Dallas — “When’s Chess?”
Ashley got the text halfway through our Season Announcement Party Aug. 28.
She got a similar one a few minutes later.
“Okay, but where’s Chess?”
Chess has always been one of Ashley’s “Bucket List” shows that she’s talked about doing, so it was expected. A new theatre company with Ashley as one of the co-artistic directors? They’re going to do Chess.
We didn’t choose Chess for our first Season.
It wasn’t right. That seems easy to say now, but it took us a long time to get there. Our lineup wasn’t born overnight, or even over a few consecutive nights. It took many months of planning and MANY lessons were learned, but what we eventually landed on was a well-balanced, deeply personal season that we can’t wait to mount.
We can admit now, our first draft of it was not good. The shows were good... great even, but it just didn’t make sense. There was no through-line, there was no relevancy, there was no identity, and there were no surprises. Yes, Chess was one of those original four shows, along with three other pieces we can’t wait to eventually produce. Our first pass at a season simply consisted of the shows we wished we could do, that we’d always wanted to do, and now was the chance. Unfortunately, there is no longevity in that, let alone a voice.
Here’s how we found our voice:
We set Chess and three other shows to the side and started again. We hoped we would know it when we had it, but we honestly didn’t even know what we were looking for. Our list of boxes to check began like this:
That was it.
We both grew up in ensemble-based theatre mindsets. That was an easy one, and one we already knew we wanted to pursue, from the very beginning. But what else? We decided to evaluate and self-assess. We just started chatting, like we did when we dreamed about someday having a theatre company.
- What drives us?
- Why do we want to create a theatre?
- What feeds our artistic appetites?
- What is the message we want to convey?
We both had deep admiration for honest, straightforward works. We both wanted to pursue pieces that weren’t done in the area. We both wanted to do shows that we felt emotionally connected with on a base level. For our first Season at least, we also wanted to focus on contemporary (or contemporary-ish) pieces. We were a new company with very little funding, so we had to keep that in mind with simplistic sets and costuming options…
Now we were getting somewhere.
We began to talk about shows. Our list of qualifiers was getting longer:
- Hadn’t been produced in the area recently
- Honest, straightforward. Nothing abstract
- Emotionally driven and compelling
- Low production cost
Okay. These are some qualifiers. We got to reading and we got to talking. We decided to try to only consider shows that checked each of these boxes.
The first show we nailed down for our season was Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet, which also happens to be the first show we will be mounting. It met all the qualifications and early artistic discussions were very exciting. We liked the idea of conceptualizing the piece to make it new and appealing while maintaining the harsh, gut-wrenching story and amazing dialogue within it. We also felt it made a super strong statement right out of the gate. We were going to start with a Pulitzer Prize winner with some of the most complicated dialogue ever written. No small choice, but really, why be safe when you only get one shot at a First Season? Show one was done, and we were on fire with excitement.
A fun little happenstance that came from choosing Glengarry was that it was set in Chicago, Joe’s hometown and where he came into his own as an artist. We loved that little inside nod to his upbringing and what brought him here, and decided to let that be a small part of the theme. Ashley trained in New York City and stakes a lot of her artistic identity in the years she spent there. Our next focus was finding shows that would take place in the Big Apple.
We knew early on that we wanted to have a balanced season in regards to plays vs. musicals. We are lovers of both and wanted to provide opportunities for both musical theatre and straight theatre artists, while appealing to both audiences. So, it was time to find our first musical.
We found Murder Ballad by Julia Jordan and Juliana Nash shortly after securing Glengarry. Joe had been familiar with it from his time in Chicago, but Ashley was only vaguely aware of it from her obsession with immersive theatre at the time it came out in New York. A quick listen to the cast recording had us both completely thrilled by the prospect, and so we bought the script and dove right in.
It was fresh, it was exciting, it was raw and honest, contemporary and new…. And it happened to pack one of the most powerful rock vocal scores we’d ever heard. It also featured intimacy and staged violence, two things Ashley is passionate about providing safe platforms for and are in-line with her personal artistic thesis in a huge way. Murder Ballad was an instant favorite for our first musical slot. We secured it, and found ourselves holding our breath every time a new season was announced, scared it would get snatched away. It was perfect.
We decided on the fourth show in our lineup next, Blood Brothers by Willy Russell. This one was a little more of a read on the current times. Joe felt a strong kinship toward the piece since he saw it first produced in London many years ago. The show is a funny and moving ensemble piece about the dreams of two brothers growing up and the class struggle that follows them. It was powerful and relevant then as it is now, and we both really enjoyed the prospect of presenting it in a current way. We talked about how to make it work within the present time as well as how well it seemed to fit with the theme presenting itself for our Season. We were finding these pieces that were so powerfully written examinations of human longing and passion… And it was happening on its own. The theme had presented itself, and we began toying with the idea of naming it Built for Longing, after one of the songs in Murder Ballad.
