THE THEATER SCENE in Savannah is — as many are across the nation — one of constant ups and downs.
If you talk to veterans of local theater, you get the sense that there was something of a golden age for Savannah theater that dwindled a bit, and is now on the upswing once more.
Part of what has hindered the growth of the scene is a lack of investment on the part of the city, which in turn appears to signal that the city doesn’t value the greater arts community enough, or truly grasp its impact on our culture.
For me, it was the arts community as a whole that attracted me to Savannah. Growing up, I longed to live in a place where culture, art, and a general enthusiasm for creativity in all forms existed.
Savannah had what I was looking for.
That said,it was personally important for me to understand the theater community that we have here, and why we are seeing so little of it in the “central” area of downtown when we’re constantly being offered quality productions.
What we see instead is largely a venue-hopping approach, where companies are having to scout different venues for each performance. Often these venues are alternative spaces, and not optimized for theater in a technical and logistical sense.
And if they are, they’re on the outside of downtown or on college campuses where it’s harder to attract a wide audience.
There are, of course, proper theaters in downtown Savannah. Ultimately, those venues are too large for many of the theater companies, and out of reach financially.
This is a shame, considering the fact that much of the time theaters like the Trustees or the Lucas are sitting there, stages waiting to be occupied.
It turns out that there’s no single answer to this—something I learned when I gathered along with just some of our city’s veteran theater directors on Jan. 6, for what was initially meant to be a discussion of the lack of proper theater venues downtown.
What resulted, though, was a much more nuanced and rich conversation about the history of theater in Savannah, why downtown seems so disconnected today, and where it goes from here.
For our “roundtable” discussion, I was joined by Savannah theater legend Christopher Soucy, who has been in the community for nearly three decades in many different facets and currently runs both Odd Lot Improv and Savannah Shakes.
Soucy’s sister, JinHi Soucy Rand—equally legendary and absolutely crucial to the history of local theater—was unable to make it in person but generously offered her time via phone to add to the discussion.
Chris Soucy started by recalling his earliest days in the theater scene.
“When I arrived, there was City Lights Theatre, which had its own accessible and wonderful theater. And then they moved to Broughton,” he says, a reference to the space now occupied by the Savannah Tap House.
“Jim Holt was the mastermind behind that, and provided all of the support structure that was there,” Soucy says.
“What I have to say is, over the years you learn that real estate became more of a business in Savannah. [In the early days], I think everybody was more like, ‘Hey, do you need a space? I’ve got a space!’ And you found yourself a home,” Soucy says.
“Where the Prohibition Museum is now is where the Cultural Affairs office was, and we used to do shows in the upper part. There were four theaters to use in the downtown area that you could count on, and it dried up because I think the business was too good.”
What also set the theater scene apart in those days, as Rand explains, was the existence of sponsors and the fact that fundraising was more in reach.
“The sponsors and fundraising was a big part of the companies that were here. There were two big theater companies in Savannah when I got here, and I worked for one—City Lights Theatre,” Rand recalls.
“The other was what was called the Savannah Theater Company at the time. They were in the location of the Historic Savannah Theatre Company, and were the longest running in Savannah,” Rand—who most recently ran Muse Arts Warehouse with her husband Mark Rand until 2017—says.
“What both companies had as a part of their mission was funding the space that they inhabited. I hate to say that it’s impossible, but it’s difficult to do that in Savannah now solely based on ticket prices.”
David Poole, director and founder of Collective Face Ensemble, says that he launched Collective Face around 2009 when there was a bit of a dormant period—around the same time that Jim Holt ended City Lights.
“It seems that when I came there was a lull of theater companies, and now there’s a resurgence,” he says.
Soucy notes that when Poole first arrived, not only did Holt cease his run with City Lights but there was also a shift at Savannah Theatre and a short residence of Little Theatre at the location of the Savannah Actor’s Theatre, which later became Cardinal Rep.
“That was the birth of Bay Street Theatre,” Travis Coles, a veteran of Bay Street Theater, Club One, and other local companies, adds.
“When the future of that space became uncertain—and when Savannah Actors Theatre became Cardinal Rep and then Cardinal Rep started diminishing—I wanted a space to do Rocky Horror. As others were going out, there was this resurgence with Collective Face and others.”
At that time, there was still a group of patrons of the arts in town—two notable people being the late Sidney Raskin and his wife, Anita.
