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Stage against the machine: The new generation of theatrical upstarts
Story by David McKee
In a city mired in musicals, a new uprising of playwrights and actors is shocking! thrilling! inspiring! the theater scene
Dimly lit bars, backyards in seedy neighborhoods, junkyards and living rooms - these unlikely spaces are fertile ground for a new wave of local theater talent. This isn't some fresh-faced thespian community, either. Rather, it's a hardscrabble dramatic corps that's producing a surprising amount of original theater in a town typically drenched in musicals and revues.
What it may lack in brand-name appeal, this Vegas fringe-theater scene more than makes up in sensation. A Los Angeles Times critic was referring to Las Vegas playwright Ernest Hemmings when he described his "flair for the outrageous and the risqué," but that could apply to the oeuvre of several authors who represent the leading edge of local drama. Their plays grapple with sex, war, death and relationships - with keen dramatic intensity and sometimes biting humor. They generally draw small crowds, but occasional big critical acclaim - and sometimes sharp criticism.
On March 18, Insurgo Theater Movement premieres Dave Surratt's "Listen." He summarizes the plot as: "Young audiophile brings a first date back to his place, manically plays a string of songs and bits of songs from different CDs that remind him of each other, and ends up (unwittingly) offending her." "Listen" was born as a vignette originally performed at the Katherine Gianaclis Park for the Arts, a nondescript building next to some dodgy apartments on Boulder Highway in the east side of town.
Another luminary of the alt-theater scene, Ernie Curcio also crafted works in that improbable place; his "Rambis" is a riotously black comedy about a dying casino dealer. His KGPA experiments also yielded the tortured monologue "Unfinished," the Iraq-inspired surrealism of "War Mouth" and "Perturbed" (plot: school teacher makes "video love letter" to student). Their revival at alternative festivals and small theaters make Curcio the most-frequently performed local author.
Fans in high places
College of Southern Nevada theater professor Joe Hammond - who's helped workshop these plays and appeared in some of them - says gloom-laden comedy is Vegas playwrights' genre of choice. "It's as if there is an angst," Hammond says. "Everybody is looking for something that's full of rage and find comedy in it." They hope to find local resonance as well. Hammond says the unique sense of place and the fascination Sin City holds for Americans is generally lacking in local theater, which should "concentrate more on how to exist in this society that borders on the edge of madness and sin."
Hammond has kind words for any Vegas playwright you can mention. He affectionately calls Curcio "the madman" who "writes with incredible anger and rage." He's also complimentary of Erica Griffin ("intensely fascinating"), Surratt ("pushes on the edge") and Hemmings ("Absurdist viewpoint that borders on the sarcastic and cynical"). He also singles out Mark Wherry, whose Bugsy Siegel musical, "It's Only Business," was produced by CSN, and Teri Harpster, who writes science-fiction theater and is most recently the author of the one-act play "The Lost." Not every local author is a fan of this burgeoning stage-it-yourself movement. Playwright Shawn Hackler sees the flurry of activity as a double-edged sword.
"While it gives our audiences something new to chew on - how many times can we really watch 'Annie'? - we risk giving the scene a bad name," he says, frowning upon the amount of "untested" drama that gets staged. "They produce it as much to see what works and doesn't as to entertain audiences," he says of his colleagues. "They haven't been through (a) rigorous editing process and the results can sometimes be s---," even though an editor's hand can usher in "the commercialism that destroys good work."
[Hear more: Look ma, no script: Improv Vegas performs on "KNPR's State of Nevada."]
Test Market founder Hemmings defends DIY theater.
"I highly recommend it," he says. "There's such a saturation of plays and submissions & You could be waiting years and years" for that first staging. "If you want to see it produced, you should just do it." Being your own Harold Prince means adapting to oddball, catch-as-can venues. "We did our first show in a junkyard," Hemmings recalls, "so it requires a great deal of imagination."
The Los Angeles Times compares Hemmings to confrontational '60s playwright Joe Orton, calling a production of his play "Eccentric" a "black comedy about a sexually adventurous American couple's disastrous London vacation," in which an attempt to arrange a threesome goes fatally awry. The title, the Times critic wrote, "was probably the only act of restraint exercised" by Hemmings.
Several of Hemmings' short plays are available in their no-holds-barred glory on YouTube. Warning: In their brazen effrontery of conventional good taste, they're not for the squeamish.
In on the act
Even the establishment is getting into the act. Las Vegas Little Theatre, long synonymous with safe fare, has been pushing toward the avant-garde under Walter Niejadlik's leadership. The kernel was Las Vegas Little Theatre's mid-decade Insomniac Project, a late-night showcase that presented multiple, brief plays under omnibus rubrics like "Midnight Snacks." The catch: The works had to be staged within whatever set was already occupying the Las Vegas Little Theatre main stage. (That wasn't necessarily a handicap. Playwright Erica Griffin's "S.N.A.F.U.," depicting a mental institution, dovetailed serendipitously with the standing sets for "Stalag 17.")
Griffin, who has four Insomniac productions on her resumé, considers it the seed of Las Vegas Little Theatre's Fischer Black Box contemporary-theater series that has yielded much critical acclaim. Her method of theatercraft: Do it where you can. "Wherever you've got a playwright and copies of a play and some actors to read the parts, you've got a workshop," she says. "You can have one in your living room if you want. & Just the sheer electricity of folks coming together to imagine a new play together is the essence of creativity itself."
More established groups like Las Vegas Little Theatre hope to harness that lightning to attract a younger audience, who may eventually gravitate toward main stage shows.
