Plano — Creating a theater company out of whole cloth is neither for the faint of heart nor fuzzy of vision. Challenges abound starting day one, beginning with what sorts of shows to produce, segueing to more mundane yet crucial concerns like where to literally hang hats, rehearse actors, and store props. Companies devoted to a particular “niche,” be it defined by content, demographics, or locale, may also face the need to broaden its PR appeal beyond their automatically simpatico audiences.
In 1996, several British expatriates found themselves in North Texas, longing for a taste of home in the form of “panto,” English theatrical holiday pantomime loved by multiple generations. From this fledgling beginning was born Theatre Britain, which this year celebrates its 20th anniversary.
According to Artistic Director Sue Birch, Theatre Britain’s stated mission has been “to promote British theatre in its many and varied forms with particular emphasis on the unique medium of British pantomime (panto).”
Panto consists of “a traditional fairy tale complete with songs, dances, jokes, exaggerated characters, and lots of audience participation.” Theatre Britain’s first such holiday show, in 1996, was The Sleeping Beauty, written by one of the company’s co-founders Jackie Mellor-Guin, and produced at the Plaza Theater in Carrollton. Beginning Nov. 26, that same show, with slight updates, will be offered in honor of the troupe’s anniversary at Theatre Britain’s permanent performing venue, the Cox Building Playhouse in downtown Plano. It runs through Dec. 30.
After years of intermittent peripatetic journeying among various performing locales in Dallas and other suburbs, including periodic quests for suitable rehearsal space, Theatre Britain is now permanently ensconced at the 110-seat Cox Playhouse, and rents a large storefront on Summit Avenue in Plano as a combination rehearsal space/set construction facility/storage area for the company’s ever-growing accumulation of unique costumes, set furniture, and props. The latter collection, for example, includes multiple containers devoted to “fake food” of all varieties, including their faux chocolate cake “Choco,” which has graced Theatre Britain’s stage in multiple productions.
I recently visited the Summit Avenue locale, in which a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II hangs notably on a wall. As Birch drew my attention to tape on the main room’s floor, representing practice area the exact size of their Playhouse stage, pride and gratitude were in abundance. This “small” company, their size and budget notwithstanding, wants everything connected with their shows reflecting the high production values that have guided them for two decades.
Sue Birch, Jackie Mellor-Guin, and two other British ladies initially formed the company in 1996 with the aim of introducing North Texas to the art of traditional panto. After that year’s inaugural The Sleeping Beauty, the founding group eventually disbanded as its members sought other challenges, and while Birch concentrated on her acting career. Theatre Britain would be dark from 1998 to 2001, but in 2002, Birch produced The Mysterious Mr. Love by Karoline Leach and directed a new The Sleeping Beauty as that year’s holiday panto. Between 2002 and 2009, the company was in residence at Dallas’s Trinity River Arts Center. Theatre Britain incorporated in 2005 and moved to the Cox Playhouse in 2010.
Their seasons have included a mixture of dramatic and comedic works from British household names like Shakespeare, Pinter, Shaffer, Coward, and Ayckbourn, with a plentiful helping of playwrights largely unknown to American audiences. Along with straight plays have been touches of early-20th-century British musical nostalgia via their Old Time Music Hall fundraisers, devised by Birch. From 2004 to 2009, Theatre Britain also toured its version of the pro-“tolerance” play for children, Peacemaker by David Holman, to schools and other venues. With a 2017 budget of $196,000, Theatre Britain’s upcoming season will include four mainstage shows in addition to the panto, including two premieres.
The company also offers educational outreach to the DFW community, via its “Improvisation for Seniors” classes, led by Birch. Earlier in 2016, Paul Kalbergi also led an “Introduction to Playwriting” course, the latter culminating in a special performance at the Cox Playhouse in June.