“They were very instrumental in City Lights’ success, but also in cultivating a group of contributors and sponsors. They had an incredible list of contributors at multiple levels. It was that moving and shaking that I’m not familiar with right now,” Soucy says.
Why is it that there appears to be a lack of patrons in today’s theater landscape? Poole points to a broader issue facing the theater world at large.
“You’re finding across the country that people aren’t doing season subscriptions anymore,” he says. “It isn’t how people behave. There’s this generational shift of how to attract audience members who are between the ages of 30 and the mid-50s. That’s what everybody’s going for—trying to get those people into the theater.”
There are exceptions. For example, the Savannah Children’s Theatre has put on successful season after successful season from its longtime home base on East Victory Drive.
But so often these days, with season subscriptions becoming less reliable, the sustainability of local theater comes down to relying on business sponsorships.
“In 2009 when all of these people were coming up, Savannah was growing exponentially. We’re seeing these hotels popping up everywhere, and it’s so much harder to get a space that we kind of rely on business sponsors,” Chris Stanley, founder of Bay Street Theatre, says.
Many of the theater companies in town do, in fact, have business sponsorships where once there would be season subscribers and patrons. Some of the businesses that support these companies include Savannah Coffee Roasters, Club One, and Savannah State University.
“We need an existing business,” Stanley says.
“Or the City to step back up,” Coles quickly adds, moving our discussion towards perhaps the most complex part of this—the City’s part in all of this.
“This is my personal take on the Cultural Arts Center: it was a sweetheart job given to an architect who was a friend to someone in leadership. That theater space is a nice gallery, but it’s not good for theater,” Coles says.
“It’s fundamentally useless,” Soucy adds.
“It’s possible to do theater anywhere, but it’s also nice to have a fly system, lights, and sound. The City of Savannah should have a theater like Savannah State does, that’s accessible to everybody,” Coles says.
Soucy says he actually got the initial plans for the Cultural Arts Center in 1994, and he says it was modeled after an arts center in Hilton Head.
“It was an amazing tiered theater system, and was amazingly beautiful. But I think the money might’ve gone to that racetrack over on Hutchinson Island,” he laughs.
This all begs the question—what has it been like approaching the City of Savannah for financial backing, and utilizing the Cultural Arts Center? What is the biggest hurdle?
“Of course, it’s partly about money,” Jayme Tinti, founder and director for Savannah Stage Company.
“The amount that’s on the paper is not something that’s accessible to Savannah Stage Company. At first I was like, ‘Oh, we’re doing so bad.’ But then you realize, ‘Wait a second. Nobody can afford this,’” Tinti says of the Arts Center.
“I kind of find this with other venues as well, but there’s also this attitude of, ‘Yeah, you can do your play here—this one night or weekend, maybe.’ The idea of multiple weekends blows people’s minds. But if I’m going to do one night, I might as well do five because the bulk of it is already paid for,” she says.
Tinti adds that Cultural Affairs approached her company about doing Beauty and the Beast at the Arts Center, but it was financially infeasible—not to mention the fact that Sundays were off the table.
Aside from the financial roadblocks associated with the venue, it also has its share of technical and logistical issues that have proven to be frustrating for the theater community. Some of those issues include proper sound and lighting, as well as adequate parking and load-in capabilities for floating and touring companies.
“I think that the Arts Center should be accessible to the community,” Rand says.
“It would make a huge difference if it was financially accessible to the local theater organizations and performing arts organizations. And aside from that, from what I understand it’s difficult to use in other ways. I think part of that was that they recognize that the performing arts are part of Savannah’s culture, but they really didn’t take the advice of the experienced theater people [when constructing the space].”
“They have the support, and staffing, and funding. There’s a community need. That’s what not-for-profits are all about—if there’s a community need, that void needs to be filled,” Poole notes.
“All of this was at the top of the agenda, but you needed people whose job description it was. I think what happened was that over time, they kept piling more jobs on to a single person,” Soucy adds.
Brianne Halverson, co-founder of Front Porch Improv, says that a big roadblock with the Center and other inaccessible venues is consistency.
“That’s really the hardest point, if you’re a floating company. If so much of your time and effort is about the move, and about sourcing a rehearsal room, that’s really exhausting,” she says.
“We just did a show at the Arts Center, and we had over 250 people. It was very successful, and their staff was wonderful. The tickets were $5. I would love for that to happen more often. Even if they could offset it with three weekend runs with someone.”
“Well, that was the hardship of being in a government-run arts agency,” Soucy adds.
