Fort Worth — “When you’re working with another company you get a different set of energies and ways of doing things. It’s interesting to encounter that.”
Stage West co-producer Jim Covault is talking about the company’s co-production—with WaterTower Theatre—of Nell Benjamin’s 2013 Off-Broadway hit The Explorers Club. Set in the 1870s, this comic quarrel pits an all-male group of British scientists against (oh, the horror!) a lady anthropologist who insists she wants to play too. Explorers Club opens Nov. 29 at Stage West and in January at WaterTower Theatre.
Opening night is ten days away, and designer Clare Floyd DeVries’ stage set—appropriately clubby and Victorian—is starting to take shape in Fort Worth. Covault is deep into rehearsals with a cast that’s a nicely stirred mix of actors who do, and don’t, have a past with the two companies. Covault’s partner at Stage West, co-producer Dana Schultes, plays the uppity female of the piece, but many of the cast are new to both stages.
How did it happen? WaterTower and Stage West have been dancing around the notion of a co-pro for several years, and both companies have experimented with versions of “shared” theater. Stage West imported the Dallas production by Soul Rep Theatre Company of Blues for an Alabama Sky a decade or so ago; more recently, WTT’s production of Shooting Star moved north for a cost-sharing short run with New York’s Adirondack Theatre Festival.
WaterTower continued the experiment by bringing both Stage West’s Red Hot Patriot:The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins in 2013 and Circle Theatre’s edgy Venus in Fur last May. And Stage West imported Theater Three’s Avenue Q for a successful run early this year, building a new set but signing up the Dallas cast and director.
Martin talks about the start of WTT’s relationship with Stage West. “Red Hot Patriot had done so well for them, and it worked really, really well here. We weren’t sharing expenses from the start, of course—we split expenses once the show moved here, and we did some profit-sharing.” Not, he laughs, that there’s much profit-sharing in not-for-profit theater—“but every now and then you might make a few hundred dollars!”
The success of RHP told the two companies what they’d already suspected—their audiences liked the same kind of theater. And they decided, for once and for all, that the notion of Dallas-Fort Worth being a single theater market was more myth than reality. In fact, there seemed to be virtually no audience overlap between the two companies.
“I don’t think many people in Fort Worth drive to Dallas for theater, or vice versa,” says Covault. “In fact, if we thought we had a big audience crossover, we probably wouldn’t be doing this.” Anecdotal evidence bears him out: given the crush of traffic and the average adult’s work/family schedule, it’s only hardcore theater buffs (and actors’ Moms) who drive 50 to 70 miles across North Texas to see local theater productions.
“Once I got my head around the reality that we’re not in competition with each other for audiences,” says Martin, “the benefits of co-production suddenly became clear.” He sent Covault and Schultes a couple of titles he thought might be a good fit, and The Explorers Club “was the one that quickly came to the top.”
WaterTower and Stage West are sharing the cost of rehearsals, costumes, props and some stage designs: DeVries’ set, for instance, will work for both theaters, though some height will be added for WTT’s taller space. “It would have been a very expensive set for us, and sharing the cost enabled us to bring it off with a fair amount of architectural detail,” says Covault. Lighting design was a different story. “The context [of each space] is so utterly different, and we finally realized there was no point in trying to develop one lighting design.” And, he adds, “The director's fee is part of the shared budget, so both theaters are paying me.”
Not shared is the actors’ pay during the two runs: each company will handle box office and pay actors for the weeks at their theater. Interestingly, that will mean slightly higher earnings for the Equity talent after the move to WaterTower. Both companies operate on SPT (Small Professional Theater) contracts with Equity, but because WTT’s budget is larger, so also is the Equity minimum for the actors. Covault says he’s pleased that the extended run will make a dent in the number of work weeks actors need to be eligible for AEA’s group health plan. “Having a very long contract like this is an excellent thing for them, and not something that happens locally all that often,” he says.
Covault says that, so far at least, the co-production has been “remarkably complication-free,” and Martin agrees. WaterTower had a simple and workable business model to offer, and the artistic “ethos” of the two groups seemed to align. “And that’s the essential thing, really,” says Covault. “You couldn’t be too far apart in that regard, or it just wouldn’t work.”
Covault is directing The Explorers Club; the time frame worked better for his schedule than Martin’s—but both say things easily could have been done the other way around. The Explorers Club, says Martin, was “right up Jim’s alley, the kind of British farce Stage West does so very well.” Covault notes it’s the sort of show they like to put up in December—not overtly holiday-themed, but “great comedy, not troubling to anyone.” WaterTower does do a holiday show every December, Martin notes, and there’s “always a time crunch” going straight from that into their January production. Bringing in an up-and-running co-production sounded “very attractive, and a way not to be so harried through the holidays—it’s just a load-in situation [for the set] with a few days to get actors and techs up to speed in our space.”
