At the ribbon cutting of Amphibian Stage Productions' new theater last Friday, and at the champagne toast on Thursday at opening night of the inaugural production in the space, words weren't sufficient to describe the excitement felt by the staff, artists and patrons at finally having a place to call home.
A decade ago, when I was writing about the group of Texas Christian University students who had started a promising theater company for the Star-Telegram, I still referred to the 'Phibs as a "fledging" theater company. They started in the summer of 2000, with a searing revival of Lanford Wilson's Burn This in the Studio Theatre at TCU.
Each summer, they brought something fresh to the Fort Worth theater scene, notably in 2003, when they presented the American premiere of Shaun Prendergast's play The True Story of the Tragic Life and Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana, the Ugliest Woman in the World, which was performed entirely in the dark. Fittingly, as an innovative show that first got audiences taking notice of the group, it's also the work they're reviving for the opening of the new theater (look for a review in the coming days on TheaterJones.)
Over the years, they have performed in all of the theater spaces at TCU, and in 2008, moved to the Sanders Theatre at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center. While at TCU, they also began a series of staged readings at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, which quickly proved popular. (For 2013 those readings will move to the new home.) In those early days, they also produced work in New York, but that turned out to be too cost-prohibitive.
Three of the original company members are still heavily involved: Artistic director Kathleen Culebro still has that title, and actors Carman Lacivita and Jonathan Fielding, despite taking off for New York after TCU, return to act and/or direct. Fielding, a performer in that original production of Julia Pastrana, directs it this time.
Amazingly, for a small company with an annual budget of just over $300,000, they have four full-time employees ─ Culebro, managing director Rebecca Allard, education coordinator Natalie Chapa and marketing and PR coordinator Alix Milne ─ plus a part-time outreach associate and events manager, Melissa Mitchell.
The new space, in the developing South Main corridor in the Near South Side, is about half-a-mile south of downtown Fort Worth, and not far from two other theaters in that sector, Stage West and Pantagleize Theatre Company. The building, which is 15,000 square feet, half of which the 'Phibs are using (the other half is occupied by marketing firm the Starr Conspiracy), features a black box theater that's about the same size as the Sanders and can be arranged for any imaginable stage/audience configuration. It's named the Berlene T. and Jarrell R. Milburn Theatre. There's also a gorgeous lobby, box office and concessions area, offices and enviable storage space, and a handsome green room area for the performers. Culebro's husband, architect Gregory Ibañez, provided the architectural services. The theater consultant is Schuler Shook, which was the theater consultant for the Dallas City Performance Hall and the Eisemann Center in Richardson.
And the best part: The building, which was formerly occupied by a nightclub, was purchased by the Amphibian, and those funds are closed to being completed, thanks to a capital campaign chaired by actor Kevin Kline. His connection began when Lacivita was cast in that 2007 Broadway production of Cyrano de Bergerac, in which Kline played the title role. They became fast friends.
I talked to Culebro, Fielding and Lacivita in the weeks leading up to the debut of the new space. You can read my stories about the new chapter for Amphibian in the Star-Telegram, and in the November issue of Arts+Culture Magazine.
And here is the announcement of Amphibian's 2013 season, which is expanded to four mainstage productions, plus three readings, all in the new space. Amphibian also hosts the National Theatre of London NT Live screenings, which will continue at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.
Here are excerpts from the interviews, which were conducted separately.
TheaterJones: Carman, you went to Rutgers University for your Master's after TCU, and have returned to Texas to act at Amphibian several times. At your most recent visit here, in Theresa Rebeck's The Understudy, the new Amphibian space was still very raw. What did you think of it?
Lacivita: It was great stepping into that space. It's such a huge space in my vision. I never imagined that our little idea of getting together and doing a show at TCU would turn into that.
How close are you and Kline, and how involved is he in this project?
Lacivita: He sometimes calls me in the middle of the night, wanting to talk about Amphibian. He definitely wants to help. He wanted to come here for the opening, but he's doing a film [Last Vegas] with Morgan Freeman, Robert De Niro and Michael Douglas. … He does want to come here at some point, we're working on that.
You've worked regionally, and on and off-Broadway. Is it comforting having a home theater in Texas?
Lacivita: Yes. It reminds me that I do have something that I can always come back to.
Jonathan, you also recently started a theater company in Cape Cod, along with playwright Brenda Withers, who co-wrote Matt and Ben with Mindy Kaling. Tell me about that.
Fielding: We started this theater company in Cape Cod, in Wellfleet, Mass., the outer cape. It's called the Harbor Stage Company. Our first show was in June, it was a three-show summer season, which we had to do because it's in an old building with no heat. We learned a lot and sold a lot of tickets.
There are six actors who founded the company, we also share the duties of running the theater, picking the shows, cleaning the bathrooms, running box office. It makes us feel more invested in the space and the property and the shows.
What kind of work are you doing there?
Fielding: It's similar to Amphibian. For lack of a better term, edgy and provocative. Everything we want to do is based in truthful acting, realistic acting, and stuff that we're passionate about doing. We did Hedda Gabler, Church by Young Jean Lee, and a David Rabe play, Sticks and Bones.
You were in the first production of Julia Pastrana at Amphibian, and you're directing this one. What are the challenges of directing this play, performed entirely in the dark?