We just had to find our second play to make it official. This one proved to be the trickiest by far, and by the week before our announcement party, we were sweating.
We’ll start at the beginning:
We met doing a farce by Ray Cooney and share a mutual love and respect for his plays. We always said if we started a theatre company, we’d start with one of his farces... not only as a sendup to him, but also because they’re just so damn fun to do. It was a gimme… an easy homage to where it all began, and a promise we felt we had to hold true to. We chose one of his lesser done pieces and plopped it into slot three.
So, there we had it, a finished Season. WOW, that felt GOOD! We called it done and we were so excited. We had a Season and it was GOOD.
Except, it wasn’t actually… And deep down, we knew it. There was no power there, in fact it brought down the emphasis of honesty presented in the first three shows significantly. An amazing show, yes. A good way to round out Built for Longing, it was not.
Simply put, the farce didn’t work.
For one, it was male dominant in a season where we already had one all male show. Two, it was a period piece. Three, while an honest script, it wasn’t entirely emotionally driven in the way Glengarry, Murder Ballad, and Blood Brothers were. All our checkboxes we worked hard to create were empty.
We were learning another lesson: just because it is the right show for you, doesn’t mean it is the right show for now. You can’t force a season and you can’t only choose shows that serve you. Trust the work and trust the vision. It will choose itself. And boy, did it…
We scrapped the farce and set out, once again. This time with an even more focused vision. We spent time talking about what didn’t work with our Farce and what we thought would be a good addition for the rest of the shows. In wanting a balanced season, we also decided we also wanted to provide an outlet and voice for female playwrights, a platform Ashley is super passionate about.
We decided to search for a female-oriented, if not all women show to counter Glengarry Glen Ross’ male-heavy theme and to make our evenly weighted Season balanced with playwrights as well. Two males, two females. Equal playing field (as it should be — but that’s for another article).
It was a tedious search. There is a decided lack of female-focused comedies out there, which is frustrating and a shame. We kept finding shows that were funny, but the female voice was always supporting. It was mind-boggling. It also fueled our search even more. We WOULD find a female-driven comedy, and it would be written by a woman. It was a challenge now, and one we knew we could win. But it took lots and lots of searching to find the perfect piece.
A couple of months after scrapping our farce, considering other scripts, and even applying for some, we finally found The One: The Revolutionists by Lauren Gunderson. Smart, funny, and an all-female driven ensemble. It would be a regional premiere and was brand new, timely and sharp, well written, (There’s a reason Lauren Gunderson is the reigning most-produced playwright in the country), and it held a special battle cry for women that spoke to us in a huge way. It was perfect.
Now, we’d like to say that was it and we were done! But that's not how it happened. After the long search and reading this great play, which we fell in love with, the next step was to apply for the performance rights.
For our first three shows, the licensing companies had all responded almost immediately, and so we had gotten a little spoiled. After a week of waiting for The Revolutionists approval, we got a slightly different email than the rest. They needed more time to consider approval. This was a very new show; a premiere written by an incredibly popular playwright, and we were a brand new company in a major market with no established reputation to sway anyone’s decision.
Quite simply, we had to wait and see...and wait we did. Joe was calling the publishing company every few days, asking for updates… They’d be in touch as soon as they could... there was nothing we could do, except wait.
We found The Revolutionists in May. We thought we had plenty of time… but the date of our season announcement party, set for the end of August, was fast approaching. And we were still waiting.
“But they didn’t say ‘No’, did they?”
“We got that going for us”
We were anxious. We started to sweat a little. And we began preparing “Plan B’s.”
It was a frustrating time. We felt like we were back at square one, researching and trying to find the perfect show, but it was so discouraging because we HAD found the perfect show. The alternate titles we were now looking at were good, some amazing. But it felt like that square peg again. As good as they were...they didn’t fit in this season, we knew that in our hearts. But we started applying for backups. Every time we’d get a new email, we’d hope it was for The Revolutionists, but we also knew we needed an answer and we needed one fast. We were starting to panic.
We were one week out.
On Monday, Aug. 21, a standard email came in from the publishing company...nondescript with a PDF attachment. Joe opened the attachment and read it. After reading it, he texted Ashley with a simple note: “We got it.”
Maybe we’re silly, maybe we’re naive...but man did it feel like 10 birthdays. We knew we were now ready to announce to the city and the world our true vision for IMPRINT. The artwork was done, the announcement was set, and we had it. A killer first Season. Built for Longing was set.
We just had to wait a week to announce it to the world.
» Ashley H. White and Joe Messina are co-artistic directors of IMPRINT theatreworks, which begins its first season in January with David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross.
» Square One runs on the second Monday of the month.
PREVIOUSLY IN SQUARE ONE