We have all read a few plays for school. Plays that you can talk about with just about anyone who has taken a high school literature class: “Hamlet”, “Death of Salesman”, “Oedipus Rex”, the list goes on and on. You have probably seen some plays produced by professional theater companies, perhaps a timeless musical like “Oklahoma!” or a twist on a Shakespeare script like “Twelfth Night”. The three things that unify those plays on any college campus are as follows: One: they are at least fifty years old. Two: most, with a few exceptions, are not American. Three: they are world famous. In short, exposure to works outside of the pantheon of major plays is sort of nonexistent to college students outside of a theatre major. In Charleston, that’s where What If? Productions comes in to shake up the system.
What If? is a theatre company operating out of Threshold Theatre on Society Street in downtown Charleston. The company was founded and is run by Artistic Director Kyle Barnette and Founding Director Brian Porter, both of whom are well established actors in Charleston. Porter was even named Charleston’s “Most Drool Worthy Performer” by The Charleston City Paper in 2011. Through What If? Barnette and Porter are looking to bring modern, left field productions to Charleston and to give original plays a chance to be seen by audiences for the first time.
What If? was founded in the spring of 2010 and ambitiously kicked off their inaugural season with a production of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” at The American Theatre on King Street. The show was such a success that Barnette and Porter brought it back for the Piccolo Spoleto Festival in 2011.
“The goals started off as, and still are among other things, to produce original works as well as edgy, contemporary American theater,” Barnette said. “The plays all also have kind of a quirky but also dark edge to them. Sometimes violent, we use a lot of blood.”
Their current production of “Evil Dead: The Musical” had an entire rehearsal dedicated to figuring out how to use all of the blood necessary to produce the show.
The edgy, contemporary productions at What If? have included the risqué sci-fi musical “Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens”, the mind bending meta-play “Roger & Tom” and more famous productions like “Cabaret and Little Shop of Horrors” that What If? has put their own twist on. Their current production of “Evil Dead: The Musical” in partnership with Threshold and their next show of the 2016-2017 season, Peter Shaffer’s “Amadeus”, also feature such a twist.
Besides having a reputation as Charleston’s home for creative, modern plays, What If? has also established a tight bond with The College of Charleston. The company’s current production manager is student Caroline Tweedy and a number of What If’s actors, including the majority of the cast of “Evil Dead”, have been College of Charleston students at one time or another.
“We produce a lot of plays that we think college students would want to participate in so we hope that it is an educational as well as a professional experience for the students who want to work with us,” Barnette said.
What If? also has a partnership with The New Colony company in Chicago, whose artistic director Evan Linder is a College of Charleston alumni. What If? has produced a number of Linder’s original plays, including an audience favorite “5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche”. The company’s first musical director was Alex Hennessey, a student at the College working on a thesis in music.
Hennessey’s thesis, an operetta that What If?, provided the spark for what has become a staple of the production company: the annual Playwright’s Festival. Playwrights from around the country are invited to submit original, unproduced works, and after reading hundreds of plays Barnette and Porter select what they think to be the three scripts that not only fit into the What If? wheelhouse of ambitious theater, but have the most artistic potential. Those three scripts are then cold read at the event in front of an audience and the audience votes on which of the three plays they would most want to see produced. The winning script is then given its world premiere by What If? the following summer.
The Playwright’s Festival sort of epitomizes what What If? is all about: bringing new works of American theatre to light but doing it outside of the typical convention. These are plays produced and written by people who genuinely love the theater and refuse to see it lose its edge and appeal in the age of film and television streaming. Theatre is one of the most immersive and creatively malleable art forms at our disposal and thanks to What If?, Charleston is getting the best possible reminder of that.