Arts Desk

Theater of the First Amendment Folds

Theater of the First Amendment's production of "STAY" at the Lansburgh

This is the time of year theaters like to puff up their feathers. But today's announcement from Theater of the First Amendant isn't the unveiling of the company's next season.

Instead, it's the sad news that there won't be one: After the 22 seasons, the professional company based at George Mason University is closing its doors.

Although the press release strikes a fairly zen tone—the small staff of Theater of the First Amendment will now turn their attention to George Mason's theater department, where most of them already work—the folding follows an ambitious yet financially disappointing year for the company.

"I do feel that we accomplished what we set out to do—not every idea needs to last forever," says Rick Davis, TFA's artistic director. Still, he admits the company's budgetary picture played a big role. "It’s been a tough year for a lot of theaters and I think we didn’t do as well as we’d hoped. Looking forward, we realized we couldn’t keep that going."

Asked if the company managed to balance this season's $400,000 budget, Davis says: "No—in a word." (The budget fluctuated from year to year.) The group still has one more scheduled production this season, Bertolt Brecht's The Life of Galileo, which now will be mounted under the academic department's new banner, Theater at Mason; the show will star Equity actor Matthew Vaky in the title role and otherwise feature a company of student actors. “Whether we end up in a deficit or not [for the year] remains to be seen,” says the company's managing director, Kevin Murray.

The company was known for its stagings of new—or at least new-to-D.C.—works, as well as its annual new-play festival. (The press release below is heavy on autobiography.) For many years TFA staged its productions at George Mason—helping increase, Davis and Murray say, the stature of the school's theater department. Ironically, Theater of the First Amendment ended up competing for space with the department with which it shared staff—which is why, for 2011-2012, TFA decided to mount its entire season in the District. At Mason, the group had a rent-free venue, but over the past year it had to swallow the cost of renting the 190-seat Sprenger Theatre at the Atlas Performing Arts Center—for 24, 7, 365 last winter and Can't Scare Me, the Story of Mother Jones last fall—and Shakespeare Theatre Company's 451-seat Lansburgh Theatre for STAY. Attendance wasn't super. "It was never as good as we wanted it to be," says Murray. He adds that strangely, when the company remounted Mother Jones last month on Mason's campus, "in one weekend we did 50 percent of the businesses we did at the Atlas over a three-week run," even though the company spent big on marketing for the earlier staging.

But closing down TFA wasn't a decision that came about because of a single season, Murray cautions. For example, TFA was much more successful attaining institutional, corporate, and government support in 2010-2011 than 2011-2012. “It wasn’t, 'We had a bad year, we’re going to shut down,'" he says. "We decided to stop living with that risk...We didn't want to risk our own wellbeing and we didn’t to risk being a drain on [George Mason's] resources.” Still, this season's ”very aggressive programming ended up tipping the scale economically," Murray says. "It was a signal that the pendulum would be swinging back and forth for a few years to come."

Murray's duties will now transfer to Mason's theater department; both Davis, who's also the executive director of Mason's Hylton Performing Arts Center, and Heather McDonald, the artistic associate, are Mason faculty who were volunteering their time with TFA. The company let go four part-time staffers in December.

There's also the work the company gave to local actors, production workers, and, crucially, local playwrights. Murray isn't taking credit, but he cites the local theater scene's current enthusiasm for new work as a sign TFA's forward-thinking ethos has resonated. He says TFA's staff is now focused on the next generation of theatermakers. "We’ve kind of known about this decision for a while now. We’ve lived with it for a while now and we’re feeling truly a renaissance of spirit," he says, promising that the academic program will continue to grow and evolve."There’s more news coming down the pike and it’s all good.”

Here's the press release:

Theater at Mason announces Theater of the First Amendment closing its doors at end of the current season

Major new initiative launched as academic programs expand, with a Theater at Mason production of Bertolt Brecht’s “The Life of Galileo”

March 29 – April 7 at Harris Theater, George Mason University’s Fairfax Campus

FAIRFAX, Va., March 6, 2012 – Theater of the First Amendment’s Artistic Director Rick Davis announced that after 22 seasons, TFA will cease operations as the professional theater company-in-residence at George Mason University in order to focus on the expansion of programming and advancement of Theater at Mason.

