South Florida Girl Makes Good: Danielle LaVia and Charleston Playhouse

Danielle LaVia’s whole life in the theatre has prepared her for the unique and exciting opportunity she now embraces as founder and executive artistic director of the newly formed Charleston Playhouse in South Carolina.

“I grew up in South Florida, in Coral Springs, doing theatre at a very young age,” Ms. LaVia said by telephone recently, from her Charleston home. “I went to J.P. Taravella High School and was inspired by my theatre teacher, Lori Sessions, who mentored me and really taught me how to be successful. Then I became a camp counselor, then a music director. I worked my way up.”

After receiving her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Musical Theatre from the University of Florida, she performed leading roles at many professional theaters around the country, spent a year as the lead female vocalist on the Holland America Cruise Line and lived in New York City where she directed, taught voice and performed at a variety of notable venues and major events. She even mounted her own one-woman show at Feinstein’s 54 Below and released two albums, but ultimately the big city didn’t really appeal to her.

“I think every performer thinks one day they’ll go to New York and be on Broadway,” Ms. LaVia said. “But when this Florida girl got there, it was really cold! I eventually realized that living and working there just wasn’t my dream.”

Her change of heart turned out to be a boon to Charleston which has embraced her, at the age of 32, as founder and executive artistic director of the newly formed Charleston Playhouse.

“I moved to Charleston from New York about four years ago and quickly realized we were missing a professional Equity theater here,” Ms. LaVia said. “Charleston has been named the number one city in America year after year. We’re a huge hub for tourism and hospitality and have become a major city over the last decade or so. We have a reputation for our history of art and culture, but what I discovered was all the theaters were doing good work, but they weren’t Equity theaters compensating their actors as true professionals.”

That led her to spearhead the founding of Charleston Playhouse, which is set to become the city’s first professional Equity musical theatre company. Its mission is to make a meaningful impact on that community by educating and entertaining through purposeful storytelling, featuring Broadway actors, members of Actors’ Equity Association and professional local talent.

“When I moved here, coming from performing for many years at different Equity theaters around the country, I just knew there was a need for it and a lack of it,” Ms. LaVia said. “So I spent two and a half years doing my due diligence and research to find the right people and the right venue to make this happen.”

The Charleston Playhouse logo launched last February and the theatre’s first season will begin with a gala this coming December.

Charleston Playhouse officially launched its brand last February, but won’t premiere at Festival Hall until 2022, she added. A fundraising cabaret gala in December will precede a season of four musicals, all to be announced at the gala.

“This year is all about getting the funding we need as a non-profit, get our face and name out there, get everyone excited and get the community on board to support this kind of a theater,” Ms. LaVia said. “It’ll not only have a huge impact on the Charleston theater community, it will impact the Charleston community as a whole with an inevitable economic boost.”

That boost, she added, will only enhance a Charleston lifestyle she has grown to love.

“The quality of life here is fantastic,” she said. “I feel like I landed in paradise. I took one vacation here and said to myself, yep, this is where I’m going to live for the rest of my life. I love waking up in the morning and taking my dog to the beach. Having that lifestyle while doing what I love to do is a beautiful thing.”

Ms. LaVia confessed her greatest challenge so far has come in raising the funds needed to get her nascent theater up and running.

“Many of the grants that normally support organizations like ours have bounced back this year, saying that they’re only going to COVID relief,” she said. “So it’s a very challenging thing to start something like this from the ground up, during the time we’re in right now. But there is such a hunger and need for theatre, for the arts, especially now that things are getting back to normal and we’re allowed to get out again.”

Ms. LaVia sees the solution to that problem in launching a funding campaign and a search for a backer or two with deep pockets.

“We need someone who believes in what we’re doing and really cares about the city of Charleston and its future,” she said. “Or it could be just an investor who wants to get in on the ground floor of a new Equity theater and provide opportunity to some Equity artists. We’re doing everything we can to get out into the world, get our names out there and find backers to give us the kickstart we need.”

That doesn’t mean the community hasn’t shown its support, she added.

“The community has been so excited, from the second we launched,” she said. “There was a story in the local paper and my email just blew up. I had twelve board members reach out to me in just six hours — people who have been part of the Charleston community forever and have been waiting for this for a decade.”

As for any young theatre professional considering her career path, Ms. LaVia has two words.

“Be brave,” she said. “You’ve got to bang on doors. No one is going to knock on yours, offering you anything. You have to be the one who shows up and puts yourself out there and makes your voice heard. You have to make it happen. You have to be brave enough to do it.” 

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