Over a four-decade learning curve, Wiles and Charleston Stage have evolved together
The year is 1976. It’s summer in Charleston—stifling and central air conditioning not yet a thing on the peninsula. Stage right, in a corner by the third-floor windows looking out on Church Street from the Dock Street Theatre, picture a hammock. Probably a mid-70s hippy-ish macramé type thing, the kind a 25-year-old fresh out of grad school, scrounging to make ends meet, would hang in his one-room flat in a musty old downtown building.
“Hard to believe, right? This was my first apartment when I moved back to Charleston after grad school at Chapel Hill,” says Julian Wiles, our one-time hammock hanger, who as founding director of Charleston Stage, the regional theater company in residence at the Dock Street, still more or less “lives” in this building. It’s hard to imagine this polished space (now restored and owned/managed by the City of Charleston)—its gleaming conference table, leather chairs, and stern portraits on the walls—with a mattress on the floor, boho tapestries tacked over the windows, and a makeshift kitchen in one corner. But “Charleston was a different place back then,” notes a now silver-tinged Wiles, his eyes still boyishly sparkly, slightly mischievous. “There were only a handful of restaurants, Spoleto was brand new—only a year old—and what counted as tourism season was house and garden tours in March and April, but that was it.”
Today, throngs of tourists, as well as devoted locals, are among the steady ticket buyers who have helped make Wiles’ theater company one of the city’s marquee arts organizations. It would take a set designer of serious vision and a scriptwriter of unique talent to craft a drama where the guy wistfully daydreaming in a hot, third-floor apartment in Scene 1 winds up, 45 years later, conducting board meetings in that very same room, his dream now a thriving reality. Charleston Stage’s well-heeled board reviews multimillion-dollar budgets and HR policies for a full-time staff of 37. It’s a good thing Wiles, who specialized in set design while earning his MFA in dramatic art from UNC Chapel Hill, is indeed a man of serious talent and scriptwriter of unique vision, among other backstage tricks.
Backdrop: a mural of a fading rural landscape picturing a cotton farm in Fort Motte, South Carolina, population 150. In this tiny Upstate crossroads named for the famous Revolutionary battle fought there, Wiles grew up as an only child. While his father farmed and his mother managed the books, their inquisitive youngster explored. “I was curious about a lot of things,” says the avid student who loved science, history, and reading. Wiles dabbled in photography, often with a homemade pinhole camera, and made animated films with an 8mm camera. “I had a dark room at age 10. The chemical reactions and the whole process fascinated me,” he says.
That proclivity for distilling ideas into scenes and watching something emerge from a blank canvas (or photo paper) found another outlet during the summers that Wiles, then a student at the College of Charleston, spent as a counselor at Camp St. Christopher on Seabrook Island. And what says summer camp more than nightly skits? “I loved the fun of improv and discovered I really enjoyed working with kids,” says Wiles, who went to New York at the end of one of those summers with a camp colleague.
There, they saw Broadway productions of Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell, his first exposure to professional theater, besides a trip to see Hello, Dolly! at age 10. “The Godspell production intrigued me most because it didn’t have all the expensive bells and whistles; it was pared down and very simple—a good lesson early on that you don’t need a million-dollar budget to create something wonderful,” says Wiles. Back at the college, the history major indulged his budding interest in theater by taking classes under Emmett Robinson, the head of the Footlight Players and legendary father of Charleston’s theater community. And to continue working with kids, Wiles volunteered with the youth group at St. Philip’s Church. There, to great acclaim, he directed a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
“It’s a little bit true to say I started a theater company so I could live in Charleston.” —Julian Wiles
Bringing the types of shows he loved on Broadway to South of Broad, Wiles was finding his niche. “I had always been curious about storytelling and art, about making things and working with kids, and theater allowed me to explore all of that,” says Wiles, who went straight to graduate school after college. He returned to Charleston in 1976 to work as Robinson’s assistant (and hammock-hang in the upper reaches of the Dock Street). A year later, Robinson retired, and Wiles began to hatch his idea to start a youth-specific theater enterprise, something the city lacked at the time.
