In this age of flat-screen devices and digital storytelling, rich, stimulating, live theater performances may no longer take center stage in our entertainment options.
But two local actors see this circumstance as a timely opportunity and are working to bring community theater productions back to life on Main Street at the Sunflower Theatre.
One year ago, when Kim Welty and Peggy Tennyson discovered their mutual acting backgrounds and love of theater, they bravely decided to produce a play on the theater’s tiny stage.
“It’s a small venue. The stage is only 13 by 17 feet. No wings. No back stage. It feels raw, almost like a black box,” said Welty.
Black-box theaters are a relatively new staging option used for experimental theater production or to adapt an untraditional space to theater performance. The space wasn’t ideal and, last year, the list of what wasn’t perfect for theater production was long. It included a cadre of actors, and funds to manage production costs.
But they had the desire to act and produce, and the lively spirit they share translated into the energy they needed to get a production up and open to the public. Somewhere during their initial efforts they named the company the Sunflower Troupe, piggy-backing on the recognition of the theater where they perform.
“We both feel the passion for acting,” said Welty. “It always lingers after you’ve done theater work, as we have earlier in our lives, even as I did in small community theater productions decades ago in college.”
But theater was Tennyson’s first career. She had an early love of music – piano and vocal – that began in junior high school and community theater in Rockford, Ill.
“By the time I was in high school, I was an experienced actor working with adult actors and companies,” Tennyson said. “It was an advantage for me, an opportunity to polish my skills. You never stop learning in performance art – dance, stage blocking, movement, character development.”
She also trained with speech pathologists in New York City, where she learned elocution and vocal mechanics at the Voice Foundation, a division of Julliard School of Music.
Later, she auditioned for a position with the Houston production company Theater Under the Stars.
“It was very top-notch. Very professional. I auditioned and was accepted into the company,” she said.
“I performed every vocal style in musical theater work. It was thrilling work.”
A miracle on Main Street
In their first year of collaboration, Tennyson and Welty have learned a great deal.
“We’re now set to understand more about marketing to the community,” said Welty. “Last year we offered some acting classes but we didn’t really market them very well. The response was so minimal, we cancelled them. We now know we have to dig a little deeper and approach our public relations with more professionalism.”
Producing a play is a daunting endeavor, but they forged ahead nonetheless, scheduling “Miracle on South Division Street” for December 2015. The New York Times called the play by Tom Dudzick a “sprightly, gentle comedy where revelations that might remake a family’s sense of itself are each rolled out in service of laughter” It features a Roman Catholic, Polish-American family on the East Side of Buffalo who maintain a shrine built in 1943 by their grandpa, commemorating a vision of the Virgin Mary preaching world peace.
Welty and Tennyson thought it would be good subject matter for Montezuma County. And they were right. Actors auditioned and rehearsals were scheduled. Tennyson coached thespians who had never performed before, helping them find the confidence to bring the play to life. Costuming, make-up and sound work, lighting and ticket sales were all handled by the cast, as there were no funds to hire people for these production challenges.
Tennyson found a few used costume storage boxes in disrepair at the Cortez Cultural Center. The center was glad to get the unused boxes out of the building. Welty and Tennyson pulled them apart, and with a little sweat and creativity, the material was transformed into the flats used in their first stage set.
The flats became walls after Tennyson wallpapered them, establishing the living-room set on stage, and the show could go on. And then, to their great joy, on opening night the theater filled. The show continued to play to a total of 250 people over four nights.
The success of that first play was something of a miracle for the Sunflower Troupe.
‘A perfect place’
Plans are now under way to produce “Sylvia,” by A.E Gurney. It premiered off-Broadway in 1995 after many producers rejected it.
Background information written by Patrick Pacheco quotes Gurney as saying that the play was rejected many times because “it equated a dog with a woman, and to ask a woman to play a dog was not just misogynist, but blatantly sexist.” Gurney added that he did not think that way. He said the play has a “timely message of the need to connect in an increasingly alien and impersonal world. There is a need to connect, not only to a dog, but to other people through the dog.”
It’s “a love story, of course,” wrote Eileen Warburton for 2nd Story Theater, Rhode Island, in 2014, “or at least a story about a man’s relationship with one of those magical animals people in stories so often meet just when they’re at a troubling crossroads in life, an animal that is a guide to finding the best in ourselves…. our propensity to project human characteristics and motives onto our non-human companions is dramatized by having the adopted dog played by a sexy, adoring young woman.”
Rehearsals are scheduled and play dates are booked for the second week in December. “We have to work around day jobs. It’s the nature of theater in this community, where everyone has multiple jobs,” said Tennyson. While she works as the director of the troupe, she also teaches and coaches the actors during rehearsal. She views the startup troupe as professionals and coaches them to perform on that level.
Welty, the producer, and Tennyson made a casting decision that will enlarge the pool of actors interested in live theater. “There are multiple characters in Sylvia, but traditionally there are three smaller roles always cast with one actor,” Welty said. “We are casting those roles with three actors this time in order to give more people a chance to perform.” People who have no interest in performing but still love “The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd” are also welcome to work with costume design, stage sets and lighting, playbill production and ticket sales.
“This is a great opportunity for us all, but for me it’s a chance to make a dream come true. Montezuma County is a perfect place for our fledgling communitytheater troupe,’ Tennyson said.
They plan to amplify their production schedule with quality offerings they can manage on the tiny stage, nourishing the company and increasing interest among the community. “We are also exploring a range of offerings that could include a musical review, or even collaborations with travelling companies.”
For now, though, they are reaching out to find people willing to perform even if they are inexperienced in theater, who want to learn everything from improv to voice to character study.
Classes in Acting 101 are being offered. “It will teach you everything you want to know,” Tennyson explained. “Improv, too. People love improv.”
Winter acting class dates are Jan. 17, 24 and 31, and Feb. 7, 6 – 7:30 p.m., $10/class and open to high school age and older.
“Sylvia” will be performed in the evening Dec. 8, 9, and 10, and in a Sunday matinee on Dec. 11.
For more information call Tennyson at 832-452-7019, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.