SAVANNAH — Sitting in the waning afternoon sunlight outside the metal door of 703D Louisville Road, JinHi Soucy Rand has no regrets.
The founder and director of Muse Arts Warehouse has wrapped the last of more than 2,000 plays, performances, film screenings, activities and events in the middle suite of the brick Freight Building, its black box stage slated to give way to a student housing project, and Rand counts every one of them a victory.
"I’m not as sad as I could be, because I think we’ve been successful," she says of the venerated venue that will host its final hurrah this Saturday, Feb. 11. "We accomplished our mission." That mission was honed seven years ago, when she and her husband, Mark, called a meeting for various creative folk to see if they could make a go of an accessible, affordable space for Savannah’s arts community. Both longtime veterans of Savannah’s bustling-but-broke community theater scene, the Rands had seen plenty of local companies struggle to produce plays while trying to make rent. When the Little Theatre of Savannah lost its lease at 703D, they took up the mantle.
"I called everyone together and said, ‘I think we can keep this space, but it’s going to require that we share it,’" recalls JinHi. "And they agreed to trust me to manage the chaos."
The Rands knew better than to produce anything in-house, so filling the docket was up to the others. Past tensions were put aside, and the actors and directors agreed to save the drama for the stage.
"We’d been theater here long enough to remember the rival companies and all that," confirms Mark. "It seemed like that mentality melted away here."
The doors opened as Indigo Arts and soon morphed into Muse Arts Warehouse, welcoming not only the theater kids but the poets, the film buffs, the dancers, the activists and the prayerful.
As Collective Face Ensemble and Savannah Shakes brought contemporary and classic theater to audiences, CinemaSavannah and the Psychotronic Film Society screened weird and wonderful gems, the Odd Lot busted guts with their lightning fast improv, Agape Empowerment Ministries preached their message of inclusivity, Abeni Cultural Arts soared with unforgettable performances like their annual Odyssey in Black Dance and the Spitfire Poetry Group continued Clinton Powell’s legacy of lyrical expression — sometimes all the same day.
"We would have a play happening, then a midnight Spitfire spoken word event, and a church group in the morning. There was an understanding with the casts of the plays that other people would be on their set, or we’d have to move it around because there was a film on Sunday," describes JinHi. "There were a few moments over the years when schedules and egos were tested, but mostly everyone was cooperative and collaborative."
Professional productions had sold out runs, and smaller ideas found an incubator to develop and refine themselves. Vinyl Appreciation Night spun its first records at Muse, and the 24 Hour Play and 48 Hour Film Festival drew an ever-increasing following with each incarnation.
Tickets were priced so that productions could recoup their expenses and low enough to afford, a model that worked as long as expectations didn’t get any more highfalutin for the non-profit.
"People wanted to know how we were doing as a business. The space almost completely covered itself, but it was always more of a project," says JinHi thoughtfully, adding with a laugh, "No one was making a living here."
That didn’t stop Muse from donating any free time to community gatherings and fundraisers like StattsFest in 2013. More recently in 2015, dozens of local artists came together to auction off fabulously decorated lawn ornaments at Flamingo Fest to help cover JinHi’s mounting medical expenses.
The muse of Muse has been generously and unflinchingly honest about her terminal cancer diagnosis, and her uncommon strength and alacrity was especially challenged over the last year. Yet she has fulfilled roles onstage and off all along, continuing to invigorate Savannah’s performing arts scene. (She’s co-directing Bay St. Theatre’s production of "The Vagina Monologues" later this month.)
While health had nothing to do with the landlords’ decision to sell the building, Muse’s closure brings a relief from the responsibilities.
"We’re looking forward to spending some time at home," says Mark. "It’s been awhile."
Saturday’s event won’t be a formal performance, just chilling and milling with the many characters who have been touched by Muse Arts. For posterity, a group photo will be taken at 8 p.m.
The ancients muses might have a reputation for being fickle, but the Rands maintain full faith that Savannah’s indefatigable artists can and will manifest another collective space. As the stars align, they remind that the launch pad may be gone, but the rockets remain in full orbit.
"We’re all still here, we’re all still producing," reminds JinHi. "I hope people will continue to support the companies they knew here and follow them to their new spots around the city."
She also enjoins to keep Muse Art’s spirit of experimentation, enthusiasm and self-reliance strong in this era of budget cuts and corporate art.
"As an American, I believe the ownership of culture and arts belongs to us," she says with one of her definitive nods.
"We are a self-governing people, that’s part of the freedom and the ideal of our country. It’s our civic responsibility to support the arts."
As long as we feed the muse with that commitment, she promises, the show will always go on.