“I believe kids are the most imaginative people on the planet, and it’s important to respect and validate that,” he says. Not only was there no production company that took young audiences and young actors seriously, the types of performances that were offered in the late ’70s were limited mostly to fairy tales. Wiles knew there could be more. After a chance meeting with Ellen Dressler Moryl, the first director of the city’s newly created Office of Cultural Affairs, Wiles was hired by Mayor Joe Riley and Moryl to assist with Piccolo Spoleto and other programs, as well as help create the Young Charleston Theatre Company.
Broad Casting: Large-scale productions with custom-tailored costumes, professionally designed scenes, and full hair and makeup are what audiences have come to expect from the city’s most established theater company. This photograph was featured in the 2010-11 ticket brochure to represent all of the productions that season.
Stage left: An air of enthusiastic chaos; a motley volunteer crew hustles about; trial and error abound. “It’s a little bit true to say I started a theater company so I could live in Charleston,” Wiles admits. “It’s also true that if I had any idea then how much money it took to run one and that it’s not unlike running a real business, I probably would never have done this,” he adds. But if ignorance is bliss, then bliss makes good show biz.
Two years after launching the youth company, Wiles left his job with the city to become full-time manager of his nascent company (renamed Charleston Stage in 1998) in residence at the Dock Street. Their first season opened with a 1978 staging of A Christmas Carol, complete with fresh greenery and Christmas trees hauled down from Wiles’s childhood farm, costumes he and his then-girlfriend-now-wife Jenny Hane and volunteers helped sew, sets they painted, and programs they printed themselves. Scrappy? Indeed. Successful? That, too.
With one classic under his belt, Wiles presented two more shows that inaugural season, both originals. He was wasting no time boldly exercising his own creative muscle, not to mention skateboarding muscles. The first Wiles original, CaroliniAntics, paid homage to South Carolina heritage and history—something the dramaturge has become known for in his 30 some original plays and adaptations—and featured a young Evelyn McGee, now better known as Evie Colbert (i.e., the only guest who routinely upstages the host of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert). The second production, Seize the Street!, was a skateboard musical staged on top of a George Street parking garage. “That put us on the map,” Wiles notes. “Nobody in Charleston had seen a half-pipe before”—let alone a musical in a parking deck.
Center stage: lights are high, and curtains rise to action—lots of it. Though Wiles isn’t a Shepard Fairey-esque skater boy himself, that same sense of artistic daring, of finding your equilibrium and rhythm then ultimately catching air, that same street-smart gumption that made Seize the Street! “our first bona fide hit,” says Wiles, has propelled Charleston Stage through 44 more seasons. What began basically as a one-man show has expanded to a professional company with a paid 23-member acting ensemble and a mission true to Wiles’s lifelong passion for teaching and inspiring young people.
In addition to staging more than 320 productions involving more than 2,000 different performers over the years, Charleston Stage has emphasized education through its TheatreSchool classes for kids, Theatre-Wings apprentice program for high school students, and the opportunity for some half-million school children to attend free performances. And this month, the company begins CityStage, an annual free community tour series, which will bring a rousing musical version of Treasure Island to schools and communities throughout the Lowcountry.
“The education part is not some side job, not an afterthought, like ‘Oh, they have some classes,’” notes Marybeth Clark, who joined the staff in 1997 as director of education, and two years later added assistant artistic director to her title. Clark will serve as the new artistic director after Wiles steps down. “We have over 300 kids for our summer program. Our resident actors are learning from professionals. From day one, Julian has been passionate about education, and he’s made an impact. We have former students who tell us their lives have changed as a result of studying and performing here.”
That education has been ongoing for Wiles himself. “The best way to learn about theater is to hang out at the theater,” says the playwright, director, nonprofit exec, and father of two, who are graduates of the TheatreWings program. His daughter, an educator, heads a high school drama program in California. “You learn theater by doing it, because the audience is really the teacher,” adds Wiles. During a recent performance of JFK and Inga Binga—Wiles’s play about the real-life Charleston fling between a young Navy ensign (Kennedy) and his Danish first love (a potential Nazi spy)—he did what he always does: watched the audience’s reactions. “I’m constantly taking notes on whether the laugh lines are landing, whether or not people are getting bored, and then going back and making tweaks after each performance. There’s a reason a playwright is called a play‘wright,’” Wiles adds. “Because a play is never just written, it’s wrought.”
