Rock Hill company lives on sharp Edge

The topics of abortion, homosexuality, rape, child abuse and suicide are not over The Edge in Rock Hill these days. But The Edge Theatre Company, which has flown under the radar of most people outside York County, will be all over those issues as of tonight.

The Edge is opening the regional premiere of “Spring Awakening,” the provocative winner of the 2007 Tony for best musical, at South Pointe High School.

Then it will give the regional premiere of “Avenue Q,” the puppet-driven winner of the 2004 Tony for best musical, in February.

How does a small, self-funded Rock Hill troupe in only its fourth season get these plums, not to mention the American premiere of Tommy Kearney’s “Madonna & Me” last April?

“Sometimes all you have to do is ask,” says artistic director Jimmy Chrismon. “For ‘Madonna,’ I found the writer’s email online. I told him about Edge, and he was happy to let us do it. He flew over from London, we hosted him for a week, and we had a great time.”

Traits of a winning director

That anecdote sums up so much about Chrismon, 33, who teaches drama at South Pointe: his optimism, large ambitions, gregariousness and just plain luck.

Consider these benchmarks:

• He was a saxophone player and drum major for Harding University High School bands. But in his freshman year at UNC Charlotte, a friend urged, “Come to auditions with me; I don’t want to cross the campus at night by myself.” Chrismon went along, read out of curiosity for “The Good Woman of Szechuan,” got the male lead and was hooked for life.

• After student teaching at Butler High in Matthews, he got a permanent job at Vance High in Charlotte. Friends mentioned him to the principal at South Pointe when it opened seven years ago; another guy got the job but failed to show, and Chrismon fell into it. Suddenly he found himself in charge of a facility with 1,500 comfortable seats and modern lighting and sound equipment. (The stage is so big it will seat 75 people for intimate shows.)

• When he started The Edge in 2008, using mostly his own money, people found him. His core audience lives in York County, but theatergoers come from miles in all directions: The nonprofit company pays 70 percent of its bills through ticket sales.

Actors even make 100-mile roundtrips to work with him. (Chrismon has to commute, too: He still lives in Charlotte.)

“This is my sixth production with Jimmy,” says Kitty Beard, who is coming down from Huntersville for “Awakening” to play the bohemian Ilse. “One thing I appreciate is that he doesn’t always cast the person with the best voice, or the best dancer: He looks for people who bring something special to a role.

“When you work for him, you grow in confidence. You get away from your own self and stretch as an actress.”

Jonathan Ewart makes his Edge debut in “Awakening,” driving from Concord to play multiple supporting roles. But he knew Chrismon from their days at risk-taking Off-Tryon Theatre Company 10 years ago and says he has grown into “an actor’s director: He’s always flexible, willing to let you try whatever you want to. Yet his directing is crisp and clear.”

Clarity matters to Chrismon, who separates his roles as teacher and Edge director. At school, he picks mainstream work designed to build young performers’ or technicians’ skills: South Pointe just did a big “Hello, Dolly.” For Edge, he picks more daring pieces and casts age-appropriate actors.

A relationship that isn’t

Edge is not affiliated with South Pointe, but it rents the school auditorium at a reduced rate. Chrismon doesn’t want parents to think “Awakening” and “Avenue Q” represent the school’s drama philosophy.

“Our principal, Al Leonard, has been extremely supportive,” says Chrismon. “He’s good with anything Edge does here, as long as there’s no nudity or something truly offensive. So we changed some of the original ‘Spring Awakening’ staging without altering the plot or subject matter. (Profanity can stay in: The song ‘Totally ------’ retains title and lyrics.)

“There have been concerns: ‘Why do this play?’ There are things in it 18-year-olds really want to know, and those issues can’t be talked about (as frankly) in a high school show.”

Chrismon lets students try out for Edge; when two got into “Awakening,” he explained the production to their parents and got signed consent forms.

“I use it as a teaching experience,” he says. “Do you have a headshot and monologue prepared? Can you step up against experienced actors? But I steer them toward teenage roles. In ‘Rent,’ which has older characters, one kid got onstage. They work on sets or costumes, too.”

South Pointe alumnus Jonathon Long drives over from Winthrop University for “Awakening.” The freshman will play pragmatic seducer Hänschen and says, “This show could raise eyebrows, but I think it will get a good response. The community has always been supportive.

“I love working with Jimmy; he’s the reason I’m studying theater education at Winthrop. He has proved to me that, if you really love what you do, you won’t ‘work’ a day in your life.”

‘Spring Awakening’

The Edge Theatre Company does the first area production of the Tony-winning musical based on a German play about alienated youth in the 1890s.

WHEN: Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m.

WHERE: South Pointe High, 801 Neely Road, Rock Hill.

TICKETS: $20 ($15 students and seniors). $1 from each ticket will be donated to Catawba Care, a nonprofit organization that offers free testing, free/reduced medical care and support for those living with HIV/AIDS.

DETAILS: info@theedgetheatre.org; www.theedgetheatre.org.