ACTORS’ THEATRE AND THE ART OF COLLABORATION

by BILL THOMPSON

PHOTO BY ROBBIN KNIGHT PHOTOGRAPHY

 

STAGE ACTORS ARE SCULPTORS who carve in snow. And while it is true that nothing in the theater is imperishable, save great writing, Chris Weatherhead and Clarence Felder are working on a measure of immortality.

As actors, writers, producers and directors, the couple worked steadily for more than 30 years in professional theater and motion pictures in London, New York, Hollywood and Canada before returning to Felder’s native South Carolina in 1995.

Establishing Actors’ Theatre of South Carolina (ATSC) that same year, they have been significant players in the flourishing of theater and independent movies here. The company’s emphasis always has been on new works by South Carolinians and unsung American Revolutionary War heroes. Apart from its original productions and adaptations, ATSC also invests its resources in training actors, directors, writers and emerging filmmakers. 

After five years shepherding the Felder Film Festival, the couple founded a film division, Moving Images Group. It has produced three features and seven shorts and garnered 19 international film awards. Their feature-length docudrama, All for Liberty, based on the life of a Felder ancestor, is still in distribution and especially noteworthy. Felder and Weatherhead have two more films seeking distribution this year, John Laurens’ War, a drama of early Colonial abolitionism in Charleston, and Father’s Day.

Recent plays have included much-lauded productions of Frederick Douglass: No Turning Back and Beethoven: His Women & His Music, the latter performed with Chamber Music Charleston.

Of late, Felder has been raising eyebrows with his reimaginings of Shakespearean classics. Most recently, he adapted King Lear, setting it in North Dakota in 1745 during the fight between the English and French over the lucrative fur trade. A reprise of Felder’s American Macbeth is slated for the fall, and a new Romeo and Juliet production is in the works for 2020.

Q: Congratulations on your upcoming 25th anniversary in 2020. Looking back, could you have foreseen all the things you would accomplish?

Felder: Never. There’s a great Bob Dylan line that says, “I thought I’d be in a pine box sleepin’ by now.” I have been amazed at the way things have turned out and the great variety of productions that I have been privileged to be a part of here.

Weatherhead: We both had lists of plays we wanted to produce, and we wanted to have creative control, which most actors never get. The big surprise was what we could do with the explosion of digital platforms, which allowed us to become indie filmmakers. Also, we didn’t expect to generate the 26 original scripts we have since being here or the amazing opportunity we’ve had to tour with our productions.

Q: Which productions have generated the most pride and satisfaction?

Weatherhead: Clarence’s performance of Romulus Linney’s Holocaust play, Goering at Nuremberg, stands out. It was a huge hit in New York, and I loved bringing it here, where it ran off and on for three years. Also, Beethoven: His Women & His Music, with Chamber Music Charleston, which we toured to St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands and will produce again for the 250th anniversary of his birth; my adaptation of The Gift of the Magi with Clarence as O. Henry; Frederick Douglass: No Turning Back with lead actor Kyle Taylor, which we did again for Piccolo Spoleto this year; and Lowcountry Revolutionaries, a compilation of various unknown heroes we’ve discovered from this area.

Q: What is the philosophy behind Shakespeare for All?

Felder: For me, it’s like a populist version of the Group Theatre in New York, which dates me, I know. We’ve adapted seven plays to date, with an eighth in work. It has given me a chance to delve back into plays that I thought I knew all about, having done them many times, but realizing anew how much Shakespeare had to give us. I hope that doing them in modern language— and I am careful to keep the heart of the plays, the best poetry, intact—will encourage people to go back and read the original text.

Q: How widely do you hope these Shakespeare adaptations might be seen?

Weatherhead: We want to find ways to get other people in South Carolina to take our scripts and do them. Places like churches and schools, little theaters and other venues that don’t ordinarily tackle Shakespeare can take these adaptations and present them in a way in which more people can identify. For our own productions, what I love is Clarence’s uncanny ability to tap into the visceral truths of Shakespeare’s observations of human behavior and the great fun of having them all set in America.

Q: What has you most excited about the coming year?

Weatherhead: First, we will be touring with Frederick Douglass and plan to produce an audio version of the play. Second, we have Lowcountry Love, a multiethnic Valentine’s cabaret show about dating and love in our current culture, plus a reprise of Lowcountry Revolutionaries for the 2020 Piccolo Spoleto, and Clarence’s contemporary adaptations of Macbeth (set in 1699 off the Carolina coast) and Romeo and Juliet.

Q: What have associates, colleagues and ATSC performing members meant to you over the years? 

Weatherhead: We have created many deep friendships, learned and grown with so many people. We’ve been privileged to collaborate with Chamber Music Charleston, Nina Nesbitt of Industry Direct Models & Talent, the Charleston County Library, Daughters of the American Revolution, the S.C. Historical Society and some local companies, like Threshold Repertory Theatre. Naturally, we’ve also worked with many gifted local professional actors, designers, historical advisers, supporters, donors and a great many students. We would not be here without them.

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Bill Thompson covers the arts, books and design.