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Home Is Where The Art Is
AMERICAN THEATRE

September 1, 2008

Chloe Veltman on two bi-coastal companies

THE CHALLENGE

Theatre-makers are perhaps more bound by geography than artists working in any other medium. While films, musical works and art exhibitions travel with relative ease from place to place and can often exist independently of a particular community, theatre companies usually depend upon such factors as the use of a specific venue, actors schedules, regional funding policies, and the support of local audiences.

As such, the idea that a theatre company might call more than one city home seems almost antithetical to the idea of live performance. Yet thanks to organic relationships and performance opportunities that have evolved on two coasts over the past decade, the Banana, Bag & Bodice (BB&B) theatre collective is intent on maintaining close ties to both New York and The Bay Area. Meanwhile, True Colors Theatre Company is currently working on establishing itself formally in three cities – Atlanta, Washington DC and New York. This desire stems from a core vision of theatre as a “moveable feast” as well as a desire to capitalize on artistic director’s Kenny Leon’s perambulatory career, which takes him all over the country.

Attempting such feats of pan-American derring-do pose considerable challenges for both companies. While today’s high-speed telecommunications have greatly facilitated certain aspects of the collaborative process, there’s no getting around the fact that rehearsals and performances demand in-person interactions between artistic personnel. “The main challenges of being bi-coastal are to do with coordinating development and rehearsal schedules,” says BB&B co-founder and actor Jessica Jelliffe, who established her company with actor/writer Jason Craig in San Francisco in 1999. Craig and Jelliffe moved to New York in 2000, while many of their key collaborators remained in the Bay Area.

Generating money is another major issue, since companies that regularly perform in disparate locations typically require additional travel and accommodation expenses. Many foundations have geographical restrictions, making it difficult for companies with two or more mailing addresses to apply for funds. Similarly, operating in different cities may hamper an organization’s ability to build a core audience. “We’ve been operating fully here in Atlanta but we need a really good support base in Washington and New York,” says True Colors Managing Director, Wendy Riggs. “The challenge is to find ways to make ourselves stable in all three cities.”

THE PLAN

True Colors and BB&B don’t have dedicated performance spaces, making them free to develop ties to producing partners around the country. In the past, BB&B has mounted numerous shows at the San Francisco Fringe and transferred them to New York. “We want to continue to cultivate both locations equally,” says Craig. Now that the company has outgrown the Fringe, it is working to develop relationships with larger producers such as New York’s HERE and Shotgun Players (the co-producer of its latest show, Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage, which premiered at Shotgun’s Berkeley-based theatre in the summer and will open at New York’s Abron Arts Center in April 2009.)

True Colors’ mission is to set up firm links with venues in New York and Washington in order to perform in these cities regularly. High transport and accommodation costs incurred by the transfer of recent productions like Cheryl L. West’s Rejoice! (which moved from Atlanta to Washington with the original cast) has prompted True Colors to seek grant-givers interested in serving multiple markets. “Working in several cities runs up your costs so having the right funders is crucial,” says Riggs.

KEY PLAYERS

True Colors is relying on its Board, whose members are spread across Atlanta and Washington, to help develop firm bases beyond Atlanta. “We are working on developing what we have in Atlanta in Washington and New York,” says Riggs. “Luckily, we get a lot of help from our strong board.”

Meanwhile, Shotgun Players has decided to help BB&B produce Beowulf in New York and has invited the company back to stage a new show in Berkeley in 2010 or 2011. As a result of this burgeoning partnership, BB&B not only hopes to reassemble the original Beowulf artistic team for the New York run, but may also end up rehearsing the show in California next February. “Beowulf has catapulted us to a different level,” says Craig. “Now we need to balance Shotgun’s producing expertise from the west coast with our own efforts to raise money and awareness about our show on the east coast.”

WHAT WORKED

A combination of staging full plays alongside educational programs is enabling True Colors to make inroads into several markets. The company’s success so far owes much to its cautious approach. “We’re testing out our ambitious ideas with smaller-scale projects first,” says Riggs. “This will help us reach the next stable level.” A “virtual office” also helps True Colors to administrate projects in diverse locations.

Craig, Jelliffe and their Bay Area-based collaborators exchange artistic ideas for upcoming BB&B shows via email and phone. When the team gathers in person, rehearsals are concentrated and intense. “So much of our creative process happens when we get together,” says Jelliffe. “There’s something to be said for the fast and furious approach to meeting deadlines.”

WHAT DIDN’T

The fact that BB&B’s email list is split between New York and Bay Area fans can be confusing. “Audiences sometimes don’t quite know where our shows are taking place,” says Craig. “On the other hand, people get excited about what they’re missing out on and look forward to the show arriving in their city.”

True Colors, meanwhile, hasn’t managed to arrange steady with venues in Washington and New York. “The steady commitment we want from the theatre in Washington with which we’ve been collaborating hasn’t yet materialized,” says Riggs. “We don’t yet have a regular place to perform in New York.”

WHAT’S NEXT

With a production of August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean currently running at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre, True Colors is ramping up its educational programs in Atlanta, Pittsburgh and New York. The company is also masterminding a Wilson-related monologue competition in several cities. The company is pondering the idea of opening satellite offices in New York and Washington.

The coming months look equally busy for BB&B. In addition to preparing for the New York run of Beowulf, the company is undertaking a project at HERE and is working on a commission for New York’s Ice Factory, which may travel to San Francisco. “We didn’t set out to be a bi-coastal theatre company,” says Craig. “But we perform in both places because it works.”

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