Arts & Culture
Here’s a surprise: Spend a year in Columbia and you could take in a different live performance or art film just about every single day. Throw in a diverse public art collection, which ranges from outdoor sculpture and makers spaces to murals and a techno-thrilling laser installation, and you’ve got a place where art is both accessible and exciting.
“We have an incredible amount of talent for a city our size,” says Lee Snelgrove, Executive Director for One Columbia for Arts & History, which works to promote the region’s unified arts community. “It’s an exciting time. There’s a lot of movement going on in every area of the arts, from public art to theater. We believe every citizen should have access to culture, and in Columbia, it’s really happening.” Beyond the city’s professional and community performances, which also includes the South Carolina Philharmonic Orchestra, the University of South Carolina’s departments of dance, theater, opera, music and art provide hundreds of opportunities each year to experience live performances and exhibitions, often at no charge.
Small stages. Big talent. That pretty much sums up the live theater scene in Columbia, which comprises more than a dozen venues and companies. Trustus, a professional theater company, was founded in 1985; each season, the Trustus Ensemble performs a variety of sophisticated, thought-provoking productions that have included Rock of Ages, Grey Gardens and Black Super Hero Magic Mama, which was the winner of the 2016 Trustus Playwrights Festival. Town Theatre has nearly 100 years of history in Columbia; its building, which was constructed in 1924, is the country’s oldest community theater building in continuous use. Town Theater players have gone on to appear on Broadway, feature films and network television programs.
It takes years to master the skills necessary to allow marionettes to dance, walk and bend; puppeteers with the Columbia Marionette Theater make them seem human--and love to share their secrets backstage after the performance. Located in Forest Acres, Columbia Children’s Theatre offers fun, funny, age-appropriate plays for children. The theater is known for adult programming as well: Late Night Date Night is a no-kids-allowed (and no holds barred) performance event that takes place once during each production run. “It’s the one show where we encourage improvisation and innuendo,” says artistic director Jerry Stevenson. “It gives us a chance to share some fun we have backstage.”
Some of the Midland’s most innovative programming is taking place at the Harbison Theater at Midlands Technical College. Not only does the venue stage thought-provoking plays, musical events, dance performances and readings, but, through the Performance Incubator program, directors, producers, writers and choreographers are given a way to make a living through their art.
It’s rare for a city the size of Columbia to have a professional ballet company. Columbia has two. In addition to performing beloved classics like Swan Lake and the Nutcracker, The Columbia City Ballet has premiered a number of ballets including Dracula: Ballet with a Bite and Off the Wall and Onto the Stage, which brings to life the colorful paintings of South Carolina native Jonathan Green. The Columbia Classical Ballet launched the career of Brooklyn Mack, who dances with the Washington Ballet. Featuring dancers from six countries, the troupe is known for their community outreach, particularly LifeChance, which brings ballet stars from around the world to Columbia.
Long before many mid-sized cities were supporting art in public spaces, Columbia had filled an abundance of walls, parks, courtyards and street corners with murals, sculptures and fountains, including Blue Sky’s reflective Tunnelvision, a mesmerizing trompe l’oeil sunset that’s been repainted four times, and Henry Moore’s primitive Upright Motive #8, which is tucked into a hidden recess on Boyd Plaza in front of the Columbia Museum of Art.
Much of Columbia’s public art is displayed indoors as well. Don’t expect to find typical convention center art on the walls of Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center. Instead, the light-filled space is filled with abstract landscapes, montages, light-catching glass sculptures and paintings of local landmarks so realistic that they could be photographs. Chosen for their unique representation of the region’s history, architecture and natural resources, each of the more than 40 pieces were created by local artists, some of whom, like painter Jonathan Greene, have risen to national prominence. Visit any location of Columbia’s award-winning, innovative library system and you’ll find a lot more than books. Specially-commissioned artworks in each of the recently renovated branches—some of which are community efforts led by an artist--are transforming the library into a hub of activity and conversation. “Libraries are a center of learning, creating and sharing, and we believe this supports that mission,” says marketing director Emily Stoll.
Once a dark space that showed art films on the wall, Columbia’s Nickelodeon Theater has transformed itself into a center for the art of film with the Indie Grits Film Festival, educational opportunities, innovative partnerships like live dance performances in combination with a series of contemporary dance documentaries and, of course, an innovative selection of art films, which are often curated around a theme. Best of all, the seats are super comfy and the beer and wine selection would make any bar owner proud.