Shakespeare Carolina was founded in 1998 by Chris O’Neill, Jill O’Neill, Elizabeth Funderburke and Lynn Manera. The four met while serving on the board of directors of the Rock Hill, South Carolina Community Theatre (RHCT). O’Neill et al. produced a highly successful outdoor production of William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Due to the response of production it was decided that a separate company could best serve the Rock Hill community’s lack of classic theatre. After several kitchen table meetings, legal counsel was obtained and the paperwork for tax exempt status was initiated. Elizabeth Funderburke and Lynn Manera collaborated on the legal paperwork, while Chris and Jill O’Neill concentrated on the artistic side.
The company produced Much Ado About Nothing in 1999, rehearsing at the McCelvey Center in downtown York, SC and performing in Fewell Park in Rock Hill. Produced on a shoestring budget, Much Ado About Nothing was a financial and artistic success. The production generated more ticket sales than The Taming of The Shrew. Shakespeare Carolina now had something to build on, a core company of dedicated actors and technicians and a few dollars in the bank.
Shakespeare Carolina, embarked on its third year. It produced two works, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and accepted an invitation to perform a company developed performance/dance piece Illuminaria with its sister dance company, Moving Ophelia, for the Charleston, SC First Night Millennium Celebration.
After the success of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Illuminaria, Shakespeare Carolina decided to add an indoor production to their season, Othello, for a spring slot at the McCelvey Center. After Othello, Chris and Jill moved on to work with other regional theatre companies, with the intention of taking a year off and putting Shakespeare Carolina back together, when the time was right. That one year hiatus lasted six years.
In late summer, 2006 Chris O’Neill and John Hartness, former Managing Director of The Off Tryon Theatre Company, made the decision to bring Shakespeare Carolina back. They saw the benefit of bringing works of the classical canon to the Charlotte, NC region. They sought to bring together a “family” of like – minded artists and educators to create a new aesthetic to the classics. A series of organizational meetings were held in October and November of 2006. Chris O’Neill assumed the title of Managing Artistic Director, John Hartness became Producing Artistic Director, and James Cartee signed on as Artistic Associate. Shakespeare Carolina’s comeback production was The Taming of the Shrew, to celebrate the ten year anniversary of their debut, and the search for a venue began.
Shakespeare Carolina approached the Arts Council of York County, South Carolina about utilizing its old courthouse facility. They were referred to Candy Randall at the City of Rock Hill’s Office of Economic and Urban Development. The city allowed Shakespeare Carolina to use the grassy field adjacent to the down town parking structure and provided them with a free rehearsal studio in an empty building down town. O’Neill and Hartness had intended for an organic “festival” atmosphere, much like The New York Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park. During rehearsals for the Rock Hill shows, Theatre Charlotte offered its space for summer productions. The company brought The Taming of The Shrew to Theatre Charlotte, as well as, Hamlet. The outdoor production proved to be problematic and the company decided to forego outdoor productions in the future. The Charlotte productions, however, enjoyed a positive response, garnering Metrolina Theatre Award nominations for Hamlet.
O’Neill and Hartness chose Twelfth Night and Richard III for Shakespeare Carolina’s sophomore season in Charlotte. Both productions again receive multiple award nominations and Hank West won Best Actor for his portrayal of Richard of Gloucester. The end of the 2008 season saw John Hartness leaving his position as Producing Artistic Director with O’Neill assuming those duties, as well.
Theatre Charlotte informed Shakespeare Carolina that is was increasing its own summer programming limiting the company to one show. Antony and Cleopatra was chosen.
Antony and Cleopatra brought Shakespeare Carolina more critical praise and Iesha Hoffman was nominated for Best Actress for her role as Cleopatra, along with Biff Edge’s nomination for Set Design and Jill O’Neill for Sound Design.
A new year brought new challenges as Shakespeare Carolina planned for their 2010 season, which included Macbeth and Much Ado About Nothing. Theatre Charlotte decided to program throughout the summer of 2010, leaving Shakespeare Carolina without a summer venue. Shakespeare Carolina decided to rent the Duke Energy Theatre in Spirit Square for its first show of 2010, Macbeth, and planted the seeds of what would become a permanent residency at the venue, producing two shows a season in the Charlotte venue. In 2010 Shakespeare Carolina was also offered a summer residency at Winthrop University, both of which continue to this day. 2011 saw Shakespeare Carolina produce its first contemporary work, Jo Clifford’s Ines De Castro in Charlotte, as well as, Two Gentleman of Verona and The Tempest at Winthrop. This followed up by the Companies biggest season to date, producing 5xTenn, an Evening of Tennessee William’s One Act Plays and Measure for Measure at Spirit Square and Brecht’s Antigone and A Midsummer Night’s Dream for which Dennis DeJesus won an MTA award for his portrayal of Puck. A Midsummer Night’s Dream was also nominated for Outstanding Production, Outstanding Cameo Performance (Norman Burt as Snug The Joiner) and Outstanding Supporting Actor (Chris O’Neill as Bottom).