For every theater troupe, the show’s the thing. As an audience member rediscovering this company a year ago, I have been greatly impressed by the care and quality imbuing all aspects of their productions, both on stage and behind the scenes—from the obvious, such as sets, costumes, and music, to the not-so-apparent yet still important box office management, ease of ticket purchasing, a user-friendly website [www.theatre-britain.com], fine playbills graced with inventive cover art, and the attractive Cox Playhouse lobby.
Theatre Britain’s “Resident Creative Team”—Darryl Clement, set designer; Ian Birch, technical director and box office manager; Jason Lynch, lighting designer; Aaron Fryklund, composer of each production’s original music; Don Hall, wig and hair designer; Gretchen Goetz, artist for all of Theatre Britain’s promotional material and playbills; and Mark Trew, photography—achieve consistently outstanding results in every area. In 2015, the Dallas Observer named Theatre Britain the city’s “Best Small Theater Troupe.”
Of course, no show can live without its performers, and some recent e-mail conversations with several of Theatre Britain’s frequent actors offered further insight into what has allowed the company to thrive after two decades.
Bryan Brooks, who will appear in the upcoming The Sleeping Beauty, applauds Theatre Britain’s “tremendous professionalism,” and adds that “Sue Birch’s direction is always open to an actor’s creative discovery and encourages character growth…They attract a wonderful array of talent and their sets are always magnificent.” Caitlin Duree notes that “Theatre Britain is a non-Equity company but is run as if it was, as they are incredibly considerate of their actors’ time. Their production value is probably one of the best in the Metroplex.”
Robert San Juan, who will portray Sleeping Beauty’s “dame,” applauds the fact that “They seek out multicultural casts: they actually advertise to have a multicultural cast. I’m half Filipino, so often when I read audition notices I think, ‘Well, could I fit this part because of my race?’ With Theatre Britain, I’ve felt confident and been welcomed to audition for whatever role I wanted.”
Octavia Y. Thomas, also part of the Sleeping Beauty cast, says “Theatre Britain spoils you…Even beyond the panto each year are solidly acted dramatic and comedic productions. The intimacy of their space allows a connection to the audience that’s sometimes difficult to achieve in larger venues. Sue Birch is a fantastic director, but there’s so much work that occurs behind the scenes with production, box office, and the Board of Directors, as well. It really feels like a family to work with them.”
And Jennifer Stoneking summarizes Theatre Britain as “great scripts, great sets, great quality shows. Whether it’s the panto, a murder mystery, or a farce, it’s always solid, polished, and entertaining. They set the bar high for themselves and that translates into great shows for their audiences.”
As Theatre Britain’s 20th anniversary production of Sleeping Beauty nears its opening, Sue Birch discussed with me, among other topics, how she selects their plays and casts the productions, her personal road to becoming an actor/director, the company’s successful and not-so-successful community outreach efforts over the years, and the “culture of kindness” underpinning all they do.
TheaterJones: Do you use any special formula in selecting plays for a particular season?
Sue Birch: You want to balance a season between comedy and drama, since some patrons don’t care for farce or heavy drama. Then, there’s something for everyone, along with the mainstay of the panto at holiday time. I like to have a comedy as the first show of the season if possible; it helps draw people in for the rest of the year.
I like finding plays that people haven’t seen before. For example, next year, we’re doing the American premiere of Winston’s Birthday by Paul Baker. Also, though we can’t label it a “premiere,” the second play of the season, Let It Be Me by Carey Jane Hardy, is only now in the Samuel French catalog because we asked it to be so; thus, unless someone else does it before next April, our production will effectively be the first time that play has been done in the States.
I appreciate that you choose to do what some might call “well-made” plays. There’s obviously an audience out there for works with characters and action one can easily grasp.
And there are many companies around who do plays that are not like that, and do them very well. I would say that we do a lot of “mainstream” material, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. When people can tell themselves, “I know I’m going to have a good experience at a Theatre Britain show,” you can put something a little more challenging into your season every so often, and say to audiences “OK, think about this.” It’s still well-produced and well-acted, but it’s not quite as comforting as some of the other shows might be. Maybe some people won’t like it, or they’ll choose not to attend at all, but they know that the next time they come, it’s going to be fine. It gets to the point where people trust you: even if they don’t like one show, they’ll come for others. I will be interested in seeing how our patrons react to Let It Be Me next year. It’s about Alzheimer’s, but it’s also a love story and a compassionate look at caregiving.
