Of all the arts, theater is the most democratic. Advanced education is not a prerequisite, nor even literacy. And, as a rule, emotion carries more weight that intellect. Not to say that having a certain sophistication won’t enable a patron to appreciate literary allusions, historical references, in-jokes and subtle jabs of wit.
The Footlight Players, Charleston’s oldest theater company, are not out to dazzle with mental gymnastics or live on the edge, but there will always be challenging fare, like Death of a Salesman, among the farces, mysteries, romances and melodramas. Their new executive director, Brian Porter, will see to that.
Porter comes to the Players from Charleston Stage, where he served Julian Wiles and Co. as director of administration until assuming his new post with Footlight in February. He began his career in theater as an actor.
On a fine autumn afternoon, he is all but alone in the recently renamed Queen Street Playhouse, painting chairs for the troupe’s production of The 39 Steps. Porter, who styles it as “sort of a parody,” is wearing more hats than a hat rack.
“I learned a great deal from Julian,” says the Fort Wayne, Indiana, native. “I understand the business of theater, and the business of fund-raising. Even though we are a nonprofit, we still need to make money to maintain operations, keep growing and provide services to the community. It helps that we own the Playhouse. But I also took the job because I felt that I had something creative to say.”
Porter wants to use his business skills and creative energies to take the Footlight Players in a new direction. He and his board want the Queen Street Playhouse to become a community arts center where all sorts of art can happen. Apart from an annual average of six plays, the space has been vacant most of the year.
“We’re really working hard in that direction,” says Porter, who also co-founded What If? Productions. “We have a standup comedy series now. We also have a seven-part music series this fall called the Queen Street Harmony Series, in partnership with Awendaw Green, as well as a poetry series that opens with [Charleston poet laureate] Marcus Amaker. We also do rentals to various groups. In October, the Playhouse hosted Charleston Arts Festival productions of Poe, A Play in the Dark and Myth of an Atom.”
In addition, Judy and Thomas Heath, formerly of Threshold Repertory Theatre, have joined the Players as playwrights in residence. The Heaths recently premiered their new stage musical, A Blondie Summer, at the Queen Street Playhouse, one they are pitching to Broadway producers. When I moved to Charleston in 1980, the Footlight Players were the first (and last) word in local theater. The company was incorporated in 1932 and moved into an old cotton warehouse two years later, though until 1938 most of its productions were performed at other venues, like the Dock Street Theatre. By 1941, and for the next 45 years, the Players were splitting time between the Dock Street and their warehouse theater, formerly named the Footlight Players Theatre in 1986.
The Queen Street location has been home ever since. Only today the Players are part of a chorus. The city has been enriched by so many theater companies—15 at last count—that competition for audiences has become keen.
“I think it comes down to identifying who our core audience is, and on what we as Footlight do best, and do that,” Porter says. “We are never going to do things on the scale of Charleston Stage, which has the space, the technology and a huge budget. So we focus on what our audience will enjoy and what we can do better than anyone else in town.”
Bill Thompson covers the arts, film and books.