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Hilarious and heartfelt, the new theatrical production‘Putt Putt’ is pure Myrtle Beach

New York City has its distinguishable skyline of towering buildings.

The Grand Strand has an erupting volcano, pirate ship, and a charter plane forever suspended in midair over a makeshift tropical island.

It’s part of the iconic kitsch of putt putt golf courses embedded in this seaside tourist community’s culture, as well as its sky and landscape. 

The amusement parks might seem like silly tourist attractions to some.

But to Coastal Carolina University theater students, putt putt is art that symbolizes family and love.

It’s mostly comedy, but has its dramatic moments. 

The game of putt putt can encapsulate an entire life, and come to some as a death bed memory. 

There’s a zen to putt putt, which these students have poignantly captured in an original play they cowrote and directed as a team.

It’s an endearing love letter with few words, purely physical theater, which these students have written to Myrtle Beach — soon to be a new home for their learning experiences.

It will be at least two years before the university’s new state-of-the-art theater, part of the downtown revitalization effort, is open for business on Main Street. 

Theater students break during rehearsals of ‘Putt Putt’ in CCU’s Edwards Theatre.

So when their original play, “Putt Putt,” opens on Thursday, it will be in the intimate black box venue of Edwards Theatre on CCU’s Conway campus. 

For Myrtle Beach residents excited about the city’s efforts to create a downtown arts and innovation district, this play gives a preview of the extraordinary talent headed their way.

The faculty and students are certainly excited to soon be learning and performing in a new 300-seat theater, says Claudia Bornholdt, dean of Edwards College of Humanities and Fine Arts at CCU.

“It’s not just having a new theater, but having it as the anchor in this new arts and innovation district. You walk out its doors, and you’re looking at the ocean. It’s pretty fantastic,” Bornholdt said. 

“It will spark our students to become more creative,” Bornholdt said. 

CCU’s theater program is highly ranked and attracts students from across the nation who must audition before being accepted, Bornholdt said. 

Many theater students will spend a year studying abroad in Italy. All will get help finding a job after graduation.

“Our students are very talented, but not enough people come to campus to see the work that’s happening,” Bornholdt said.

“So we are actually excited more will come to the new theater and see the high quality of work our students are doing,” Bornholdt said.

Notable CCU alumni includes Michael Kelly, the Emmy-nominated actor best known for his role of Doug Stamper in “House of Cards.”

Singer Edwin McCain, and “American Idol” contestant Elise Testone attended CCU, as did ESPN broadcaster Brooke Weisbrod.

Bailey Hanks, the actress who won MTV’s “Legally Blonde – The Musical: The Search for Elle Woods,” also went to CCU.

Coincidentally, “Legally Blonde – The Musical” is the next main stage performance scheduled at CCU in the Wheelwright Auditorium beginning Feb. 22.

The university has retained  Jason Gillman, who performed in the Broadway production, to guest direct the show. 

Opening this week, “Putt Putt,” encompasses a little bit of everything the university teaches students in order to earn a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in physical theater.

What is physical theater?

Photo courtesy of Coastal Carolina University.

If the world of theater were a majestic live oak with its branches of drama, musical, comedy and opera, physical theater would be the tire swing.

Benjamin Sota, assistant professor of movement and physical theatre, describes the genre as a family dinner where everyone has an opportunity to speak up and contribute.

“The dinner party can include circus, puppetry, text, a sousaphone, dance, you name it,” Sota said.

Spoiler alert: the audience will get a taste of all that, plus mime, in “Putt Putt.”

The most widely known example of physical theater is the Broadway production of “The Lion King,” which used the actors’ movement with life-sized puppetry to help tell the story.

It’s an unusual experience to see a performance crafted entirely around the genre of physical theater, but that’s what “Putt Putt” successfully delivers with comedic grace and heartfelt drama. 

Show times are 7:30 p.m. on Jan. 30 and 31, Feb. 1, and Feb. 8-11, plus a 3 p.m. matinee on Feb. 11.

A new theatrical venue for Myrtle Beach

Construction of the downtown theater won’t be completed until 2022, but that season’s productions are already in the planning stages.  

In addition to drama and musical theater, cabaret-style productions will also be staged by CCU, as well as musical programs, concert series, lectures, and readings with creative writers.

“It’s not just a theater where we do a few shows and then it sits empty. The idea is, this will be a center for the whole area with a lot of activity,” Bornholdt said. “Our plan is to have the theater booked most of the time.”

Not only will the theater be programed for the university, but for other venues as well. 

It will be a community space — a place that does not already exist in Myrtle Beach.

“This theater is just the beginning,” Bornholdt said.”We hope there will be much more happening — more art galleries, and more talent coming into the city.”

Photo courtesy of Coastal Carolina University.