Do you have actors in mind for particular roles as you decide to produce a play, or do you start with a clean slate at auditions?
I try to start with a clean slate, but that doesn’t mean when you read plays that you don’t think, “Oh, so-and-so would be good for that,” or “I know I could cast that if these people were available.” But we very, very rarely pre-cast. The only exception is the panto’s “dame” character, because if I know that if an actor who’s already performed it is available, then that’s something. But I try to keep an open mind because you never know who’s going to walk through the door. It’s a producer’s cliché, but the real joy of auditions is when you see someone new and you’re just willing them to be absolutely brilliant and everything that you want.
This year, at least half of your casts have been new faces to me, albeit with lots of experience and credits in your playbill.
One likes to work with familiar people because then you know what to expect, but it’s good to have new faces around as well. In the panto, especially, it’s great to have a mix of people who have done it before plus new folks, just because that kind of show is a bit more specialized. And you will see some actors multiple times at Theatre Britain, because they come back to work with us, so that is, in itself, a flattering thing.
You did Macbeth in 2006. Do you anticipate doing more Shakespeare?
I’m not sure; I wouldn’t tend in that direction, since there are several other groups around here that do Shakespeare very well, and I think there are other things that Theatre Britain can uniquely bring to the party. Our Macbeth was very different, very earthy. It was set in this world where all the men were bare-chested and bronzed, a very sensory kind of production. It was cut down to about 90 minutes. Robin Armstrong directed, and she had some great ideas; it was very physical, with hand-to-hand fighting. People enjoyed it.
You’ve personally acted, as well as directed. Between the two, which do you prefer?
I’d rather act! Acting was my first love. When I was 7 or 8, I’d practice my audition speeches for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts [RADA]. My parents were supportive, but wanted there to be something “behind” me as well, so I studied French and history at university. I ended up in publishing and eventually in IT and software project managing. I was in my early 30s, in conference with my boss one day, and he asked me what I’d want to do if I could do anything, and I replied that I’d want to be an actor. And he said, “Well, why don’t you do it, then? If you want something that badly, you’ll do it.”
And so, at age 31, I auditioned for RADA. I knew I probably hadn’t gotten in, but that moment after I left the building, having done what I’d wanted to do since I was so young, I flew down the street, as I was so happy: everything was sparkling. I continued auditioning for schools and eventually, I ended up going to the Oxford School of Drama, and that was it.
I came into directing because there was nobody else to direct the panto. Jackie Mellor-Guin went to Los Angeles in 1998, and I couldn’t work at that point since I didn’t have a permit. So I pursued acting [in community theater] until I had one, and then in 2002, I found a play I wanted to produce with a part I wanted to perform, so I thought, I’ll set up a theater company—but wait, I am part of a theater company! My name is on the “thing”! So I resurrected Theatre Britain and we did The Mysterious Mr. Love by Karoline Leach at the Trinity River Arts Center in the summer. People came to see it and said “That was great, but when are you going to do another panto?” And so we ended up doing a panto at holiday time that year back at the Plaza Theatre in Carrollton where we first started. There was nobody else to direct it, so I stepped in, the first time I directed an entire play.
There’s an extensive British population in this area, correct?
Yes, several companies are bringing in ex-pats, and quite a community has formed. There are British clubs, and chapters of the Daughters of the British Empire. And the British Emporium in Grapevine has always been a big supporter and a magnet for the ex-pat community, so having them help us get the word out about Theatre Britain has been great.
What have been some of your favorite productions over the years?