Over his four-decade learning curve, Wiles and Charleston Stage have evolved together, surviving three seasons without a stage home while the Dock Street underwent a $19-million renovation from 2007 to 2010, expanding how technological advances can improve set and lighting design, how live theater can pivot during a pandemic, and how a nonprofit can remain sustainable during recessions and economic downturns. Wiles’s creativity and love of improv, as well as his farm-raised predilection for rolling up his sleeves, have come in handy navigating these numerous ups and downs. “Live theater is the last truly handmade thing,” he says. “It’s a living thing, with real living people on stage before you, which makes every performance different. You can’t automate acting. You can’t automate set design.”
“There’s a reason a playwright is called a play‘wright,’ because a play is never just written, it’s wrought.” —Julian Wiles
And sadly, neither can you automate financial support for a nonprofit arts organization, but clearly Wiles and his team have earned a solid ROI from the company’s first “major gift” in 1978—a $250 donation from Melvin Solomon. Today, Charleston Stage’s gala and auction raises some $100,000 annually and has netted more than $1.5 million since the first fundraising celebration in 1995.
Curtain falls: exit left, offstage. When season 45 closes, Wiles will exit left for the final time as head of Charleston Stage. His days of daydreaming from a hammock on the Dock Street’s top floor are long over, but his indelible mark, name, and creative genius will long remain in residence at the nation’s oldest theater and throughout the community, and indeed throughout the country, as company veterans have gone on to major stages.
Those include SummerStage actor Matt Shingledecker, who appeared on Broadway in Rent, Wicked, and West Side Story, and Emmy-winning actor Carrie Preston of The Good Wife, who returned to perform in Charleston Stage’s 2010 Love Letters, having debuted as Anne Frank at the Dock Street 17 years earlier. Additionally, the high bar that Charleston Stage has set for regional theater has helped create a healthy, vibrant ecosystem that includes other professional companies, such as PURE Theatre, the Footlight Players, and Village Repertory Company.
The Ghost of Theater Future: Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol was Charleston Stage’s first production in 1978, complete with greenery hauled from Wiles’ parents’ farm and furniture schlepped from his apartment. Fresh takes on family-friendly classics have been a mainstay of the company’s repertoire.
“Charleston Stage today is the antithesis of what it was like when I started,” Wiles reminisces. With a deep bench of talent and community support, the company takes on bold productions, like last year’s Kinky Boots, at a scale that Wiles never dreamed of when he was hauling holiday greenery from Calhoun County and hemming makeshift costumes. In the recent JFK and Inga Binga, for example, the stage was transformed into a glamorous teal-blue, mid-century modern Francis Marion Hotel suite, and Inga was outfitted in custom-designed tailored dresses reflecting late 1950s fashion. “I learned early on that the production side is key to reinforcing the story and providing a showcase for actors’ talents,” says Wiles, who today employs 20 professionals on his production team.
On May 1st, Wiles’s title will officially change to director emeritus, and he’s looking forward to handing over full creative leeway to Clark and the company’s new managing director, Frank Mack. He’ll likely still do some writing and is looking forward to travel and more time to see theater, but how retirement will play out is yet to be determined. What is sure, however, is that Wiles leaves a company on strong artistic, administrative, and financial footing.
“I feel incredibly lucky to have spent my time here working with and learning from Julian,” says Clark, a trained actor who has starred in Charleston Stage productions as well as directed and produced them. “He’s resilient but also even-keeled. But mostly I love that he’s brave. He’s willing to throw away the mold and embrace change. We spent COVID looking hard at what we can do better, and when we came back, while most local companies were scaling back, we came back big, doubled our resident acting company and put on a full season, and it paid off,” says Clark. “Moving forward, I just hope I can be as brave as he is.”
Learn more about Charleston Stage’s mission of art education:
WATCH: Wiles’s campy original JFK and Inga Binga, about the young Kennedy’s real-life fling with an alleged Nazi spy right here in Charleston