Fort Worth — A traveling band of actors and artists has arrived in North Texas. Self-described “nomads,” unMasqued Theatre is setting out on a cross-country tour performing the play Wasteland by Susan Felder. Founded in 2014 by two Oklahoma City University theater alums Ty Fanning and Drew Feldman, unMasqued came out of a desire to work nomadically to reach certain communities with specifically chosen works. Neither Fanning nor Feldman wanted to start “yet another” theater company, and based out of different cities (Los Angeles and New York, respectively) the idea to form a traveling troupe made sense. Fanning and Feldman are ambitious and smart, with a clear vision for the future of this unique enterprise. Their inaugural show was a rambling, folk-happy romp of Much Ado About Nothing in LA that was received well. It was a collective of actors, musicians, and artists. This collaborative ensemble is now traversing the country telling stories, singing songs, and stripping theater down to its core, focusing only on space and time.
Wasteland will have its Texas/Regional Premiere in Fort Worth at the Studio at Stage West this week, directed by Dallas actor/director—and new face of Top Golf—Jeffrey Schmidt. They then tour to Oklahoma City and Colorado Springs before closing at the Rochester Fringe Festival in New York. We talked to them about the company and the show.
TheaterJones: What was the impetus for a nomadic collaborative rather than a traditional company?
unMasqued Theater: We really liked the idea of bringing specific stories to specific places. We didn’t want to be just another theater company, and we wanted to bring theater to the people, rather than trying to fit into the mold of a company within a certain setting.
You call yourself a “multidisciplinary” collaborative, how does that work in practice?
For Much Ado we had a huge group of actors, musicians, and artists. The play really lends itself to the idea of a “band,” this group of soldiers, it reminded us of a band on tour. One day [Drew] was listening to Mumford and Sons and it just kind of hit me, listening to the lyrics.
So does that mean you used outside music in the show as a way to tell the story?
No, not at all. We are very committed to the text. We composed some original music for the show based on Shakespeare’s sonnets. But we wanted to be true to the story. Every piece of the show needs to have a purpose and a meaning. Something may look good but we wanted it to be supported by the writing.
How does the multidisciplinary part work for Wasteland?
The size of this cast and production doesn’t demand the group that we had for Much Ado, so that changes based on what we’re doing. For Wasteland we are working with a documentary maker who is filming the process of creating a play and also tying that into our real lives.
That sounds very meta.
Yeah it kind of is. We looked at these characters, and you can find the psychology to make a story that might not resonate to our lives play on stage. The show is about these two young men who go off to Vietnam, they don’t know what they are getting into. Our director [Jeffrey Schmidt] was very good about getting us to not look at this from a modern perspective; we had to see it like naive teenagers from that era. And we didn’t know much about that kind of person.
So what did you do to get to that perspective?
We watched these Vietnam training videos. They were crazy. It was like they were describing a trip to Disneyland. They were really upbeat and chipper. That really helped to identify the mindset of these guys. They had no idea what they were getting into. [Drew] watched Apocalypse Now and listened to a lot of the music from that time, too.
So how does this fit into the theme of bringing specific works to specific places?
This play first premiered in Chicago. We wanted to bring it to the South. Ty’s character is very pro-war, pro-Nixon. He’s comical. We wanted to see how different audiences would react to these themes. We haven’t had a war since World War II that the entire country was behind. It’s very timely. These guys are in a constant state of survival and we saw the definite parallels there to a nomadic theater company.
Depending on where you go do you think you’ll hit those notes differently?
No. I’m sure the audiences will differ in New York as opposed to Texas, but we don’t really want to lean into that. Our hope is to bring a dialogue with us to these different cities, to identify how they resonate based on where we are. These two characters are really opposed to each other philosophically and we want to see those oppositions in the different places we visit.
Are there other elements other than the play that you’ll bring with you as you travel?
We have an educational element. We've taught a workshop at a high school here in Plano and have mask workshops slated for our time in Colorado. Masks are something we are intrigued by and have used in our personal training. We are currently in process of developing a mask workshop to be taught on the road, along with outreach to military organizations in Colorado Springs. They have a private viewing of our show and we are engaging in dialogue. Specifically with a group called Citizen Soldier Connection. It’s important to share the work and gather responses as we go.
And how are you making this all happen financially?
We were accepted initially as a part of Fractured Atlas, which acts as an "umbrella" non-profit and fosters young artists like ourselves, and we find funding through private donations. This got us the funds to put Much Ado About Nothing up in Los Angeles. From there we saved our pennies with ticket sales and various forms of donations. This year we received our Non-Profit status and are now seeking donations on a broader scale to support our work going from city to city. The best way to support us is to come see our shows though!