The District theater festival, the new local floorboards collaboration between three Syracuse-based acting companies, is symbolic of many things: history, community, friendship, artistic growth and shared resources for a common goal. Among these shared resources? Couches, of course.
“How many couches does one single company need to own?” asked Ty Marshal, managing director at Rarely Done Productions. “Can we collectively own 10 and pull from our own collections? Or, do we each own 10?”
Couches are just the beginning, though. As the inaugural 2013 festival inches closer to its March 7 opening night, kicking off three weekends of repertory productions through March 24, the contributing theater companies—Rarely Done, Appleseed Productions and the Redhouse Art Center— are finding new and creative ways to share resources to help them create a single, lively and much-needed theater festival in Syracuse. The shows will take place at the New York State Fair grounds’ Empire Theater in the Art and Home Center.
“I mean not to be ugly,” said Dan Tursi, artistic director for Rarely Done, “but the festivals that we currently have, with the exception of the art festival, is drink, eat, drink, eat and drink and eat. Which is what sparked me; I was tired of seeing it and saying we need a theater festival back here in town.”
Other groups have tried the idea.
Onondaga County’s former Cultural Resources Council, now known as CNY Arts, attempted a downtown festival during the mid-1980s. Known as SummerFest, the event featured productions mounted by several troupes, including the still-in-operation Talent Company and the Paul Robeson Performing Arts Company and long-ago outfits such as Shattuck-Nye Productions, the Rex Henriot Theater Company and Contemporary Theater of Syracuse. Each group would take turns during July and August for Wednesday-through-Sunday performances at the Mulroy Civic Center’s Carrier Theater.
“Five, six companies would go and would each get a weekend,” recalled C.J. Young, artistic director of Appleseed Productions. “You would strike and the next guy would load in, and it was great. And here we are today, where the number of festivals in town, every kind of food you can think of has its own weekend at Clinton Square. We’re one of the strongest markets in the country, yet no theater festival.”
Announcing the coalition last fall, The District is the creative venture featuring the artistic directors of Appleseed, Rarely Done and Armory Square’s Redhouse banding together with the mindset of lending a theatrical hand to one another. This means perusing one another’s props and costume closets and sharing their directors, tech gurus, marketing and—most importantly—advice.
“When you share resources, and you share volunteers, it’s undeniable that that you’re also sharing knowledge,” said Marshal. “We learn better, we learn stronger when our feet are held to the fire. You’re almost forced to learn how to work with each other, how to mount shows together. It’s all a learning process.”
The three individual companies are quickly learning how to work as a team—to smooth out the kinks and bring together the nearly 170 volunteers before the first show kicks off.
“Friendship is work, and if it isn’t, then it’s not real,” said Young. “And if we come up with something that’s just a plastic surface identity, then it’s going to crumble.”
Luckily, Young, Marshal and Tursi have been friends for nearly 10 years. For example, Young has acted in shows under Tursi’s direction, and Marshal has likewise performed for director Young (he’s acting for Young in the current Appleseed revival of Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers). The three have built a close connection over the years, often attending other companies’ opening nights together.
Getting Redhouse executive director Stephen Svoboda to commit to The District was also essential. “Dan and C.J. already worked together through Rarely Done and Appleseed, and we all were wondering how the Redhouse could be involved,” Svoboda said during an October interview for The New Times (What’s Shakin’, Oct. 31). “So we sat down for coffee and I suggested the Fourth Arts Block, an organization down on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The Block does this arts district, where they define themselves geographically. We were thinking that we could take those principles and work together as three theater groups to do the same thing: resource sharing, marketing, you know, growing together vs. fighting each other.”
Admittedly, the men have undertaken a bigger challenge than simply sharing each other’s resources. Going beyond the duty of presenting local productions, each artistic honcho has a made a vow to reintroduce theater to the community, to teach all Central New York playgoers a lesson about the Salt City’s rich theatrical heritage.
Syracuse was home to the Shubert family, which operated one of the largest and most successful theater syndicates in New York. Owning theaters throughout Central New York and New York City, the Shuberts are credited with establishing the Broadway district.
For Tursi, Young, Marshal and Svoboda, starting The District Festival means remembering what Syracuse once was: the excitement that came with each opening night. For them, The District represents a kind of dramatic awakening for Central New York, with the festival upping the theatrical ante for all three companies.
“It raises the bar on all of us for putting our money where our mouth is when it comes to the relationship between the companies for the kind of product that we want to produce and challenge each other to produce,” said Young.
Although they have collectively branded themselves as “The District,” each company is also trying to maintain their own individual theatrical niche.
Rarely Done will produce the area premiere of Grey Gardens, the cult musical that centers on Big and Little Edie Bouvier, the aunt and cousin of First Lady Jackie Kennedy Onassis, and what happens when they become notorious recluses in East Hampton.
