ORIGIN OF A SCENE
You can compare theater’s growth here to that of the restaurant scene over the last few decades. “When I first came to Charleston, there weren’t a lot of terribly interesting restaurants,” Wiles notes. “Now... you can pick a different cuisine every night of the month.” Just as celebrated chefs like Michael Toscano (Le Farfalle) and Alex Lira (of the just-shuttered Bar Normandy) have left posts in New York to move south, Charleston theater has become similarly forward-thinking. But it wasn’t always that way.
DuBose Heyward’s and George Gershwin’s Charleston-inspired masterwork, Porgy and Bess, debuted on Broadway in 1935, but wasn’t performed here until 1970, due to issues over segregation and the all-black cast. Five years later, Mayor Joe Riley entered the first term of his 40-year reign, priming the city for a cultural renaissance. The internationally-acclaimed Spoleto USA festival premiered in 1977, and a year later, Charleston Stage was founded.
Spoleto, the sister festival of one in its namesake Italian village, includes over 150 opera, classical, dance, and theatrical performances, held at theaters across town, with ticket sales topping 60,000. It brings world-renowned artists to Charleston each May and June -- Tennessee Williams’ Creve Coeur debuted here in 1978, and the US premiere of Monkey: Journey to the West drew an international audience in 2008. The companion Piccolo Spoleto festival does the same for local and regional talent, presenting more than 500 performing, literary, and visual arts events during those weeks.
But despite Spoleto’s influence, careers in theater couldn't traditionally be sustained in Charleston. That’s changing. The appetite for world-class entertainment now doesn’t end when the festival wraps, and the demand is fueling an influx of talent and creative ideas.