Plano — After more than 20 years of bringing the DFW community authentic holiday pantos (pantomime) and stagings of dramas, comedies, and musical revues by British and Commonwealth writers, Plano-based Theatre Britain will close its doors at year’s end, as TB co-founder and Artistic Director Sue Birch and her husband, Technical Director Ian Birch, will return to England in 2018. Their final production at the Cox Playhouse in downtown Plano will be longtime collaborator Jackie Mellor-Guin’s panto adaptation of The Three Musketeers, Nov. 25-Dec. 30.
As Theatre Britain’s final curtain approaches, Sue Birch shares some parting thoughts.
TheaterJones: How would you characterize this past year for you and TB, since announcing your plans to return to England? Any particularly memorable moments?
Sue Birch: An outpouring of love and kindness! We have produced four shows this year and, at each one, patrons have expressed their sadness at our closing, have asked if we have changed our minds or, in some cases, have ordered us to stay! I am touched to hear how much respect people have for the company.
The surprise party! Ian and I thought we were going to have dinner with [actor] Michael Speck, [stage manager] Sarah Barnes, and [actor] Bryan Brooks, but when we got to the restaurant, there were about 35 others there. It was lovely. Michael also gave us a gift—a shadow box listing all the TB productions.
To the delight of many, Sue, you yourself performed in TB’s production of Nobody’s Perfect earlier this season. What was that experience like for you, considering you’d been focusing exclusively on directing for the last few years?
Birch: I really enjoyed getting back on stage. It was a little weird not being in charge of everything, but also great to have that luxury. I wanted to get back on stage one more time before leaving and had arranged for Kevin Ash to direct Nobody’s Perfect so I could get out and audition elsewhere. But then he asked me if I would play Harriet and I just couldn’t refuse! It was a lot of fun.
In that same production, several frequent actors from past TB shows made cameo appearances in each performance, which I thought was a wonderful nod to this being your final season. Do you have any surprises planned for Three Musketeers that you’re free to share?
Sixteen TB alumni played the part of Willie Briggs, a walk-on role with no lines, in Nobody’s Perfect. The playwright graciously allowed us to have both men and women play the role. Each actor brought something different to the show—it was great.
We don’t have anything similar planned for Three Musketeers, but the cast of 14 includes 10 actors who have worked with us many times. And, as always, it’s great having new faces on stage.
Will another theatre company be using the Cox Playhouse facility after you leave? And what will happen with the costumes and props you amassed in your rehearsal space on Summit Avenue?
Black Flag Theatre will be using the Cox. Their first show is Quills by Doug Wright, opening in February. Brick Road Theatre will also be doing some shows there.
We are going to have an estate sale early next year. Some of the items are already spoken for as people snap up their favorite set piece, costume, or prop. Anything left over will be donated to other theatre companies.
From the perspective of your 20+ years in the DFW theatre community, what do you think this area’s theatre offerings need to achieve wider visibility on the national scene?
Birch: To be honest, I struggle to answer this question. When the Theatre Communications Group (TCG) held their annual conference here a few years ago, theatre people from out of town were surprised and delighted by the depth and breadth of work being done in the area. How do you export that experience to a wider demographic? With great difficulty.
Because despite extensive (and much appreciated) press coverage over the past 20 years, I still regularly meet people in DFW who have never heard of Theatre Britain. I am not just talking potential patrons, but also actors!
There are local companies taking their work to New York and other cities, but, in common with theatres everywhere, our energies tend to be focused on survival. Getting “butts on seats” can be all-consuming and I am not sure that enough of us have the time, energy or money to work on national visibility.
Along those lines, what do you believe are DFW’s strengths in this area, and what can it do better?
Birch: As I said, there is a depth and breadth of theatre in DFW. We have new artistic directors who are putting their stamps on established companies. We are going through another cycle of new companies popping up. We have plenty of people in the area who have fresh and compelling ideas, and new works seem to be a priority. This is all great news.
I think at the company level we could do more to collaborate. Kevin Moriarty has spearheaded the North Texas Theatre Alliance. And theatres who are members of TCG meet once a quarter for lunch and a chat. It’s a chance to get to know one another better and share information. It’s a great idea and if something like that could be set up community-wide, I think it would be beneficial.
What are your plans once you’re re-settled in England? Will you be re-upping your earlier acting career?
We are moving to the Wirral, which is near Liverpool. We’ve not lived in that area before, but Ian’s family are there so it makes sense to be near them. Lots of good theatre there, which is exciting.
Yes, I am going back to be an actor. Hopefully, a working actor, not “resting,” as we say in the UK. People keep asking if Theatre Texas will spring up, but I can say now that I have no plans to start another theatre company! I do think I may end up directing as well as acting, though.
What will you miss the most about your time here with Theatre Britain, and with all of us?
Oh, the people! So many wonderful people have touched our lives over the years. Thank you all for the joy and the love. We will miss you.
Any final thoughts?
Birch: It has been a wild, exciting and unexpected adventure. An 18-month posting that turned into 22 years. To quote from Robin of Sherwood (one of my all-time favorite TV shows): “Nothing’s forgotten. Nothing’s ever forgotten.”