Dock Street’s $15.5 million update to be unveiled for Spoleto 2010

By Ashley Fletcher Frampton 
Published Jan. 18, 2010

After closing for three years for a $15.5 million renovation, Charleston's historic Dock Street Theatre will in 2010 be a featured venue once again for Spoleto Festival USA. 

An opera with ties to the theater's early days, a comedic play performed by a Dublin-based company and the festival's chamber music series will take the stage at the improved Dock Street Theatre, Spoleto officials announced in early January. 

The three productions are among 45 planned for the May 28-June 13 arts festival, for which ticket sales began this month. With sales last year nearing 68,000 tickets, the event drew visitors to Charleston from all 50 states and 22 countries. 

The Dock Street is one of several key sites for Spoleto shows, and each venue has a distinct architecture and atmosphere. The Dock Street is a familiar landmark to festival patrons and what festival director Nigel Redden says is the kind of venue visitors expect in Charleston. 

"The Dock Street, perhaps more than any theater in Charleston - it represents Charleston," he said. "It seems to be a theater that is at home in Charleston. When you look at the architecture here, you expect to find a theater like the Dock Street, which is enormously important to us, because when a visitor comes to Charleston they are expecting a certain grace, a certain beauty, a certain kind of ambience. The Dock Street Theatre fulfills that." 

In addition to its role in the Spoleto Festival, the theater also is home to the Charleston Stage Co.

Balancing new and old 
Renovations to the Dock Street Theatre included the addition of handicap accessibility, restoration of historic woodwork and replacement of its famously uncomfortable seats. 

The Church Street theater first opened in 1736 and is said to have been the first building in the country designed specifically to be a theater. According to the city of Charleston, Church Street was called Dock Street when the theater was built, and the name never changed. 

By the 1930s, the building had changed uses and fallen into disrepair. In 1936, with federal money from the Works Progress Administration, the Dock Street Theatre was built to its present form.  

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said the lengthy renovation project has had two overarching themes: improvement of the structural elements of the theater and preservation of the historic features. 

"It's been completely restored, and it is sounder than it has ever been so it will withstand the next few hundred years," Riley said. "However, the building has not been changed in terms of how a patron would have remembered it." 

Before the renovation, the theater lacked seismic reinforcements and handicap accessibility. Now it has both. 

Riley said the city added an elevator to serve the building's multiple levels. But because the bricks that surround the new elevator match the building's exterior, the addition is not visible from the theater's courtyard.

Similarly, the city added supports to the balcony on the front of the building but covered them so they would not stand out. 

Heating and electrical systems have been upgraded, as has the roof. The lighting is improved, and cypress wood inside the theater was taken back to its original condition after years of darkening, Riley said. 

Dressing rooms for performers have been updated. More bathrooms for patrons have been added. And seating now includes cushions. 

"That was one thing that we felt was OK to change," because many people felt the former seating was uncomfortable, Riley said. 

Riley said city officials tested several types of seats to find a style that was comfortable but that fits in a historic theater. 

Redden lauded the city's decision to relocate the air conditioning system to reduce noise in the theater. 

"There was an air handler on stage, which is the worst place an air handler can be," Redden said. "There was a constant buzz, which is very distracting to musicians." 
Redden said musicians who recently toured the building applauded when they saw that the air handler had been moved to a place below the theater. 

Additional features that will improve sound are heavy doors that silence activity outside the theater and windows that Redden said let in more light but less sound. 

Another important change for performers is the removal of posts in the orchestra pit that blocked musicians' view of the conductor, Redden said. 

Many changes are "things the audience may not notice but have an impact on how the performance feels," Redden said. 

The city financed most of the funding for the $15.5 million project, Riley said. Also included was a $1 million grant from the Spaulding Paolozzi Foundation - named for Countess Alicia Spaulding Paolozzi, who is credited with helping bring the festival to Charleston. Redden is president of the foundation and Riley is one of its officers, according to the organization's 2008 tax forms. 

Riley said work is on track to be finished in late January. City officials plan to open the theater for the public to see in March.

Next: The Gaillard 
The Dock Street update follows the renovation of Memminger Auditorium, another key Spoleto venue. Riley has said the city next will turn its focus to Gaillard Municipal Auditorium. 

The city recently received $20 million from a donor to study and plan for an overhaul to the large performing arts facility, which was built in 1968. 

Riley said the auditorium's acoustics suffer because of its large size. The Gaillard has nearly 3,000 seats.  

"The goal is to transform the Gaillard into a world-class performing arts center," Riley said. "It will be more elegant. It will be acoustically superior. It will be more intimate. There will be fewer seats." 

Riley said the overhaul, which he hopes to have completed by Spoleto in 2014, will require private fundraising in addition to a city investment. He said there is no estimate on the total cost at this point.  

Riley and Redden both say Charleston would not have the Spoleto Festival without the Gaillard, which accommodates large operas, ballets and other performances. But Redden, too, sees room for improvement. 

"I'm not sure that there will be that many people who argue with me when I say that it's not one of the most beautiful theaters in the world," Redden said. 

He cited the Dock Street Theatre as a good example of how the physical presence of a theater can enhance the performances staged there. The Gaillard lacks a comparable atmosphere. 

Redden said the Gaillard represented Charleston's aspirations 40 years ago, when it was built. 

"I think those aspirations have changed," he said. "I think Charleston has changed." 

Reach Ashley Fletcher Frampton at 843-849-3129.