"The (audience) demographic that we like to shoot for is about 18-35," says Las Vegas Little Theatre board member Courtney Sheets.
The Las Vegas Little Theatre's new-works competition yields each spring's Black Box show.
Employing a score sheet devised by Black Box Artistic Director T.J. Larsen, competing plays get points for smallness of cast and suitability to the venue. If the author is local, that's good for extra credit. A three-judge panel vets the scripts - 39 were submitted in 2009 - and "nine times out of 10 our scores match for the final three," Sheets says. The first contest winner, Eric Eberwin's "Great Western Wanderlust," got an unplanned bonus when Original Works Publishing subsequently purchased the script.
On the Fringe
Last year also saw the debut of the Las Vegas Little Theatre-hosted Fringe Festival. "Walter, Frank Mengwasser, and I felt like the theater community in Las Vegas had grown to a point where we could conceivably produce a festival late in 2008," says Larsen. Looking around Vegas, Larsen saw much quality work being done in a "segmented" fashion and believed "bringing like-minded people to a festival setting would be a great opportunity to build our connections and express our differences in a more public and fun way."
Although "timing and scheduling issues" kept Insurgo and other high-profile troupes out, Larsen found that a blessing in disguise as "it led to us getting to work with a whole lot of new companies and individuals that & we hadn't really known before the festival." Niejadlik left the choice of plays to participants like Born & Raised Productions, although musicals and pieces exceeding an hour were verboten.
To help defray participants' costs in the all-volunteer affair, Niejadlik & Co. "wanted to point out two shows as 'Best of Fringe.'" A local theater patron and an educator judged all 10 productions. When the votes were tallied, Curcio's "Unfinished" - a tragic monologue inspired by events in the author's life - was one of the two plays chosen for an encore presentation at the festival's close.
The regular irregulars
Curcio is a regular presence onstage at Insurgo, where he has directed "Rambis" and "War Mouth." The company, founded by John Beane, tries to weave adaptations and original dramas into a steady flow of the classics, albeit in a less structured way than Las Vegas Little Theatre. Its efforts have ranged from late-night collections of themed playlets ("The Sex Comedies," "The Superhero Diaries") to Insurgo's box-office smash, "Cannibal! The Musical."
But Insurgo's flirtations with the abyss - even "Rambis'" crack addict who totes an aborted fetus in her handbag - are family-friendly compared to the savage excursions of Hemmings, whose writing leaves no taboo untouched.
Although Beane, Surratt, Griffin and others put great stock in workshopping, Hemmings does not. "It's not really my style. I'm more of an author who thinks as an actor or director," he says. "I build the (dramatic) arc on how I want the audience to react" and revises his plays based on how their first performances went.
Exit, pursued by a dragon
Another author who goes his own way is Hackler.
"The plays I write are to satisfy me. My anger. My sadness. My joy. I don't typically think about the production in terms of budget or space requirements," he says, almost defiantly. "If I want a giant dragon taking a s--- on stage, I'll write that. Let the director work the rest out."
It's not authorial intractability that's kept all but one of Hackler's two-dozen plays off the stage, but his own ambivalence.
"I often find myself loath to have people read it, let alone produce it," he confesses. "Writing happens to be cathartic for me. I sometimes think that if people saw my work, they would see how pissed off I really am. Then I would lose all my friends."
Hackler's lone produced play, the 2008 Kafka-esque fantasia "Morphotic," was actually inspired by boredom - specifically, the ennui Hackler felt reading a "Metamorphosis" adaptation Insurgo wanted him to prepare. He sweet-talked Beane into letting him use Kafka's stories to create a meta-biographical fantasy ("an extended panic attack," according to the Las Vegas Sun) about the Czech author.
Six months later, he had a finished script that was premiered by Insurgo and revived by Hackler's own Butcher Block Productions, a pan-historical staging that incorporated dance, doo-wop, Beyoncé and video projections.
"It would be overly generous," theater critic Anthony Del Valle wrote in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, to deem "Morphotic" a good play but, "you can't really appreciate the degree of skill involved in Hackler's work unless you know Kafka and can see where the legend's words end, Hackler's begin, and the twain meet."
"It wasn't too hard saying 'yes' to myself, so we took the production to Kansas City last year at the invitation of KC Fringe," Hackler says.
The Midwest revival was hailed by KCStage.com as "a heavy chunk of brain candy & solid, serious theatre" featuring writing that was "polished, studied and dense," and acting that was impressively character-rich for an abstract drama.
That triumph didn't come cheap: Hackler bankrolled the tour out of his own pocket, bolstered by an online fundraising campaign.
Over the Rainbow
The only authors in town who can be assured of seeing their work staged are Rainbow Co. Youth Theatre's artistic director, Karen McKenney, and her predecessor and muse, Brian Kral. Since 1978, Kral has seen 30 of his scripts produced by Rainbow's troupe of child and adult actors, a long-term relationship that he credits with giving him the freedom to experiment. In addition to one Kral script per season, Rainbow presents a touring musical penned by McKenney and composer J Neal.
"It's exciting for the audience to come and see something that's never been done," says McKenney. Actors and technicians, she adds, become stakeholders in the drama: "A certain pride comes from having an impact on the final imprint."
But don't count the dusty KPGA out. Griffin, who describes her aesthetic as character-driven black comedy, is incubating a play about homelessness, set in a tent city like those that have flourished in Las Vegas and Reno. Although she's shopping it around to the Black Box and Insurgo, she laughingly notes that, "the outdoor stage at the KGPA is really the perfect location for a homeless black comedy."
That's the Vegas fringe-theater scene: vagabond but upbeat.
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