The James F. Dean Theatre and the Flowertown Players continue an artistic legacy in Summerville that started eighty years ago.
The James F. Dean Community Theatre sits nestled on Hutchinson Square at the intersection of Main Street and West Richardson Avenue, a beacon of local theatre that has served the Summerville community for more than sixty years. Known by locals as “The Show”, long time residents have seen this building flourish, fall into disrepair, and reemerge arguably better than ever.
The Summerville Theater, built in 1935, embodied the artistic spirit of its owners and housed local theatre productions for many years. The emergence of the film industry and other forms of entertainment, the theatre was forced to adapt to the times and was converted into a movie theatre in the 1950s. The movie theater had a successful run into the 1960s, but closed its door while remaining privately owned until the 1980s.
A group of local, upstart theatre enthusiasts decided to join together and created the Flowertown Players during the summer of 1976. They negotiated use the building from the building’s owner and, armed with the necessary tools and new recruits, restored the building as a viable theater in three short months. The group produced four to five shows a season for the next seven years, with all money made going directly back into building maintenance and purchasing needed equipment.
Unfortunately, after seven years of residency for the Flowertown Players, the building’s condition became dire enough that the group was forced to vacate its home and the Town of Summerville took ownership of the space in 1983.
Although removed from the Summerville Theatre, the Flowertown Players continued to follow their passion for theater and eventually negotiated purchase of the building with hopes of restoring it to its former glory.
In 1986, like the proverbial phoenix, the Summerville Theatre reemerged from disrepair as the James F. Dean Community Theatre, named for one of the Flowertown Players’ founding members. In 2014, the building received a facelift with the unveiling of a new marquee, which pays tribute to the building’s original design from the 30s and stands out among the Main St. facades.
Now celebrating their 40th season, the Flowertown Players continue to offer quality community theater in the same building that has stood for 80 years.
At the helm of the Flowertown Players is Charleston native JC Conway, who took over as artistic director in 2013. With a long history in Charleston theatre, Conway has seen the local scene blossom from virtually nothing into an ever expanding and growing group of creative minds nurturing a love for the arts.
After working locally with Footlight Players Theatre, Midtown Productions, Threshold Reparatory Theatre, and Theatre /verv/, Conway had a strong vision for what not only was, but what could be for local theatre. “I had moved back in Charleston in 2000, had worked for professional theatre companies, and saw how Charleston Underground filled a void in current local theatre (in 2000). In the past 15 years, theatre in Charleston has really blossomed. As of 2009-2010, I didn’t know about a niche for something different in the local scene.” This passion for all artistic endeavors, both traditional and alternative, drove Conway’s artistic journey from acting in Piccolo Spoleto as a child to college to study theatre to Kentucky to artistic director of the Flowertown Players.
This return home may never have occurred had it not been for social media and its long reaching arms.
While working with a playhouse in Dansville, Kentucky when a local friend Facebook messaged him that a director job with Flowertown was open and encouraged him to apply. He applied, but heard nothing back.
After three months the job still was not filled and was reposted as an artistic director position, which was much more to Conway’s liking. He reapplied, interviewed, and found himself coming back to the Charleston area.
As one of two full time Flowertown Players employees, Conway focuses on mainly on “back of the house” production like play selections, auditions, set design, etc. Flowertown’s other full time employee, Heather Pallay handles administrative duties like ticket sales, memberships, etc. As a necessity, those boundaries may only exist in theory, as both are ready and willing to step in wherever needed.
Conway’s driving force as artistic director is “cultivating the artistic integrity of the theatre” with each and every show and each and every season. Because the Flowertown Players have been a consistent presence in Summerville, certain expectations exist and are taken into account with every team decision.
One major challenge lies in balancing the traditional expectations of theatre with the desire to grow and engage new audience members. “Flowertown serves as a cornerstone for culture and art. For me it is important that we consider ourselves a community theatre—where anyone can come in and participate. Some people hate the word, but amateur and amateur theatre means you do something for the love of it. I embrace the term and think it fits with our purpose– to serve the whole community and not just part of it.”
A major portion of this mission involves the group’s focus on education and ways to involve community members. The Flowertown Players offer classes, workshops, and internships designed for people of all ages and from all backgrounds. Conway hopes to see the space expand in more of a community arts center, and the group has already leased the building behind the theatre in an effort to expand operations.
“The Annex” as it is affectionately called, currently houses theatre classes, workshops, and art classes all designed to embrace opportunities for the community to be involved in the arts and to learn together. The Flowertown Players three tiered education program mainly targets those from ages six to college age, but workshops are offered to involve all ages.
In order to thrive, art, like business has to expand to stay alive. Expansion in art means broadening the audience and reaching the maximum number of people possible. The creation of Flowertown’s newest addition, Flowertown Underground, revolved around a straightforward, yet complex question for Conway: “How do you reach people who want to sit around and watch Game of Thrones?” The outlet supplied by Underground gives Conway and company the chance to present the edgier, more alternative theater that pushes traditional expectations and boundaries and is close to Conway’s heart.
By attacking the gap between the traditional and the new, Conway has opened the doors of the Dean Theatre to a whole demographic that may have been previously disengaged from what the Flowertown Players were doing. Now, whether it is through sketch comedy, improvisational acting, or slightly edgier plays like Matt and Ben or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, the theatre and their mission can spread to a younger audience while maintain the Main Stage presence that Summerville residents know and love.
The Flowertown Players and the Dean Theatre have been, and will continue to be, at the center of Summerville theatre. At the heart of Conway’s vision for the future revolves around this sense of community—“My goal is to continue to see Flowertown as a part of the community, to maintain a great relationship with the municipality and the town itself and to see the theatre to remain a jewel in Summerville’s eye.”
By Charles Sweeney