Dallas — By any of the metrics of longevity, full houses, critical acclaim and popularity, One Thirty Productions is one of the most successful theatrical production companies in Dallas. Co-founder Gene Raye Price says “We know we are so lucky at our point in life to be doing the kind of theatre we are doing. Who in town is older than we are and still producing theatre?”
They are virtually sold out before each opening with a third of those ticket sales coming from people who are not season subscribers. This means two-thirds of their audiences are season subscribers which is a very healthy base.
In a metropolitan market with so many small theatrical production companies, how has One Thirty distinguished itself? What are co-founders Marty Van Kleeck and Gene Raye Price doing that is still working so well after 11 years of operation? Why do their audiences keep coming back?
We wanted to know so TheaterJones sat down with Marty and Gene Raye to learn what is in their secret sauce.
One Thirty produces shows for the Bath House Cultural Center (which has been managed by Marty for over a decade), and their library series. They design their programming at both locations for the same audience, seniors.
The idea of doing something for seniors originated in Mayor Leppert’s office around 2008 and flowed through the Office of Cultural Affairs which was under the direction of Maria Munoz-Blanco at the time. Munoz-Blanco approached Marty who was still pretty new in her position as Manager of the Bath House. In August 2008, Marty took the idea to friends and former Granbury Opera House colleagues Gene Raye and Larry Randolph. After much conversation, they decided to respond to the call and the three of them formed their company. Their first production was in December 2008. (Larry Randolph died in 2014.)
TheaterJones: That’s pretty fast. How did you make that happen so quickly? How did you build audience?
Marty Van Kleeck: It made sense to start with something we could mount quickly and with little budget, so we decided to stage Driving Miss Daisy because we had already done the show for the Granbury Opera House. The original cast agreed to work with us again [Mathew Greer, Doris Gramm and Michael Corolla]. With the assistance of interns from Richland College (thanks to Chuck Sheffield, the RLC theatre director) and Graeme Bice as sound designer [technical director for the Bath House], we built the set and mounted the production.
Gene Ray Price: Regarding audience, Elaine Liner [at the Dallas Observer at the time] included that first show on her list of top 10 shows that year. We had to cancel three performances because we didn’t have anybody in the house. That was the only time we have ever had to cancel a show. From that first show forward, word got around and our house filled.
MVK: The three of us together had just about covered everything we needed to cover. Larry was good set design and directing, I was good at costumes and props, and Gene Ray was good at acting and directing. Graeme Bice who was here at the Bath House handled our sound. Lighting is the only thing that was done outside. For that, we had a partnership with the Dallas Children’s Theatre wherein their interns could get some experience designing lighting and set with us.
GRP: It was a community-based kind of arrangement that grew out the contacts we had and the people we worked with. And so, when we went to market it, I went to the people who used to come see us in Granbury and told them “Marty and I are back in town and we’re working at the Bath House.” Those were our first patrons.
The key to our audience building has been how we treat our patrons. We make them feel special. We used to cater lunch for them, meaning we would go and pick it up, bring it back, and serve it to them in the art gallery. We would make tea for them. Sometimes we provided dessert and a talk during that serving. This was unsustainable and discontinued as eateries appeared in the area, but it went a long way toward demonstrating our care for our patrons.
How have you selected material especially in the beginning, given your thematic focus and that all of this was new and moving quickly?
MVK: In addition to doing it the old-fashioned way of combing the literature in search of the right thing, we were fortunate to have been able to form relationships with playwrights Ronnie Claire Edwards, Alain Bailey and Ellsworth Schave. Each of those relationships afforded us the opportunity to produce premieres of their plays.
In the very beginning, One Thirty was in the basement of Ronnie Claire Edwards’ place. She had moved back to Dallas sometime after “The Waltons: ended and bought the old 1911 St. Joseph’s German Catholic Church and the adjacent school on Swiss Avenue. I lived in the school next door and Ronnie Claire lived in the church. All of One Thirty’s stuff was stored in the basement. We used the old cafeteria for rehearsals. I had some costume stock from the past, and some props.
Camilla Carr was staying upstairs in the school because she was a friend of Ronnie Claire’s. One day I was telling Camilla that Gene Raye was frustrated because she really wanted to do Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein but was having difficulty figuring out how to get the rights to it. Camilla announced that the playwright, Marty Martin, was a friend of hers. She picked up the phone, called him and he explained that Pat Carroll, the actress who originated the role, refused to relinquish the rights. However, he had a new play about Alice B. Toklas, The Necessary Luxury Company, which sort of picks up where the other one leaves off. He asked if she would be interested in that play. This is how One-Thirty was able to eventually produce that show.
During our first season, the third show was the premiere of Ellsworth Schave’s A Texas Romance which was a three-person play. Schave came to see it and told us it was the best production of his play he had ever seen. He and Larry developed a wonderful relationship which led to additional opportunities to produce his plays: Under a Texaco Canopy, Well-Traveled, but Not Well-Known, and The 1947 Ford. Our last Schave play was for the 2010 FIT festival, The Turquoise Pontiac.
