Arts Feature

Workshop Makes Long-Awaited Move — But It’s Not What Many Had Hoped For

Theater Moving from Longtime Spot on Bull Street to 701 Whaley

By August Krickel
Wednesday, May 7, 2014
701 Whaley, where Workship Theatre will stage its shows starting this fall. file photo

As the doctor gives new life to his creation in Young Frankenstein, opening this Friday, Workshop Theatre’s leaders are hoping for a similar resurrection in the fall, following the organization’s upcoming relocation to 701 Whaley Street.

A familiar fixture at the corner of Gervais and Bull Street since the 1970s, Workshop has never owned but rather leased its space, which has long been targeted by the University of South Carolina for construction of a new Law School complex. The popular community theater is not going out of business; in fact, Executive Director Jeni McCaughan looks forward to a rebranding of sorts, returning to the group’s original mission. But some longtime supporters say the move is symptomatic not of progress, but of a long-term failure on the part of the theater to secure a new location.

Founded in 1967 as a breakaway group from Town Theatre, Workshop was created as a directors’ theater, where artists with their own creative vision helmed shows, and young actors might segue into directing. The governing board was comprised of hands-on volunteers, rather than leaders from the corporate or country club worlds. Shows were mounted in borrowed spaces at Fort Jackson and in the Columbia Museum of Art’s auditorium (back when the museum was on the corner of Bull and Senate streets).

Jack Craft, a former director of the Columbia Museum of Art, became an important supporter, offering the nomadic troupe use of an old dance school building adjacent to the museum. A long-term lease was signed in the ‘70s; at only $300 per year, Workshop continued nearly rent-free for the next three decades, expanding and building a 199-seat performance space, and concentrating on producing quality plays.

The museum relocated to Main Street in 1998, and USC ultimately bought the property, leading to more than a decade of uncertainly for the theater, as repeated delays in building plans for the Law School left Workshop unsure of how much time it had to find a new home. With an annual budget of $350,000-$400,000, Workshop — like any small arts organization — often struggled just to break even, negating the option of saving up significant funds for a future move. A search committee reviewed more than 100 potential sites, most in the downtown area, but none were viable options.

The theater did acquire two parcels totaling 1.3 acres at 635 Elmwood Avenue in 2007, land that is now used for storage, theater classes and rehearsal space. Original plans called for a $4 million-$6 million theater to be constructed there, but a series of snags developed, including economic downturn, staff turnover — McCaughan is the fourth executive director in six years — internal board conflict over the suitability of the Elmwood location, and a lack of fundraising. McCaughan and a small part-time office staff will relocate there while shows are temporarily produced in rented space at 701 Whaley.

A number of former board members asked not to be named in this article; while expressing great love for the organization, many are deeply hurt by the impending move.

“Why did it come to this?” asks Cynthia Gilliam, who acted in Workshop’s first season production in 1968, and directed its third. “I am angry and sad,” she says, adding that she feels there was not enough outreach to the community about the challenges facing the theater.

“If the old guard had been invited to come to the rescue, a good brigade would have gathered,” says Gilliam, who directed some three-dozen productions at Workshop.

Workshop’s current location on Bull Street, where it has resided for decades. file photo

Board President Jack Jansen, however, is proud that for the first time in the organization’s history, they own property free and clear. Nancy Brooks, executive director from 2000 to 2008, notes that much of the funding initially raised in a capital campaign stemmed from grants and hospitality tax revenue, some of which cannot be spent until construction actually begins. McCaughan cites the difficulty of raising money for a “phantom building” as yet to be built.

Many people associated with Workshop also feel that the on-again, off-again plans for the Law School fostered a sense of complacency rather than urgency.

Brooks laments the organization’s inability to attract “big names” with higher visibility in the business community, “who might have been able to spearhead fundraising better.” Drucilla Brookshire, a five-term former board president and frequent performer, feels that many of the people involved in board deliberations and development activities in recent years may not have fully appreciated Workshop’s mission, or legacy.

The Elmwood site was divisive, Brooks suggests. Jansen sees the property as an opportunity for Workshop to link Arsenal Hill and the Vista with Elmwood.
Critics express safety concerns because of its proximity to areas where the homeless tend to be, but Jansen explains there have been no incidents throughout the last six years of classes and rehearsals at the location.

Currently the board is weighing options, which include a theater scaled down from earlier ambitions, seating perhaps 200, and a drive for capital funds with a more feasible goal of $1 million-$2 million. 

Workshop’s New Season

Jeni McCaughan, executive director of Workshop Theatre, sees its impending move from Bull Street to 701 Whaley as a chance to re-invigorate “people who love this theater and want to see it continue.” She welcomes volunteers on stage, backstage, or on fundraising committees, and she remains confident that funds can be raised.

The 2014-15 season includes edgy drama (Lydia Diamond’s Stickfly), a popular musical (Five Guys Named Moe), name-brand comedies (Neil Simon’s Broadway Bound, Ken Ludwig’s Lend Me A Tenor, A. R. Gurney’s The Dining Room) and a children’s production (The Little Mermaid Jr., presented at the A.C. Flora auditorium the weekend of June 27-28.)

Season shows will be produced in the smaller, one-story building next to the main reception hall at 701 Whaley, where farmers markets and band performances have been held. Depending on the configuration of seats, the space can accommodate 150-200 people, and the venue’s temporary nature will allow for each production to be staged differently.

At more than 4,100 square feet, “it’s wider than our current stage,” says McCaughan. She anticipates being able to use the exterior porch and parking lot area to recreate Workshop’s courtyard ambience for after-show receptions. Productions will typically run for one extended weekend, Thursday-Sunday, including matinee and evening performances.

Meanwhile, following the close of Young Frankenstein, a final celebratory party will be held at the theater on Friday, June 6. 

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