Fielding: This is a hard show for the audience and the actors. The actors have to be completely truthful and believable with their dialects. On top of that, they have to grope through this completely pitch-black space and find the right place for their cue and find the right sound effect to make. … They're in the space doing the scenes with each other around and through the audience, it's like a real play. They're skillfully acting it; it's not a radio play, not just voices in the dark. It's actors moving through the space. That said, it's incredibly exhilarating, and something you'll talk about for years.
As you have kept up with Amphibian all these years, what have you heard about the company from patrons and artists?
Fielding: The artists that we send there, they're very excited about the kind of work that we're doing. We're hoping that our presence on the Near South Side can bring in people from that community also.
Has Amphibian stayed with its mission of producing the kind of work you wanted to do from the beginning?
Fielding: I think we've been pretty consistent as far as the types of shows that we pick. I feel like the work we do it pretty challenging. You can always tell because if you piss off a couple of people, you must be doing something right.
How has it changed?
Fielding: Things change over time. As artists you figure out more what you're about and what you're interested in. You get excited about one thing and you explore that and you move on to something else, that's what you do as artists. We started out with Burn This by Lanford Wilson, and I don't know that if we presented a Lanford Wilson play to Kathleen [now], if she'd be really excited about it or not.
In the first five or so years, you did productions and readings in New York, too, and brought a lot of artists from there here. How as the make-up of the company itself changed?
Fielding: We've had a strong company, and then what we found is that we would be picking plays and not have people from the company that work. I'm happy to say that we're back on track with picking projects that we're really excited to produce. Also, working with local actors has become a real priority, unlike it had been originally.
Kathleen, how did Amphibian Stage Productions start?
Culebro: It was me, Jonathan, Carman, Jamie Wollrab and Chad Jung at TCU. Carman and Jamie had graduated in 1999, went off to Rutgers, and that's when we thought let's get together again in Fort Worth because otherwise, fate was never going to bring us together again professionally. We picked a show that we knew we could tell well, and we did Burn This. Jonathan graduated in 2000.
In 2007, you moved from TCU to the Fort Worth Community Arts Center. How important was that move?
Culebro: We never could have made the transition from TCU to where we were going next without that interim period. It was a great way to move from being a smaller group to having staff to working with more Equity actors and solidifying our relationship with Actor's Equity, and being taken more seriously as a company and working year-round. We also developed our relationship with the Modern.
Each of those phases has been essential to us. We couldn't have started [at this new theater], or jumped from TCU to here. The problem with the FWCAC is that it's a shared space, so the calendaring is limited, and the parking situation hurt us [a few years ago, the city started charging to park in the lots between the FWCAC and Will Rogers Memorial Center]. But they have been great and have taken care of us.
Your staged readings at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth have been popular.
Culebro: The readings will move from Modern. That was a hard decision because we love being at the Modern. It comes with so many advantages. But we feel like it's time to brand ourselves in our home, and with that saved expense, we can take more risks and do more work.
Your educational outreach involves teaching kids stilt-walking, which you became interested in after presenting the West African-influenced, Brooklyn-based stilt-walking group Jumbies at the Modern.
Culebro: I never thought we'd do the kind of outreach that we're doing. It would be so much easier if we just did a little play and showed up at school. That didn't feel like what kids needed from us. The stilt-walking is like a whole different company in and of itself.
You seemed to have more of a company of actors in the early days, but have moved away from that.
Culebro: It's very limiting. You get this company and everybody gets exciting about being part of this family, and then suddenly you have no roles for some of them. That's hard. Play selection is central. It would accept the actors, and then rightfully so, they'd say "you just picked a season and there's nothing for me, and I'm a company member." It felt like an imbalanced season. Or some would fundraise and work hard for you and then didn't get cast.
Describe the Amphibian audience member.
Culebro: Our audiences love to learn, I feel like. So if I see something about somebody's who's famous, a historical figure or an artist, an event in history, I will look at that. Those appeal to me. Something that's an issue, that appeals to me. If they make you question things, I love that. Our audience is college-educated, maybe an advanced degree. They are the nonconformist. In Fort Worth, that stands out.
Amphibian has always stressed the importance of training and being professional artists, and although you became an official Small Professional Theatre (SPT) in 2011, you've always paid your artists. How important is that for the development of a professional company?
Culebro: There are too many of us who love what we do so much that we're willing to work for free, and the diminishes the value of what we do. Try to find a musician who will work for free. It doesn't exist. It's because so many think that all you have to do to act is put on an emotion and some mannerisms and you're done.
How would you describe your evolution as an artistic director?
Culebro: I have to admit that I didn't know what I was doing. Everything I've learned by trial and error. I'm about to learn how to run a theater company with a building, about being a property owner.
I feel like our years at TCU, you would come to a play and there might be five or six people in audience. Those were our education years. We were learning how to make a play, that part of it. When we moved out of that, that's when we learned how to be a business, and not just assume that if you make a good play, people would show up. We really learned that you have to get out there, meet people, network and have your elevator speech ready at all times.
I feel like I'm still figuring it all out. I think it's necessary to constantly be informed by what your city is telling you it wants instead of just imposing what you think it needs. There's a difference between a vanity project and a charitable organization. We can't forget that our stakeholders are audience members.
◊ Here is video from the ribbon cutting ceremony on Friday, Oct. 19 at the new theater, with excertps from Culebro's speech: