Fort Worth — Fort Worth’s annual SceneShop, the long-running showcase of original scenes and monologues, is celebrating its 20th season this year. What began as three actors trying to fit acting into their busy lives has become a beloved Fort Worth tradition, returning each summer with new scenes and occasionally old favorites.
This year's event, at Arts Fifth Avenue, features works written by Rob Bosquez, Natalie Gaupp, Grayson Harper, Meron Langsner and co-founder Steven Alan McGaw. Actors include familiar faces and first-timers: Maggie Allyson, Austin Bender, Steven Cashion, Debbie Dacus, Joshua Eguia, Travis J. Fant, Dylan Glaser, John Kellam, Peggy Bott Kirby, Jonathan Lannom, Steven McGaw, Thomas Mullins, Dale Shelton, Kelly Stewart, Forrest Swanson and Kristi Ramos Toler. Andrew Gaupp, of the University of Texas at Arlington theater department, is directing one scene.
As always, each night will offer live music before the show and at intermission. On opening night, Aug. 1, it'll be Dizzy Willie, led by Robert Francis. On Friday, Aug. 7, it's the SceneShop debut of singer-songwriter Mark Philpot, and closing night, Aug. 8, audiences will enjoy the acoustic eclecticism of Pasticcio.
Co-creator and Artistic Director Steven Alan McGaw chatted with TheaterJones about SceneShop’s history, including its modest beginning in the former 7th Street Cafe, what’s different this year, and a most horrific mishap that is now SceneShop legacy.
TheaterJones: What makes this 20th season different from other years?
Steven Alan McGaw: For our 10th anniversary we did a “greatest hits” show. Repeats of old favorites. This year we are doing a little bit of that, with three encore performances, but five of the shows will be new. We wanted to honor that tradition but also bring in new works.
What are the criteria for an encore? How do you know what to bring back?
Well, one of the performances we chose was received very well in its inception. It’s by a Boston writer and the voice of the character is just so different from anything I could have come up with. It played at WaterTower [Theatre]’s Out of the Loop festival and did well there. It’s a fan favorite. The [selections] we chose are shows we wanted to revisit and breathe new life into with new directors and actors. It’s a great way to see the shows evolve with time.
How did this all start? What was the impetus for doing scenes and not fully staged plays?
Time! Two of my good friends, Les Hofheinz [known as Les Cargot] and Elizabeth Sexton Morrison and I, wanted to act but we knew we just didn’t have the time for it with our day jobs and schedules. We thought, “What if we just did a few scenes somewhere?”
How did that first performance go?
Well, we quickly learned that three actors dividing up all of these scenes and characters was exhausting! We did two evening shows at the now closed 7th Street Cafe. I think the customers were pretty confused; they probably gave them a free dessert if they agreed to stay!
How was the feedback?
It was great! We got a good review in the paper and people seemed to really enjoy it. Over time Les and Elizabeth went on to do other things and I kind of took over. The late Jerry Russell of Stage West was an early supporter of SceneShop and was crucial to our success. We played many shows in the lounge of Stage West's theater on University Drive and Jerry was unfailingly gracious.
Now that you’ve been doing it for this long, you must have worked out a pretty good system. How does it all come together?
Well, I’m usually thinking about it all year, but I start talking about it to people in January. Asking who is interested, who thinks they’re going to be around in the summer. That kind of thing. In May we start planning in earnest and have everything nailed down by June.
Do you do auditions and take submissions, or is it more word of mouth?
We have done auditions and put out a call for scenes before, but a lot of it is word of mouth. I love to work with people I’ve worked with before. When I’m writing or looking at scenes I like to have people in mind. Sometimes I call them in to read.
So it’s kind of an open dialogue?
Right. Once I brought someone in to read for a scene. He told me he really liked and would love to see it, but he knew it wasn’t right for him. And he was right, and he did come see it and really enjoyed it.
It sounds pretty collaborative in nature.
It absolutely is. I don’t direct every scene. We have a lot of different people putting in their time and effort to SceneShop. It’s actually our mission statement: “SceneShop is an evolving collective of artists dedicated to the strength and entertainment value of new works, presented simply and performed well.”
How are you funded?
Modestly! We used to put the shows on for free, but now we charge a little and are able to pay our actors, which is great. We do have some private donors that help fund SceneShop. We could be more aggressive about raising money, I’m sure, but I just know too many people who end up doing that full time. We like the simple nature our shows. It’s more about the writing coming to life on stage. This year we will actually be a part of North Texas Giving Day, so we’ll be able to seek a little more funding than we usually do going forward. We will never be largely funded though, and that’s okay with us.
After 20 years you must have some famous mishaps.
You don’t do something for this long without some good stories to tell.
A favorite you can share?
The one I tell to anyone joining us for the first time happened about 11 or 12 years ago. It was a scene about a brother and sister on a road trip called Low Country Boil. The scene where it all went wrong took place at a diner, where the two are sitting a table drinking coffee. When the actress playing the waitress brought the tray out there was a note sitting on it that just said, “Roach in cup.” But we had no idea which of the two cups had the roach! [The actress playing the sister] was smart, she pretended the coffee was too hot and kept just blowing on it, while I pretended to sip the drink hoping a roach wasn’t inside.
Did you ever find out how it got there?
Well, apparently as she was picking up the tray she saw a roach on the handle of the mug. She tried to flick it off but it ended up crawling inside. By then her cue was up and it was too late to dump it out.
Did you want to see which cup it was?
I couldn’t bear to. Someone took the tray and got rid of it. Since then we have learned to keep plastic wrap over the cups and plates!
What’s a fun fact about the show someone might not know?
One actor who performed with us for many years was Charles Baker, who went on to fame playing Skinny Pete on Breaking Bad. He lives in LA now and continues to get a lot of work.
What’s the takeaway after this many years?
The relationships we’ve all made. The terrific actors, the stories we’ve told, and the faces we see back again each year in the audience. This is my chief reward. Everything we perform is its own story, it is not an excerpt. Everything you see is complete. It’s not about the lights, costumes, or sets, though those are done well. It is simply bringing a story to life on stage. There’s something elegant about that. I think there’s a beauty in that minimalism.