ARIA OF AMBITION

BY BILL THOMPSON | PHOTOGRAPH BY HOLGER OBENAUS

One suspects Mary Gould agreed to present the play Emilie earlier this year because its heroine, a Renaissance woman of substance and wit, mirrored her own versatility and commitment.

The founding director of the respected South of Broadway Theatre Company (SOBTC) is amused by the notion, but disclaims any kinship or intent. Still, the analogy is sound. Gould has made her mark in multiple artistic arenas. Over the course of her career she established an arts education program with Hinsdale Opera Theatre and the Chicago School district, performed more than 30 operatic roles in New York and abroad, commanded the stage in a series of one-woman shows, and became executive director of the New York Virtuosi Chamber Symphony before migrating to Charleston in 1998.

In short order she opened a private vocal studio in downtown Charleston, and two years later formed the nonprofit production company Marigold Arts Development, Inc. This opened the gateway to SOBTC, currently celebrating its 17th year as what the The New York Times has judged “a mainstay of the South Carolina theater scene.” Gould also introduced a program called Summer in NYC, a month-long artistic residency where participants reside at the Juilliard School.

Beginning in 2015, Gould undertook the challenge of founding the Daniel Island Performing Arts Center (DIPAC), where SOBTC will be Theatre in Residence. It is due for completion in late 2019 or early 2020. But Gould & Co. have no intention of abandoning their longtime home in North Charleston’s Park Circle district.

LifestyleProfileVer3-Image-1Born in California, Gould was raised in Brazil, where her parents were missionaries. At 18 she returned to the United States to pursue a career in opera. After attending Chicago’s American Conservatory of Music, she studied at Rosary College’s School of Graduate Studies in Florence, Italy.

Many consider you a cornerstone of the local arts community, and not just in theater. How do you see yourself?
I’m just a hard-working artist who is trying my best to share the lessons learned and hardwon techniques I’ve accrued over the years, in the sincere hope they can guide or help others on their journey. And that will be my small legacy.

Have your original goals in establishing the theater company been achieved?
Our vision was to become the first LORT (League of Resident Theatres) theater in the state. LORT is the most prestigious designation for regional theaters. There are approximately 74 across the country and in every major market, but none here. When we first opened our doors in 2004, the only thing we could do to stay open was to build a robust youth program. And that’s all we did for five years. Our first adult production was in 2009. Nearly nine years later, I am proud to say we have achieved a fine track record. Last year we were one of only 12 theaters nationally to receive an American Theatre Wing Award. With the founding of the DIPAC, we are now perhaps only a few years away from reaching LORT status.

What major ambitions or aspirations remain?
Since the year 2000, it has been part of the SOBTC’s business model to perform at least one opera, possibly more, per year. This is something that Charleston has long needed and which I am prepared to step up to the plate to help happen.

You have surrounded yourself with gifted, committed people, like SOBTC artistic director Kristen Kos. How vital is this?
Indispensable. We all wear many hats, but not one of us can do it all alone. This means hiring the people you think can do the job and then getting out of their way, or figuring out how you can help fulfill their vision, when maybe it doesn’t coincide with yours. I try to make sure my directors and designers feel supported. That takes tact, diplomacy and sometimes just biting your tongue for the greater good. In the end, I love hearing that people love to work here, and hope that means our product will just get better and better! The happier my team is the better art we produce.

What has you most enthused about your 2017 – 2018 season?
Well, I love Les Liaisons Dangereuses. I think I’ve seen every production of it on Broadway, including the most recent with Janet McTeer and Liev Shreiber. I’m also really excited about Madama Butterfly. We have some great singers and are planning an interesting take that will work well for local audiences.

When the explosive growth in area theater companies began a few years ago, many worried that there simply wasn’t a large enough audience to go around, no matter how fine the product. Still a concern?
My personal take is always going to be to “grow the pie,” not yield to limitations. This growth has been a good thing for Charleston. We all have to constantly up our game to stay in business, and I think everyone will agree this has been a great influence on Charleston theater. Good for Charleston, stressful for producers. I think there is more cohesion and empathy in the theater community than ever before. At SOBTC, our only strategy in dealing with audience numbers is just to constantly push for better product.

Are you content to be a creative behind-the-scenes presence and teacher at this juncture of your career, or might we see you on stage again?
Never say never! I had hoped to sing Madama Butterfly but just have too much on my plate right now. I’ll probably climb back on the stage eventually. Although I don’t pine to do it as I did when younger.

Bill Thompson covers the arts, film and books.