One of my favorite pantos was Dick Whittington in 2011. It’s so iconic. It took us that long to do it because it’s not really a story that’s well-known around here, but it’s one of the most famous ones in Britain. And I think it got to the point where it really didn’t matter what the story was: because it’s a panto, people were going to come see it. Whereas, if we had put that one on right at the very beginning, nobody would have known what it was.
I really enjoyed directing The Mousetrap in 2014, along with Perfect Wedding this year and How the Other Half Loves in 2015. And speaking as an actor, I would add Vincent River from 2009; it was a privilege to play the female role.
Your recent production of The Hollow was an enormous hit, with many full houses right from opening night. Part of it was likely the pull of Agatha Christie, but I suspect people also knew, via your reputation, that you would offer a fine show.
What we believe about that is that, as you say, the drip-drip-drip on the street was saying “It’s Theatre Britain, and they do good work.” Only 44 tickets went unsold, and 39 of those were in the first weekend, so it was hugely successful.
You’re once again offering your “Improvisation for Seniors” class in 2017. It’s nice that you’re willing and able to give the community something “extra,” in addition to your productions.
Improv for Seniors came out of my doing a course on “How to Produce a Play” for the group SALE [Seniors Active in Learning] in Collin County. After that, the class coordinator said “Ask the seniors if there’s anything else they might be interested in,” and they said “improv”. They saw improv as a way of keeping the mind going, the neurons firing. So I started an improv class with SALE and we had a core group of about 10 or 12 people. SALE has now become so popular that they’re doing programs serving a broader range of folks, so they can’t accommodate anything with fewer than 20 or 25 people. But the seniors in the core of the improv group wanted to continue, so with SALE’s agreement, we took that on. Now we meet here on Summit Avenue on Tuesday afternoons, and we just laugh the entire time! During much of the two hours, I have tears streaming down my face, and we just have fun.
Improv for Seniors will continue in the spring. It brings in a bit of extra money—$50 for five sessions—so it’s really not going to pay for this rehearsal space, but it’s good to offer outreach, providing something extra for seniors.
And this year, we also had the “Introduction to Playwriting” class with Paul Kalbergi. He’s moved to Spain, but may be back. I’d love to be able to do that course again, if he returns to town.
Have you had many school bookings this year for your touring production of Peacemaker?
Sadly, no. Peacemaker is one of those things, if I may be honest about this, that’s so invigorating and so needed, but impossible to sell. That’s why we stopped doing it in 2009, because I couldn’t get bookings, and it was the same this year. We ended up only doing four shows. And it’s an awful lot of work for the actors. Everyone in the production was new this year, so we had to buy new costumes, things like that. So it’s an expense to put it on. We’re very grateful for those four performances, but it’s hard to sell.
We priced it at $600 which I think is reasonable, but we got feedback from some schools saying it was too expensive. But it basically breaks down to $1 or $2 a child. And you don’t even have to hire buses, because we come to you. To be honest, it’s very frustrating. We used to be affiliated with Big Thought and other groups like that, but you have to make sure you apply at exactly the right times. People ask us for discounts: I could do that, but I don’t think they understand that the show doesn’t belong to us—every time we perform it, we pay royalties to the playwright and to the composer whose music we use. And we pay our actors, rent the trailers, etc. When you come right down to it, we just can’t give it away.
It was well received in the places we did take it to, but I don’t know why it’s such hard work trying to sell it. To me, it’s a no-brainer, especially at this particular moment. We’ve all been hearing about problems in schools and what’s sad is that the issue is always going to be relevant, something we’re never going to solve, but one of those situations where we should at least try. When we started it in 2003, we just mailed information to the schools and had seven performances booked right away, and they had no idea who we were. Maybe it’s a cyclical thing.
People say to me “Put it on at the Courtyard Theatre [in Plano], and invite people to come,” and that’s fine, but you really need the counselors and the teachers to be there. We’ve had principals and PTA people promise to come see us for possible bookings and then never show up, so what can you do? So at the moment, I’m not focusing on Peacemaker, but it is something that’s very dear to all of us at Theatre Britain.
