It's no secret that Dallas' WingSpan Theatre Company has a smaller production season than many companies: one full-scale stage production, participation in the Festival of Independent Theatres at the Bath House Cultural Center and one staged reading of a new work. Entering its 14th season, the company has earned a sterling reputation and a loyal audience for producing classy, thought-provoking, entertaining theater. This week, it opens Oscar Wilde's masterpiece The Importance of Being Earnest.
We chatted with WingSpan's creative driving force, Producing Artistic Director Susan Sargeant, to discuss WingSpan's unique niche in the regional theatre scene.
TheaterJones: Most companies produce a season of plays, so why just one?
Susan Sargeant: I founded WingSpan in 1997, after working with Beverly Jacob Daniels' New Horizons Theatre. WingSpan emerged as my regional acting and directing career took flight. One major production and reading were all I had time for, in addition to participating at FIT. Horizons taught me to strive for balance, use my resources well and create manageable challenges. WingSpan is self-sustaining; our strict budget allows us to mount artistic, professional shows that pay for themselves and accrue loyal audiences.
WingSpan focuses on plays by, for and about women, it nurtures new work and the development of local playwrights and employs mostly female directors. Why is this your mission?
It grew out of New Horizons. I am dedicated to producing exceptional art, plays with exceptional women's roles. I committed from the start to providing a creative space for female artists—actors, directors, designers, and stage managers. Theater is highly competitive, with fewer roles and leadership positions for women than men. WingSpan offers a focused space where female artists can flourish.
The Festival of Independent Theatres: you've participated every year. How does FIT keep you participating?
WingSpan is a FIT founding member; I can't imagine not participating. There is an amazing cross-pollination of talent, support and audience base here…it's positively regenerative. FIT at age 13 is much more than the sum of its parts, eight independent companies—it's exciting, challenging, fast-paced, inspiring! This year we paired two tiny works in our slot: a Tennessee Williams comedy with absurdist leanings (A Perfect Analysis Given by a Parrot) and a full-on absurd one-act with dark humor by John Guare (The Loveliest Afternoon of the Year). Both informed WingSpan's aesthetic and offered wonderful women's roles.
This week you open Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, considered by many the Western canon's finest comedy. What challenges does it present? Will it resonate with today's audiences?
Last November I walked down a London street and came face to face with a poster for the recent hit revival of The Importance of Being Earnest, presented subsequently to much acclaim at New York's Roundabout Theatre. It stuck with me, even as I dug through my tall pile of possibilities back home. Was I mad to select a show with such complex period scenic and costume changes and production challenges for the Bath House black box theater? With my trusted design/tech team (Rodney Dobbs, Barbara C. Cox, Dan Schoedel, Lowell Sargeant, Robin Coulonge and Maggie Belanger) and a desire to inspire our audiences with a rich yet intimate production, I embraced Earnest. I've never had such response to audition notices; I could have cast this show five ways happily. Relevance? Romance is never out of fashion! And its superb comedy lampooning British society—it's our season of heart and comedy. Earnest is the ideal vehicle.
How does your yearly staged reading at the Bath House Cultural Center work?
Our next play reading takes place in Spring 2012; we need submissions now. It's rewarding to see plays that we presented first as readings go on to full production. We support local playwrights, like Isabella Russell Ides, whose exotic play ¡Cenote! we read in 2010. Submissions need to be complete, full-length or one-act, not standard musicals [and] adhere to our mission statement. Send treatments or full script.
What's in WingSpan's future?
More fully realized productions of plays that entertain and illuminate, from classics to modern works. We stay close in tune with our audiences. They tell us they enjoy the artistic challenges we present and leave satisfied and elevated, looking forward to more.