TFA’s artistic leaders have always served as faculty members of Mason’s Department of Theater, where every faculty member is a working professional. It is toward the growth and stability of this academic enterprise that TFA’s leadership now turns its collective attention. Theater at Mason is an initiative defined by the continued emphasis on work with professionals and shaped by the hybrid demands of a contemporary, multi-media marketplace. As a training ground for work in stage and screen, Theater at Mason commits to the transformation and empowerment of young artists and helps connect the world of academia to the vast professional community found in the greater Washington, D.C. area. Through master classes, guest artist appearances and a new artist residency program, Theater at Mason will continue the legacy begun by TFA as it provides interaction between students and working professionals. Theater at Mason’s undergraduate students will train and work with theater professionals who encourage them to engage their skills in professional, academic, regional and global communities. Unique resources, exciting work and academic rigor will blend to provide a professional approach in a liberal arts environment.

Department of Theater Chair Ken Elston observes, “Theater at Mason is defined by the dynamic of the working professional mentoring the emerging artist, empowering students of theater to create, while modeling the best of professional processes and ethics. These ideals and priorities are played out every day at Mason, and provide a shining example of the positive impact not only for our students, but for the greater community as we continue to engage our audiences through the activities of the Friends of Theater at Mason.”

Under its new banner, Theater at Mason presents “The Life of Galileo” by Bertolt Brecht, March 29 through April 7 in Mason’s 475-seat Harris Theater. Equity actor Matthew Vaky will portray the title role, under the direction of Rick Davis, working with a company of student actors and stage managers.

The design team for “The Life of Galileo” is drawn from among Mason theater faculty and graduates of the theater program who now work as professionals in the D.C. region. The production will feature scenic design by Dana Maier, costume design by Ivania Stack, lighting design by Liz Replogle and sound design by Kevin Dunayer. Each designer and the director will be assisted by students selected from the theater program.

Playwright and Robinson Professor Paul D’Andrea founded Theater of the First Amendment in 1990 as a bold experiment in producing professional work within an academic environment. TFA focused on the development and production of new plays, new adaptations and new translations of plays, across a broad spectrum of styles, including contemporary drama, family-friendly musicals and re-imagined classics. A number of highly-regarded theater artists premiered or developed their work at TFA, including Heather McDonald, Karen Zacarías, Paul D’Andrea, Jennifer Nelson, Anna Theresa Cascio, Sherry Kramer, Dianne McIntyre, the team of Mary Hall Surface and David Maddox, and many others.

In its 22 years, TFA’s productions and artists won 12 Helen Hayes Awards out of 38 nominations. Many of its productions have been published, recorded as original cast albums on CD, broadcast on PBS, aired on NPR and produced nationally and internationally after TFA’s premieres. TFA produced several arts festivals, and for 12 years, has offered select playwrights its First Light Discovery Program, in which scores of new plays were developed and presented as staged readings.

Managing Director Kevin Murray adds, “The Mason community has been extremely supportive of our work over the years. They have provided us the opportunity to soar, and have allowed us to stumble. TFA’s leadership, our board and our university benefactors reached this mutual decision knowing that we are ending our journey on a high note.” Murray will now become program manager for Theater at Mason.

TFA’s most recent year was also one of its most ambitious. 2011 saw the world premiere of three new works—Jennifer Nelson’s “24, 7, 365” and Kaiulani Lee’s “Can’t Scare Me, the story of Mother Jones,” both at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, and “STAY,” a collaboration between playwright Heather McDonald and choreographer Susan Shields, at the Lansburgh Theatre of the Shakespeare Theatre Company. A new adaptation of Federal Theatre Radio Archive material entitled “Live Wire” played both the Hylton Performing Arts Center and George Mason University’s Center for the Arts. Playwrights in Mind: A National Conversation was a conference offered in partnership with the Dramatists Guild of America at the newly opened Mason Inn Conference Center last summer. Featuring such prestigious playwrights and composers and Christopher Durang, Stephen Schwartz, Marsha Norman, Doug Wright, Emily Mann and others, the conference drew hundreds of writers from across the United States.

Artistic Director Rick Davis explains, “It’s easy to point to the obvious challenges of producing professional theater today—companies across the country are scaling back, rethinking and some important ones have shut down—but truthfully, we have accomplished what we set out to do. TFA leaves a rich legacy of new work for the American stage. We have been instrumental in the growth of the arts, both at George Mason University and in Northern Virginia. Now it’s time to focus on the next generation of theater practitioners.”

 

 

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