Conway’s Theatre of the Republic celebrates its 50th year
The bright marquee lights up Main Street and lures couples, clusters of friends and others down the sidewalk like a beacon on this chilly January evening.
They are eager to take in not just another stellar live performance at the Theatre of the Republic, but take a trip down the theater’s memory lane and kick off the year-long celebration of its 50th anniversary. For nearly three hours, performers belt out a medley of tunes from such notables as Finian’s Rainbow—the theater’s first performance 50 years ago—to its most recent show, Footloose, and everything in between.
For half a century, this little community theater has entertained residents with musicals, comedies—you name it—and given a stage to the otherwise hidden talents who call Horry County home.
“The support of the community has been wonderful,” said Tim McGhee, executive/artistic director for the Theatre of the Republic for the past 20 years. “I always call it the jewel of our area.”
The theater started with a simple love of the arts and a determination to make sure the arts had a place in Horry County. Folks took in the performances in barns, restaurants and the popular Sidewheeler.
“Wherever they could find a place to put on a show, they did,” McGhee said.
The non-profit had the chance to move into what was known as the Holliday Theater on Main Street in Conway after it burned and was gifted to the Theatre of the Republic to rebuild. Most community theaters aren’t lucky enough to own their theater, McGhee said.
“We are pretty proud of it,” he said.
Making the most of the unique opportunity, the theater raised $1 million and bought the spot next door for offices. After the stage was built but while renovations continued, the theater put on a special performance of Dracula under the stars—there was no roof and no seats installed yet; patrons sat in lawn chairs, McGhee said.
Now, the 300-seat theater is often sold out for the performances. Though known for its musicals, the theater aims to offer a variety of genres—a diversity that McGhee says has helped the theater make it as long as it has.
“Theatre of the Republic has been known for their high quality of shows,” McGhee said. “Diversity in our shows is important.”
Other than a few paid staff members, the theater relies on volunteers—from the actors, costume makers, stage designers and greeters.
“There’s so much to do in the theater,” McGhee said.
Fans who regularly fill the seats say they are blown away that the performers aren’t professionals (they do these performances on their own time) and the dedication of all the theater’s volunteers whose passion is contagious.
“You come in here, you feel like you are at home. They are so excited you are here and I’m excited because they are excited,” said Mary McHatton of Carolina Forest, who is a regular season ticket holder. “It’s entertaining. They are fabulous. The music and the dancing is so professional. It’s the best community theater I’ve ever been to.”
The theater has regular auditions for its performances, and, thanks to Horry County’s booming growth with people moving to the area, always attracts new folks wanting to hit the stage, McGhee said.
“Every show, I get new people,” he said. “Every time I have an audition I have someone saying, ‘Hi, I’m new to the area.' There’s so much talent in Myrtle Beach. It’s unbelievable.”
It takes between 25 and 35 people to put on one of the theater’s popular musicals. Performers rehearse five days a week for six weeks before the debut, McGhee said.
“We would not be here without those volunteers,” he said.
The non-profit has a roughly $500,000 annual budget, with money coming from grants and accommodations tax revenue, but the bulk of it, about 85 percent of the budget, comes from ticket sales. Tickets for a show are roughly $25 to $30, McGhee said.
Funding has, and likely always will be, a challenge for the community theater, he said. There are the costs for insurance and maintenance on the building, as well as production costs and the fees to buy the rights for the musicals.
Technology also could be a challenge as the theater heads into its next 50 years. Broadway productions now feature impressive visual technologies that the Theatre of the Republic simply can’t duplicate with its current equipment.
“Whatever happens on Broadway will eventually get to us,” McGhee said. “The technology is going to take off. We have to adapt or you get left behind.”
But McGhee hopes the Theatre of the Republic will continue to have its niche in Horry County. It simply has to.
“I’ve seen so many children and so many adults come on stage with zero self confidence and zero communication skills, and they grow as human beings,” McGhee said. “We must have the arts in our society. The day we let arts go, we will see a society we probably won’t like.”
While it has its devoted followers, many residents still don’t know about the Theatre of the Republic and the quality of performances it offers, some fans said.
“It’s an undiscovered gem,” McHatton said before taking in the 50th anniversary show. “It’s a treat. It’s a magical treat.”
McGhee said the theater wants to get the word out to all the new residents who relocate to Horry County, one of the fastest-growing areas in the country.
“Unfortunately, there are still a lot of people who don’t know who we are,” McGhee said.
Allan and Linda Pomicter, who moved to Myrtle Beach about five years ago, were regulars at theaters in the big cities near where they lived, including theater meccas such as New York. They decided to try Theatre of the Republic shortly after they moved here.
“I was really surprised,” Linda Pomicter said. “I didn’t know what to expect. I was really pleasantly surprised. There’s so much talent… We’ve been coming ever since. I think they do an excellent job.”
The pair, who attended one of the trio of 50th anniversary kick-off performances in January, had this advice for the theater’s next 50 years.
“Keep doing what they are doing,” she said. “Just keep going forward and doing what they are doing.”
Editor’s note: The Theatre of the Republic will have special performances and events throughout 2019 to commemorate its 50th anniversary. Stay up-to-date by following the theater on Facebook or signing up to receive email updates by contacting Tim McGhee, executive/artistic director, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT J LUKEY PHOTOGRAPHY