Photo: Michael Hazin performs as Ash in “Evil Dead: The Musical.” Photo courtesy of Brad Martin and Trustus Theatre.
As Kay Thigpen bustles around a dimly lit space preparing her new theatre for its grand opening, the phone suddenly rings. A play titled “Extremities” is set to be the first ever on the Trustus Theatre stage later that night, so Thigpen takes the call assuming she will be answering a question about directions to her theatre or their ticket prices. Instead, she is told by the caller that a bomb has been planted inside the theatre.
This is how Trustus was welcomed to the Columbia arts scene over 33 years ago; a fittingly dramatic entrance for an organization that has been raising the theatre standard in the Capital City ever since. Trustus is the only professional option in an arts enriched town where live theaters seem to be located on every street corner. The company has successfully established itself as the top theatre alternative in Columbia for both actors and audiences alike.
Local artist, Michael Hazin, has become a regular in Trustus productions since his debut role in 2014 as Ash in “Evil Dead: The Musical.”
“What initially drew me to Trustus as a performer was the material,” Hazin said. “There was also a higher sense of professionalism and workmanship than could be found at any of the other theatres in town.”
If audiences in Columbia are searching for runs of Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, it’s best they look elsewhere. Instead, Trustus is known throughout the Southeast for its daring to bring new and experimental productions, such as Stephen Brown’s “Montgomery,” to its stage.
“The thing about Trustus is that they’re unafraid to push the limits to take their patrons to the next level of intellectual and aesthetic growth,” said Cindi Boiter, executive director of Jasper Magazine. “Trustus does an amazing job of making us laugh and bringing us together as a community.” These qualities have helped Trustus emerge as a leader in the South Carolina arts community.
Thigpen and her husband, Jim, opened the theatre in 1985. The original Trustus was a small second floor walkup space on Assembly Street that sat 50 people. The building originally served as a punk rock club and the fabricated bomb threat Thigpen received on opening night came from a former loyal patron who was less than thrilled to see a theatre moving into his once beloved space of mohawks, leather and facial piercings.
Punk rock music has since become a thing of the past, but Trustus has prevailed and evolved into a theatre staple. That original 50-seat theatre has grown into a million-dollar enterprise with a 130-seat theatre on Lady Street and a 50-seat black-box space for smaller productions next door.
Trustus prides itself on its company motto: “Our theatre is your theatre,” and while the work onstage at Trustus might take audience members outside of their comfort zone, they will certainly be comfortable while doing so. The theatre is the only in town equipped with reclining movie theatre style seats, a bar that offers an impressive wine and beer selection and free baskets of Cromer’s popcorn that await patrons at every seat in the house. Trustus has always strived to make its customers feel at home when seeing a show and this comforting atmosphere is extended to each of its 48 company members, as well.
Katie Leitner has been performing at Trustus since she was 17 years old and became a Trustus company member in 2016. It’s the friendships and family-like feel that keep her coming back.
“My first role at Trustus was Mimi in a 2009 production of Rent,” Leitner said. “I was a teenager and had not really been involved in theatre before, but the Trustus company immediately made me feel like family. I love coming back because I genuinely love the people.” Like Hazin, bold material has also impelled Leitner to return to the Trustus stage time and time again.
“I think what really makes Trustus stand apart for our community of artists is that they’re willing to produce exciting new works each year,” she said.
All that glitters is not gold, though. As a company that runs on donations and government funding, Trustus staff members are constantly having to find innovative ways to prove the theatre’s importance to the city. Trustus operates almost solely on grants from the City-H tax and the South Carolina Arts Commission. When funds from these sources are cut back, Trustus is faced with the difficulty of having to decrease its staff size and company benefits.
“We are a piece of the pie,” said Chad Henderson, current artistic director at Trustus. “All of the organizations in town are competing for that same pie. We have to prove our value as a tourist draw in Columbia, rather than simply proving our value to the arts community.”
In 2012, former Governor Nikki Haley proposed cutting all funding for the State Arts Commission, which threatened to reduce theatre donations from the Columbia City Council by more than $10,000. Receiving enough money to put on the quality productions Trustus strives to provide is already hard enough, so the governor’s proposed cuts would have meant years of hardship for the theatre. Luckily for Trustus, and the other institutions funded by the State Arts Commission, Haley’s proposal did not successfully pass the state legislature.
“It’s a very one-sided view to say that the arts do not deserve government funding because they aren’t an essential part of our state,” said Henderson. “The arts are important in a variety of ways. When we look back on the ancients, it isn’t really their war heroes we talk about today, but their artists.”
Trustus operates under the fear that government funding could realistically be taken away at any time. Gov. Henry McMaster has threatened to decrease crucial arts funding in the state as recently as 2017. In the meantime, Trustus continues to push forward and serve as a unique theatre home for artists and audiences in the Midlands. Trustus was recently named the 2018 Best Stage Theater by The State and received the Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Award for the Arts in 2017.