As a patron, I’ve been very impressed with your sets and costumes, and the way you handle ticket sales, plus your great website. You have a very well-run organization, considering your size, though I hate using that phrase. You’ve established, and maintained, high standards in every area.
I think my background in “project management” has helped with that, but also, our culture is very important to us. Apart from professionalism in everything, our culture is all about kindness. It’s about doing the right thing and being welcoming—not just to our patrons, the outward face of any company, but also to anybody who works for us. It means not wasting people’s time, and providing a safe and sanitary place. We used to have Equity contracts, but we don’t any more, since our space is so small and it doesn’t make financial sense, though I would like to be able to do so again at some point. However, we still reference the Equity “rulebooks” in how we handle breaks, stuff like that. It’s important. As an actor myself, I’m thinking “Well, this is how I would like to be treated if I was working here.” I’m also very gratified by the things we hear actors say, that they’re well treated here. That makes me feel good.
When we started in 1996, we didn’t take credit cards. Eventually, we moved to what I call the “ker-klunk” machine. And we only took orders by phone; we didn’t start online ticket sales until 2012. I didn’t want to make our patrons pay booking fees, so I resisted online ticketing for a long time. But when we moved to Plano, a board member looked into ticketing systems, and we found Vendini. We liked their product, so I negotiated a flat fee with them, one that doesn’t depend on the cost of our tickets. Eventually, we made the fee part of the ticket cost, so there’s nothing extra added on. That was a boon. I can’t imagine handling phone reservations for The Hollow!
There are quite a few married theatrical teams in this area. At Theatre Britain, your husband Ian handles the technical side of your operation, including your box office. I assume that works well for you?
For him, this is a part-time thing since he’s a management consultant and thus has other jobs, but I rely upon his technical expertise. He’s an amazing set builder. Darryl Clement is our set designer, and I’m also in awe of his set painting—after he finishes, this floor looks like floorboards, that floor looks like tiles, and that one looks like grain wood. So together, he and Ian make a great team. And Ian constructs things so they’re safe and well built, and he also knows about sound and lights. I couldn’t do this without him. And I think we indeed have a reputation for our sets being super.
Will you return to acting in the future?
I’d love to; I just have to figure out when that might be possible. If I can arrange for other directors to do some Theatre Britain shows, that would free me up to audition for other companies. When you’re directing, it’s all-consuming: you kinda have to be there, so there’s really no time.
During your leaner years, did you ever consider changing direction? It appears that you’ve held onto your initial vision from 20 years ago, and just waited for things to turn around.
I never seriously considering disbanding the theater, though we did go dark for several years when Jackie left for Los Angeles because I couldn’t run it. I was very worried we wouldn’t be able to do the panto in 2010 but then we got the Cox Building Playhouse for that show. It was always in the back of my mind that if things improved, we might be able to do more shows again. And we made sure to expand slowly: we did one weekend of Old Time Music Hall in 2012 and then in 2013, Albert’s Anthology, thus giving people one extra show. We increased gradually, and now we’re up to four productions, in addition to the panto. We made sure we weren’t overextending ourselves. Getting a grant from the City of Plano really helped. That’s one of the things that’s enabled us to grow, and we’re very, very grateful for that.
Then we reached the point where we had to get this rehearsal/storage space, which was a big financial commitment. We don’t struggle, but we are very aware of our situation. If your theater company doesn’t have a permanent place to rehearse, that thought is always looming at the back of your mind.
A company’s size shouldn’t matter when it comes to standards. Obviously, it costs money to do things, but you have to do the best you can within the budget you’ve got. For example, I try not to go above a certain amount in building a set, but if we have to, we have to. We need to look good.
» Cathy Ritchie is Adult Materials Selector for the Dallas Public Library
» Listen to the November 2016 episode of Plano Podcast, in which Birch talks about the panto, and TheaterJones editor Mark Lowry discusses panto, the arts in Plano, and more.