose the traditional audience experience of sharing an emotional journey while being surrounded by strangers  – dividing the audience into discreet islands?

4. Charleston feels like a theatre town. Perhaps because there is no large Equity house, there are a number of small professional theatres, each with their own space.  How does Knoxville differ and how is it similar?

5.  Safe, non -controversial programming seems to sell less well than edgier stuff here – even to older audiences in this conservative stronghold. That should be good news for us, since that’s our mission!

6.  There always seems to be a tension between the words and the visuals.  Often, tech dominates or is ignored altogether! Can we find a happy medium between those two extremes?

7.  Clear systems, clearly communicated really help.  We had trouble getting answers in advance and some important business questions are still unsettled. (Not from lack of us trying.) As we go forward, we need to look at creating workable systems that become automatic.  Not an easy task, by any stretch of the imagination….but necessary.

 Every theatre is unique.  Along our journey, we have bought books titled “How To Open a Theatre” and read countless articles and blogs on non-profit theatres, Boards, fundraising, you name it.  Well, none of those things is titled “How to Open YOUR Theatre.”  Because every circumstance is different.  The ages, skills, energy level and economic circumstance of everyone involved comes into play. Our community is another huge factor – it’s affordable spaces or lack of them, media commitment to covering the arts, tradition of theatre going and arts fundraising, etc. There is no one size fits all process, though I REALLY wish we could order a “Start-Up Theatre” kit with step-by-step instructions!

 So our lessons from Charleston might lead us to the right questions to ask ourselves, but they won’t tell us what to do here.  You will. Our Board and volunteers will. Actors and lighting designers will. Trial and error (HATE the error part!) will. 

 It was a great trip on many levels. Staci did us proud on stage, pulling off three shows in a little over 24 hours.  Our printed material – programs, postcards and posters, stood out. We got a very nice review in the Charleston City Paper.  It was so worth the work and effort. Thanks, Knoxville – and to friends and extended family all over who helped make this possible. We couldn’t have done it without you!

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