BWW Special Feature: 99 and Under the Radar; Where there's a Whale...
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by Michael Roderick
Welcome to 99 AND UNDER THE RADAR: A LOOK AT INDIE THEATER'S MOVERS AND SHAKERS, BroadwayWorld's new weekly series that showcases standout productions and production companies from the independent theater scene in New York City. Each week, independent producer Michael Roderick will be discussing the latest goings on in the theatrical wings, highlighting those with potentially bright futures.
This Weeks Totle: Where there's a Whale, there's a way
This week 99 and Under sat down with Dan Moyer and Nathaniel Kent of the fast rising Shelby Company to discuss their views on developing shows, starting a company, and their latest project which culminated in an epic Kickstarter campaign success.
99: Tell everyone a little bit about how Shelby Company was started
Shelby: Shelby Company's creation was very organic. Many of the founding members met as children or teenagers in the San Francisco Bay Area, and spread across the country during college. When college ended, we were hungry for exciting original theatre, and Artistic Director Dan Moyer just happened to be a wonderful playwright. We came together at first to simply put on one play - New Beulah. At the same time though, Dan had written a play for his high school friends - WINNEMUCCA (three days in the belly) - who were all about to graduate from college. We applied these two plays to various festivals around the country (under the name Shelby Company, so named for Moyer's high school drama teacher) and were accepted to a few in New York and beyond. We loved the experience of producing our own plays, traveling, and ultimately feeling so much support from so many all across the country. We knew we had to continue making theatre.
99: The company does a lot of work outside of the city. What is that like?
Shelby: Performing outside of New York City is, for us, extremely vital. I think a lot of people get caught up in the mentality that if you aren't making it here, then you aren't making it anywhere. But there are so many diverse, vibrant theatre communities outside of our little island. Minneapolis, for example. Besides The Guthrie, The Playwrights Center and the other major venues, there are tons of young companies putting up amazing stuff. There's are great alternative scenes down in New Orleans and Austin and they're wonderful places to go to because people, on the whole, are a lot less jaded. You hand someone a postcard and they say "Cool a play!" As opposed to "Oh, you have a theatre company. Who doesn't?" And a lot of people say to us, you know, isn't all that travel expensive? But compared to the cost of renting a theatre out here, well, not really.
99: Discuss some of the challenges associated with being a New Theatre Company.
Shelby: It's very difficult. But not without reward. One thing I've personally felt is a challenge, as an actor, is running Shelby Company, holding a job (gotta pay rent) and going out to auditions outside of the company. It's very tough to manage those three very time consuming jobs.
As for the company, what makes it tough to survive is the amount of work we do. We have been going strong since December 2008, and our first real time off was the month of February this last year. In March we picked back up and were producing one project or another through the end of August. Our longest break to date has immediately preceded this production, a short two months (and that's not to say we actually took a break. Pre-production for The Land Whale Murders started in September!) And with that amount of work we are constantly in need of funding, which is always a difficult job to acquire. Funding has come for Shelby in many different forms. But producing theatre in NYC is expensive, and it's always a challenge to do the work we do with the budgets we are able to put together. The Land Whale Murders is the largest budget we've worked with, and still our incredible designers are working under constraints. The scope of this show is larger than ever before for Shelby, and we are grateful for the ingenuity and resourcefulness our designers are able to build with.
99: Have you collaborated with any one else in the Indie Theatre community? What was that like?
Shelby: In New York we've collaborated with a few artists. We've done work with The Centrifuge a few times, a really great theatre company we have a few close ties to through NYU. Their Fresh Ground Pepper series is certainly a great place to find exciting new things happening, and we've had the pleasure of presenting a short or two through that venue.
We have, for the last two years, been a part of Planet Connections Theatre Festivity, where we've met and worked with a ton of really great people.
We're proud to work with members of other theatre companies on Shelby Company shows as well. Tom Ridgely of Waterwell has directed two full length and one short with Shelby Company, and his work is always top notch. Amy Landon is now joining us for her fourth show with Shelby Company, who is a member of Studio 42. Jess Chayes of The Assembly has directed a fantastic short for us, and will be joining us for a second full length this spring. We're constantly attempting to branch out and work with a lot of fantastic artists from around the NYC theatre community.
99: Goldberg's Luck of the Ibis was quite a flight of fancy. Should audiences be expecting the same from Land Whale?
Shelby: It's fanciful alright. Ibis was incredible to work on, and it turned out to be a fantastic show. I feel like a lot of that same energy is there - that wacky, outrageous quality that Jonathan always lends to his work. You'll see, like in Ibis, a lot of aquatic references. They always make it in there somehow.
But really what I love about Jonathan's plays is that he writes in a very stylized genre, but playswith it to suit the world of the play. Ibis was a choose-your-own adventure novel, but The Land Whale Murders follows a pretty classic murder-mystery structure. There's a murder, and there's a lot of suspects, and there's these bumbling scientist/detectives who are trying to solve the thing. On top of that, Jonathan has soaked this play in a lot of historical facts (albeit from a few different time periods) and mashed them together so that the play has a lot of solid ground to work with. There are environmental issues touched upon in this play that still hold true today, about human waste and how to preserve our earth. Oh yeah, and it's a bit of a farce as well. Throw in a lot of superhero scenarios, mastermind terrorist plots to teach the people of America to stop wasting our precious natural resources, and a whole lot of dead birds and you'll come out with The Land Whale Murders.
99: Talk a little bit about Shelby's process when developing new material
Shelby Company has produced both plays that have pretty much been written in full before rehearsals (The Luck of the Ibis, The Land Whale Murders) and plays that have been almost entirely written during the rehearsal process (Uncle Shelby's WunderPantry of Possibilities). Some of our plays have struck a bit of a balance between these as well, like You May Be Splendid Now.
When a play is written as a nearly final draft, usually there are minor line changes that happen in the room, like making a certain line punch a bit more, or adding a joke or two here and there. But the shape and structure never change.
When we were working on WunderPantry, we had the pleasure to work three amazing writers, who modeled the writing process in a way taught to Moyer and Goldberg in a class of Len Jenkins. The writers would write based on assignments, find images, websites, songs and texts that could be used for short pieces. Then, using the actors to read through the 250 pages+ of material, they culled it into one cohesive mini-musical.
Dan also likes to write for specific actors. You May Be Splendid Now was a very rough script, but once he got the actors in front of him, he took a lot of the story and based it around what they were doing in rehearsal. So I guess we go at new projects in various ways, but always have a goal in mind of a cohesive, entertaining, and intriguing evening of theatre.
99: What's next for you?
Shelby: This January we will be returning to Minneapolis for the Jewish Humor Festival there. We've been invited back to do some short pieces they saw when we performed at the Fringe last August. Spring will bring a mini tour of a play we did last year, Raphael Bob-Waksberg's The Mike and Morgan Show. We will be presenting this both in New York and CA (both Bay Area and LA). This summer will begin with a production of an untitled new Dan Moyer play, which will have a full run here and then travel immediately to the Bay Area. We're putting together another application for the MN Fringe Festival, and are crossing our fingers our name gets pulled for a third year in a row!
99: As a new Indie company what advice would you give to those just starting out?
Shelby: Surround yourself with people you trust. Do plays in your hometown. Your parents will always want to see you act/direct/write/whatever. And they'll bring the whole town. Stay focused and always strive for more. There's nothing more rewarding than accomplishing something you thought was impossible.
To check out Shelby's latest, go here.
This company is certainly making waves. Make sure to catch this whale.
Read more of Michael's insights at www.oneproducerinthecity.typepad.com.