The informal rules of the artistic partnership were laid out early on, says Martin. “Before we’d even decided who would direct, Jim and I had a really frank conversation up front, agreeing that as producers both of us were on an equal footing in this, and that we had to be able to have ‘those’ conversations as needed. So we’ve talked and negotiated about casting, I’ve seen a few run-throughs, and it’s all gone well. Jim certainly has seemed open to any input and notes I’ve had to give.”
Covault senses “more of an impulse for collaboration” floating around the North Texas theater scene, and though he’s reluctant to theorize about reasons, it’s hard to believe sheer economics isn’t one of them. At a time when small- to mid-size theater companies from here to Manhattan draw enthusiastic audiences but often feel one unpaid bill away from life support, finding ways to share expenses without giving up “the mission” sounds like a better and better deal.
Still, it’s a struggle to get it right—and the learning curve can be bumpy.
Circle Theatre’s production of David Ives’ play Venus in Fur, which starred hot acting duo Allison Pistorius and Chris Hury, received mostly stellar reviews during its run in Fort Worth early this year. WTT’s Martin approached Circle artistic director Rose Pearson with an offer to bring Venus to Addison a few months later, much as the company had imported Stage West’s Molly Ivins show a year before.
“The people who saw Venus in Fur here really loved it,” says Terry Martin emphatically. That was the good news, But, he adds, “The fact is, we didn’t draw a big audience, and it wasn’t quite as successful for us, perhaps because of the nature of the show.”
Pearson says neither she nor Martin “expected the show to be a gung-ho seller; we were looking at it more as a way to figure out how to do this. But we’d have liked to break even, so that was disappointing.
“The folks at WaterTower were super-easy and cool to work with, and it was great for the two actors, who are both from Dallas and had put in the time and mileage to do the show in Fort Worth, and now had the chance to perform in their town, too.” They even made a little history, she says. “Equity didn’t have anything on the books for a project like this; they had to work with us to create a program for professional actors doing a production between two theaters. If they’d treated [the second run] as a completely new show we couldn’t have afforded to do it. So they found a way to be fair to the actors without charging us too much money.
“So from the point of view of it being a learning experience and a great production, all aces across the board,” Pearson says. “But profit? No.”
Limited press coverage and marketing was another problem: in its second run, “the show flew under the radar a little bit,” Pearson jokes. In Fort Worth the play generated at least seven full reviews from area critics; when the show moved to WaterTower, only two new reviews appeared, in D Magazine and the Dallas Observer, though the Dallas Morning News’ Nancy Churnin wrote a thoughtful preview piece on the play’s move.
Press coverage for “round two” of a shared show is a concern for Martin, too. “If a play opens and gets great reviews in one place, and then comes to the second theater and isn’t reviewed, that’s a problem. You hope that the show is strong enough that word of mouth will draw people, but being mentioned in the press is really important.” Still, he adds, it’s a good thing that both WaterTower and Stage West have “a pretty strong subscriber base to count on” in marketing a season of shows.
Despite the problems, Pearson thinks co-productions are “worth encouraging” and she sounds game to try another, using all she and the staff at Circle have learned.
It’s better if you plan it from the outset,” she says. “Give it a good place in the schedule, advertise it, and share costs from the get-go. That kind of co-production makes lots of sense to me—sharing set, costumes, director, rehearsal costs—especially since I think our audiences, and Stage West’s, aren’t much different from those at WaterTower and Theatre Three.”
It’s not a good time to ask Martin and Covault about future co-productions: they’ll think about that after The Explorers Club closes next February. But this type of cross-pollination among theaters on both sides of the Trinity has a lot to offer those who make theater and those who simply “like to watch”: cost savings for cash-strapped companies, and an expanded menu of choices for all of us out there in the seats.
It’s too soon, perhaps, to call it a trend, although it was also done in 2011 when Dallas Theater Center and Casa Mañana co-produced To Kill a Mockingbird, and interestingly, the upcoming touring season has four shows in common for Dallas Summer Musicals and Performing Arts Fort Worth, which will share some of the marketing costs for Pippin, Cinderella, Dirty Dancing and Kinky Boots. Add that to the list of collaborations that have been happening when two groups work on one production (often in Dallas), such as Cara Mía Theatre Company and Prism Co.’s recent Teotl: the sand show (Cara Mía also has an upcoming co-production with Dallas Theater Center of the second installment of The Dreamers).
So, who knows? Maybe it’s time for theater companies to stop going it alone, and think about looking for ways to “play” well together—and share.