Appleseed will present John Van Druten’s 1944 drama I Remember Mama, which focuses on a family of Norwegian immigrants that move to San Francisco during the 1910s. Mama holds a special place for Appleseed, as it will kick off the company’s 20th anniversary season.
The Redhouse will round out this year’s festival with The Full Monty, a musical adaptation of the 1997 British movie comedy about unemployed steelworkers trying to make a buck.
“We needed something that would allow us to do all of the things that are part of the Redhouse brand, a little edgy, design ability, ability to combine professional and community artists,” said Svoboda. “And for the festival, it needed to have commercial appeal.”
The artistic directors of The District did not collectively decide upon the shows; rather, each company chose a show most fitting with its mission and aesthetic. That’s what the directors envisioned: diversity. Although the shows do not share a common theme, the festival presents an opportunity, and challenge, for them to operate on a single set. Tim Brown, Redhouse’s resident set and lighting designer, is working to create a universal set and lighting schematic (with only 36 lights) for all three productions.
“It will be undeniable that when you come to see I Remember Mama, there will be elements that you saw in The Full Monty,” said Marshal. “It will be a visual, tangible collaboration between three companies when people come to the three shows. That’s kind of the magic behind the curtain coming out.”
Having one set has proved to be financially wise for the burgeoning fest. The artistic directors are also figuring out other ways to cut costs for the productions, including sharing musicians and working collectively to procure grants. The three companies are shelling out about $100,000 to produce this festival, according to Svoboda.
“The nice thing about it is—this is the part I really, really like—is that of the three shows, the money is going to all three of us,” said Tursi. “So that’s the nice part about it: No one’s going into it with just Redhouse, Appleseed and Rarely Done. We’re just doing the best we can do. The line keeps changing and we’re finding, ‘Well, we didn’t have to spend so much on this.’” “But, that’s part of the experience and the experiment is to say, ‘OK, where can we save and where can’t we save?’” said Marshal. “We would probably be able to answer that after the festival.”
The festival is also designed to facilitate community partnerships and, hopefully, economic stimulation. The District has named the Genesee Grande Hotel, 1060 E. Genesee St., its official stayover spot, and created business partnerships with the Syracuse New Times, WCNY-Channel 24, the multi-channel CNY Central, WRVO-FM 89.9 and the CNY SPCA, with the latter organization providing a cat for I Remember Mama.
“What this gives visitors to Central New York who are coming to the festival is the opportunity to stay at the Genesee Grande and see all three shows in two days,” said Marshal. “That’s the economic portion of this, trying to attract people outside of Central New York.”
The District is still in its inaugural year, yet the directors are already looking at ways to fine-tune it for the future. They’re looking to include new theater companies, establish more community partnerships and diversify the lineup of productions.
“You can get your 15 minutes in this town,” said Young, “and we decided that this is important enough that we wanted 30 minutes to underscore what this could really mean. It’s not exclusive, it’s inclusive.”
For arts organizations to join the festival, Marshal said, the only requirements are that they are nonprofits and have been in operation for at least one year. With these few prerequisites and an open mind for collaboration, The District is hoping to increase the number of community partners for future festivals.
“We also want to give ourselves, the three partners, a year to work out all of the bugs and kinks that come along with new collaborations,” added Marshal.
Tursi agreed, saying the three companies are still “figuring each other out, like you do in a relationship.”
And it’s the collaborative nature of the companies’ relationships that has allowed this festival to become a reality. Through friendship, a common goal and shared vision, the directors behind The District are reviving Syracuse’s long-standing theater history and making the Shuberts proud.
“Central New York has always been theater,” says Marshal, “and we are hoping to continue to always be theater.”
On with the Shows
The three District shows will run in repertory, meaning a slate of rotating performances.
The Redhouse’s production of The Full Monty begins the festival on Thursday, March 7, 8 p.m., at the New York State Fairgrounds’ Empire Theater, located within the Art and Home Center. Other Monty mountings will be March 9, 17 and 22 at 8 p.m., with 2 p.m. matinees on March 16 and 24.
Appleseed’s revival of I Remember Mama will hit the boards on March 8, 14, 16 and 24 at 8 p.m., with 2 p.m. shows on March 10 and 23.
Rarely Done’s Grey Gardens will have 8 p.m. shows on March 10, 15, 21 and 23, plus 2 p.m. matinees on March 9 and 17.
Tickets are $20 per show and $50 for a three-show package. For more information, visit thedistrictstages.org.
There will also be a “Fifty Shades of Men” preshow on March 7 and 9 at 6 p.m., as something of a warm-up for The Full Monty. Cast members from the 2010 U.S. Chippendale Tour will strut their stuff during this beefcake bonanza. Admission will be $10.