Stephen Wayne and Jeff Querin pack their pint-size theater with musical comedies they both pen and perform in
Two artists move from New York City and open a 60-seat theater in a former frozen yogurt shop near the Market. They invite attendees to tuck into booths and bistro tables, to sip craft beer and snack on pimiento cheese while enjoying two- to four-person shows that they—Jeff Querin and Stephen Wayne—write, star in, and direct themselves.
Think that sounds like a sweet endeavor with slim chances for success? Then you must not have heard of 34 West. Now on the cusp of its third anniversary in Charleston (the company was born in Ohio in 2000), it’s selling out shows with impressive regularity and on June 13 launches a new production, the 1960s-set I Got You Babe. We checked in with Wayne and Querin to find out how it all works.
Where to be or not to be: Wayne says, “This was the last location we looked at. We wanted something that’s not a typical theater, because we are not a typical group...everything is minimal in our shows. We’ll create a car with just a steering wheel, for example.”
The 34 West vibe: “Our shows make you smile,” notes Wayne. “They’re like watching Will & Grace, Frasier, or Friends. Because the setting is intimate, it’s almost like you’re in a situational comedy. We create the feel of a sitting-room theater—they’re big in London right now.”
Bartending before backstage: Querin explains, “It started the very first night. Our hope was to have someone run the bar and we’d be backstage, but we realized right away that we have to be out there! It’s like we are hosting this room. People sometimes don’t know we’re about to be in the show, so I might hear little bits of information about audience members’ lives. And I ask myself, ‘How can this show help them?’”
Plot development: “We’ve been on this musicals kick. We take about 15 popular songs and weave a story around them, usually a rom-com,” Wayne explains. “If we come up with a great character, we’ll develop a new story about them—that’s what we did with Sarah Callahan Black’s character in I Got You Babe. She’s a spunky young girl from Minnesota, searching for a job (and a little more) in a 1960s department store.”
On the show: Querin says, “The music includes songs by Indigo Girls and Christina Aguilera. (You should see Stephen’s Spotify, it’s all over the place.) Sarah and her husband, John, who is in the show, too, have this Marilyn Monroe, James Dean dynamic.”
The best theater they’ve ever had: “We rerouted an entire trip because we walked up to a box office and got lucky tickets to see Ralph Fiennes in Faith Healer at the Gate Theatre [in Ireland]. It had been sold out for who knows how long!” Querin says.
Wayne continues, “I had never been to Ireland, and we had one day to see all of it. But then we got these tickets, so it was like, ‘Go to Ireland, or see Ralph Fiennes? Oh, we are going to the theater!’”
And the worst: Wayne recalls, “We were in Vienna with this odd group of people for a show called A Night in Vienna, where two very talented opera singers would sing around the dinner tables while you ate pork chop. It was awful.”
Play dates: From June 13 to September 3, I Got You Babe shows every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday night—plus some Sunday afternoons—at 34 West, 200 Meeting St. Buy tickets ($30) at www.34west.org.