During our second season in 2009, we did the world premiere of one of Ronnie Claire’s plays which she co-wrote with Alan Bailey, Wedding Belles, and The Mystery of Miz Arnette.
How did the library series start? How do you manage both the productions at the Bath House and the Library Series at the same time?
GRP: The library series began as an attempt to showcase the underutilized black box theatre spaces in the libraries at the request of the library managers. There are five of the 29 Dallas libraries which house black box theatres: Fretz Park, Bachman Lake, Hampton-Illinois, Lochwood and Pleasant Grove.
MVK: The Office of Cultural Affairs paid for the first round of library shows. Now, the library is paying for two and others are being added. One Thirty presently does four library shows with the fourth being a co-production with Brookhaven College. This presents internship opportunities for BHC students and helps us.
GRP: Stewart Mikkelsen, the technical coordinator for the Bath House, began working with us nine years ago while he was a student at BHC. He now handles all of the lighting design for One Thirty’s library series and sometimes helps with the set.
MVK: As regards scheduling, 1,000 people attended the Lochwood production of Red Hot Patriot: The Kick Ass Wit of Molly Ivins during our 2018 season. After seeing that show and the audience response, Lochwood wanted another show fully staged between May and December.
So, we will have other production companies at the Bath House. One Thirty takes the dates nobody else wants such as Christmas, spring break and Easter, and Memorial Day and these are working very well for us. Pegasus Theatre is more active now so they play on top of us, doing their fresh leads in May. This way the Bath House is busy and One Thirty is busy at Lochwood. Fretz is wonderful to work with. That facility has a great sound booth but no lighting system. Upon hearing about this, a friend of Larry’s (Reg Grant) graciously donated a lighting system to us.
One Thirty prints their scripts and publishes them as spiral-bound books. They have a library of these bound scripts and a digital photographic collection of all of the sets and costumes from their productions. Some of their productions were part of the FIT Festival and they are proud to have also produced works as part of the Pride Festival.
Your library series production values do not vary that much from the full-stage Bath House productions. That’s a lot of work. How much staffing do you have for the library series?
MVK: (They look at each other and laugh.) The two of us. We have to design these sets. We are the designers, the builders, the writers, the taker-downers, and the directors. The last few years we have engaged the help of one other person to assist us with load-ins. It’s getting harder to handle all of that anymore by ourselves.
You are not a repertory company yet you seem to have a core group of actors who work with you. There is a difference between a full-production and what you are presenting at the library. What is your approach to casting?
MVK: We have discovered it takes a certain kind of actor. We have found that for some actors who are great onstage, there is a struggle to bring that level of performance to a reading situation. It is very different. You have to be able to switch characters because you are doing a bunch of different readings. This time I might be a little girl, next, I might be an older man.
GRP: You have to find a way to bring believability, reality, honesty, without acting. The narrative has to be exciting and interesting and expository.
We are fortunate to work with some very talented performers who continue to want to work with us, such as Bradley Campbell, B.J. Cleveland, John S. Davies, Nancy Munger, Dwight Sandell, and Cliff Stephens, who just moved to Washington state.
MVK: Ronnie Claire Edwards and Jeanne Evans were in one of the very first library shows we did, The Stories of Eudora Welty. Ronnie Claire was not well during that time, but she wanted very much to participate.
Selecting material must be challenging. The senior population in the U.S. is growing yet, when we think of dramatic literature with those themes, the list is not that long.
MVK: Our audiences want to see things that make them think. Everything has to have a thematic element that is associated with senior living. We did Outgoing Tide and that was a tough one, but people still tell us how much they enjoyed that show. It was important to do that show so people could understand what it felt like for the caregiver of a person with Alzheimer’s.
We’ve also done shows about late life romances, estranged children, what happens when you haven’t settled your estate, an older couple who kept their autistic child or adult relative and shows about hospice. These are senior topics but they are also universal topics.
Marty and Gene Raye agree that their success working together for 20 years has come from having the same work ethic. They believe you work until it is finished. Each has confidence in the other’s decision-making. As Marty frames it “We both have a high demand for quality. I appreciate that. I don’t want to see something that doesn’t look like somebody cared.”
What else would you like TheaterJones readers to know?
GRP: IF theatre at its core is about universality and what it is to be a human being, to live, to suffer, to die, to have joy, to lose, to win—you can bring an understanding about any one of those things or a sense of connection—that’s what we want to do. Our last thought backstage before we enter is ‘let me walk out there and say something that is going to make a difference to somebody.’
» One Thirty’s next library series event is this week, called “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: The Impact of Gossip and Society Columnists,” and is performed at 1:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, Aug. 29 and 30; and 4 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 31 at the Lochwood Library. The group’s next full production, Joanna McClelland Glass’s play Trying, runs Oct. 8-19, also at the Lochwood Library.