Community Connection through Performing Arts

Celebrating a new theater in the Irmo area

By Deena C. Bouknight

Photography by Jonathan Sharpe

Midlands Technical College has been providing quality education for more than 40 years. Now it is becoming a center for performing arts as well. This month, Harbison Theatre at Midlands Technical College begins its second performing arts season, which runs through May 2014. Scheduled performances range from JUNK, a Philadelphia-based contemporary dance company, to the Doo Wop Project, featuring the stars of “Jersey Boys” singing hits from decades past.

“By bringing some of our country’s best performing arts groups to the Midlands,” says Katie Fox, director of theater operations for MTC, “Harbison Theatre at Midlands Technical College challenges the community to expand our view of the world and our place in it.”

MTC is a two-year public college that educates students in a variety of fields. Some students complete certificate programs or receive associates degrees, while others take core classes then transfer to four-year colleges. In fact, MTC is the largest provider of transfer students to the University of South Carolina. Annually, approximately 18,000 credit students and 30,000 continuing education students attend one of the seven campuses in and around Columbia.

Because MTC is dedicated to educating people in fields that require specialized skills and equipping them to establish careers, Harbison Theatre was established as the college’s contribution to making the Midlands a place where people want to work and live because they enjoy the quality of life here.

Harbison Theatre is the only performing arts theater in the Irmo area, and it took five years to come to fruition. Katie says that starting a theater program from scratch is much like starting a new business. It requires capital (provided by Richland, Lexington and Fairfield counties), architects, a team of employees and a strategic plan.

The theater fills a niche in the greater Columbia area. “The only theatres with similar technical capacity to Harbison Theatre are the Koger Center and the Township Auditorium, both of which are way too big for niche shows that draw less than 1,000 people” says Katie.
The building that houses Harbison Theatre has seating capacity for 400 people. This past season’s numbers and this season’s indicators show that educational community partnerships and The Signature Series are sell-outs, and interest in their other lines of programming is strong as well.

The Signature Series brings in performers and companies from throughout the United States. These dance, theater, comedy, variety and musical groups also tour other areas. Sometimes, The Signature Series includes scholarly talks by renowned speakers. “These acts are chosen for their artistic excellence, and the genres are chosen based on audience interest surveys,” says Katie.

The HT@MTC Performance Incubator produces a new show each season that features original work by local professional talent. The theater provides technical support, marketing, and professional guidance for the partnering performer(s). The production premiers at Harbison Theatre, but then tours the region indefinitely, providing ongoing professional opportunities for those involved.

In addition to these types of performances, an educational-community partnership caters to the school district surrounding the theater. The theater hosts a number of Richland 5’s musical performances, and it helps stage a full-length, multi-school musical in the spring. The theater also is occasionally available for community art groups to rent.

Katie says that the welcome from the local community has been completely positive. She views performing arts with a wider lens, saying participation in the arts builds empathy in a community. “Artistic performances teach us new ways to approach challenges and to communicate reactions and solutions. Ask a dancer, a trumpeter and a storyteller to perform a piece about war, for example, and you will get three very different and equally valid responses.”

She adds, “Our hope in providing excellent artistic performances at Harbison Theatre is that our audiences leave the theater ready to be kind, thoughtful, imaginative neighbors committed to building a successful Midlands.”

Katie has enjoyed a full-time career in the arts for the past 15 years. She acted in college and has worked behind the scenes in professional theater in Chicago, Seattle, Kansas City and Cincinnati. Before joining MTC in 2011, she served for five years as the director of Arts Education and Artists’ Ventures for the South Carolina Arts Commission. Her undergraduate degree is in education with a minor in technical theater, and she has a master’s in arts administration as well as an MBA from the University of Cincinnati.

“Many arts professional are never seen onstage,” she points out. “Writers, directors, administrators, costumers, lighting designers, sound engineers, choreographers, management companies, stage managers and dozens of other types of professionals train for years and often have long careers getting paid for doing work they enjoy. These and others are all real jobs, so parents shouldn’t gulp so deeply when their kids tell them that they would like to be artists.”

As the director of theater operations for Harbison Theatre, Katie oversees program planning and development. She also manages contracts, rentals, volunteers, budgeting, grant-writing, marketing and the box office. “In a pinch, I can run lights or sound for a performance,” she says.

Katie says the best part of her job is seeing how shared professional artistic experiences help people better understand each other. “When I hear a gasp or a laugh, or see an audience member shed a tear or reach for the hand of their companion, then I know that we have made a connection that can only be achieved through live performances. Every performance is a gift from the creators to the receivers – a gift that hopefully reminds us to regard each other with interest and treat each other with great care.”

Harbison Theatre is currently selling tickets for individual performances and season ticket packages. Individual tickets run between around $10 to about $30, depending on the performance. There are a few different ticket package options. For more information and a lineup of the season’s offerings, visit or call (803) 407-5011. Harbison Theatre is located at 7300 College Street in Irmo.

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