Workshop Theatre at a crossroads

tflach@thestate.comJune 15, 2014 

  • Farewell to sawdust

    Randy Strange will no longer be part of every show at Workshop Theatre.

    He is retiring after 30 years of building sets, the last seven as a paid staff member in charge of that job.

    Strange, 67, jokes that he’s been at it so long that he’s full of sawdust from all the wood he’s sawed.

    “It’s been a great run,” he said. “You do it because you have a passion for it.”

    Strange has lost count of how many sets he’s built for theaters, ballets and other arts groups over nearly 40 years, including a stint at Town Theatre. At Workshop alone, the count is 215.

    His trademark was putting a small image of Mickey Mouse in each set, a puzzle cast members and backstage personnel always sought to solve.

    Strange will remain a part-time volunteer to assist but no longer responsible for making sure everything is perfect for opening nights.

    Workshop leaders call him invaluable. “There’s no one who can do what he has done,” theater president Jack Jansen said.

Workshop Theatre faces an uncertain future as it leaves its longtime home.

If all goes well, the second-oldest community theater in Columbia will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2017 in a new facility — built with taxpayer assistance — on the edge of the Elmwood neighborhood.

But the tests ahead instead could threaten the theater’s existence.

The dilemma comes as Workshop moves from the downtown facility it’s occupied since the late 1970s to make way for the new law-school building at the University of South Carolina.

It will present plays in rented quarters for at least two years while theater leaders settle on plans for the new site and try to raise about $1.5 million to build their dream.

The challenges ahead require caution but can be overcome, theater president Jack Jansen said.

“We’re headed in the right direction,” he said. “There’s light at the end of the tunnel.”

But some longtime theater members wonder if the problems — some of them self-inflicted — are insurmountable.

“It’s a toss-up in my mind if they’ll survive,” said John Henry, a former theater leader and longtime volunteer.

The immediate test for Workshop is shrinking audiences.

Attendance fell from nearly 14,000 in the year ending in mid-2011 to slightly less than 13,000 by mid-2013, according to a report seeking $300,000 in aid from City Hall over the next two years to help build the new theater.

Then it declined to about 7,500 in the past year, theater officials estimate.

Workshop earned $108,000 — a decrease of nearly $64,000 — in individual and membership ticket sales in the year that ended May 31, according to a report to its members.

Reviewers at onstage.columbia.com expressed dismay repeatedly at the number of empty seats during recent shows.

Theater leaders blame the decline largely on confusion on whether they were open as USC prepares to demolish the facility this summer and on increased competition from other entertainment options.

But the problem also reflects selection of shows that weren’t the successes envisioned and sometimes became money-losers.

Only one of the theater’s past 18 shows during the past three years was extended due to popularity, well below the previous average of two or three annually.

In part, that reflects a choice to put on shows that had middling success on Broadway.

Whatever the reason, Jansen said, “there were shows that should have made holdover that didn’t.”

Tight finances mean Workshop will put on the fewest shows of any major theater in the area over the next year — six over four days, half the total it traditionally staged and only on one weekend instead of three. There won’t be any major musicals that have been its hallmark.

The focus on dramas and comedies with small casts and minimal sets mirrors what Workshop did in the 1980s, a strategy that left it nearly broke by 1993 before the emphasis on musicals revived its fortunes, theater records show.

Renting a site is costly and inconvenient, leaders of one Midlands theater group that does it say.

“Is is tough? Yes!” said Jim DeFelice, president of Chapin Community Theatre. “But we make it work.”

His troupe has rented the theater at the Harbison campus of Midlands Technical College since late 2008.

Workshop is renting part of the 701 Whaley complex in the Olympia neighborhood that is not designed for theater and has less parking nearby.

So its staff and volunteers will haul in and remove stages, lights, sound equipment and other paraphernalia for each show while setting up seats for up to 200 viewers, the same size of its current home.

That’s similar to what occurred when Workshop was a fledgling troupe that spent its first 10 years putting on shows in various locations.

“We’re starting over,” longtime volunteer Libby Adams said.

Unforeseen problems are likely as Workshop settles into its temporary home and will require patience from the audience, Jansen agrees.

“We can’t say it’s going to go exactly perfectly,” he said.

Workshop leaders will juggle demands to keep audiences happy amid trying to develop the new theater.

But the 1.3-acre site for their new home adjoining Elmwood Cemetery is not one all the theater’s fans favor.

Complaints include an inconvenient location next to a highway overpass in a quasi-industrial setting six blocks from a center that cares for the homeless.

“There are people dead-set against the site,” Jansen said. “We can’t convince them otherwise.”

Workshop leaders are scaling back plans for a $6 million new facility into a $1.5 million addition to a dilapidated warehouse acquired six years ago.

It’s a site — bought in phases for $600,000 — after initial interest in converting a downtown bank into a new theater fell apart. The acquisition occurred without any chance for theater members to comment.

Fund-raising for the new theater languished with turnover in advisers. Then it came to “a screeching halt” amid USC’s uncertainty on when it would proceed with the law school, Jansen said.

Workshop has known for 12 years that it would move someday from the quarters it occupied for three-fourths of its existence.

It got a sweetheart rental deal 37 years ago from former leaders of the Columbia Museum of Art who had dreams of creating an adjoining performing arts village at Bull and Gervais streets.

That dream faded as museum leaders changed and the museum moved to Main Street, selling its former site to developers who turned around and sold it to USC.

USC is chipping in $350,000 to assist Workshop in moving and renting quarters as well as help build the new theater in exchange for giving up ts lease three years early, school officials say.

Some Workshop supporters compare the fuss over their site to what another downtown theater, Trustus, endured when it moved to a warehouse in the Vista before that area boomed.

The Workshop site is next to a former railroad bed that city leaders envision as an urban trail someday.

“Eventually, it’ll be a gateway to the trail park,” Jansen said.

Plans taking shape will provide sufficient parking and will include one feature that’s as important for Workshop adherents as what appears on stage.

Like the current facility, it will have an outdoor courtyard possibly containing landscape brought with the move.

“That’s what makes the place,” Jansen said.

Reach Flach at (803) 771-8483.

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