“You needed to hit two points: the money and the numbers [demographics]. If you went after the numbers, you weren’t getting the money. If you went after the money, you weren’t getting the numbers. There was no way to get the demographic that was necessary to the bureaucrats. So I think what happened was that people stopped trying,” he says.
Poole says all of this makes it “frustrating” when trying to work with Cultural Affairs.
Despite these hurdles, the theater community in Savannah has taken all the challenges and made the best of them—creating art that makes an impression, even if it means hopping around venues, dealing with load-in issues, and juggling technical nightmares from time to time.
They’ve found that there are venues downtown who are welcoming to the theater companies, even if they might lack certain elements that would be most ideal for a theater experience.
In many cases, the venues—some of which primarily operate as nightclubs, wedding venues, galleries, etc.—are exposed to a different type of audience who may not have been otherwise aware of them.
Trey Norris, Assistant General Manager at Club One and a prominent local performer, says he feels that Bay Street Theater in particular has elevated the club in terms of what it offers from a technical standpoint.
“I feel like it gave that stage production value. We’ve added lights, we’ve added fog,” Norris says.
“And it’s exposed people who’ve never been to Club One, to Club One,” Coles adds. “Some theater goers have gotten to see that it wasn’t what they thought it was. So I think that has been a positive impact that you can’t really measure. It’s exposed people who have never been in a gay bar before to the fact that a gay bar is very much like any other bar.”
On the other side of that coin, certain spaces like the theater at Savannah State—where Collective Face regularly performs—are not necessarily ideally located, posing problems for people who maybe aren’t locals and are trying to find exactly where to go to see a performance.
“During Curious Incident, I got a couple of phone calls where people said, ‘Hey, I’m downtown. Where’s the theater?’” Norris says.
The idea of having to reset in a different venue for potentially every production presents significant challenges, which Halverson says can be something as simple as finding a parking spot outside the space to load in.
“We just did something on Broughton, and we were unloading stuff with our blinker on. That drained our battery, so we were stuck in the middle of Broughton Street with all of our props and bullshit. People love that on a Saturday night!” she laughs.
“But not just that—space impacts things 100 percent. It affects how the audience is hearing you, how much you can do, seating. That’s kind of fun, but ultimately it just takes a lot of energy.”
“That was our curse,” Tinti says. “But when I sit down and think about it, that has actually given us our aesthetic and our brand. We use very few props and set pieces because it all has to fit in a car. We have created our brand out of the necessity of ‘everything has to fit in the car.’”
And so, questions remain: in a city that is bursting with some of the most talented, ambitious, and passionate theater performers you’ll ever come across, where do you go to find them?
What does the future look like for accessible theater in Savannah, where there is a City-funded space, but one that’s largely both financially and logistically barricaded from those who can and should be using it for the furtherance of art at a sensible price point?
Coles proposes a shared space among all of the theater companies, and theorizes a concerted effort where they approach the City about committing money to its construction and operational expenses, combined with public funding from deep pockets such as Gulfstream and others with the means.
From there, the community at large would develop the ideal space, schedule out shows and rehearsals, and set a rental fee that is sensible and meets the needs of all involved.
How is the case made to the city and potential sponsors, though?
“I think we give everyone in City Council free tickets to all of our shows,” Coles says. “This new City Council is going to be the most open to contributing. Everyone on this Council is progressive.”
“The idea of ‘The Gulfstream Theatre’ is not a bad idea,” Soucy says. “Going to people whose whole concept of community is, ‘What can I put my name on?’”
“The dream would be to cultivate a theater audience that appreciates all different kinds of theater, and it would be lovely if there was a central location where they could find that. And I would love for that to be in the city,” Rand says.
There’s much more to be said on what the City of Savannah, its residents, businesses, and schools can do to help the theater and the broader arts community prosper.
It’s something that goes beyond what the city itself should be doing. As residents, we should cherish what we have in these people—who, I might add, are just some of the people involved in this community.
Savannah Children’s Theatre, Savannah Repertory Theatre, the several burlesque, drag, and performance art troupes we have, the Historic Savannah Theatre—these are groups that are helping to nurture the growth of theater and arts in our city.
The future is apparent with new companies like The Diversified Collective, and all of the individuals I had the immense honor and pleasure of speaking to—Chris Stanley, Chris Soucy, Jayme Tinti, David Poole, Trey Norris, Travis Coles, Brianne Halverson, and JinHi Rand—play a role in what will ultimately move us forward as a creative city, whether they’re hopping venues or not.