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Fine theatre pairings: Austin New Works Community finds inspiration in collaboration

Austin photo: Contributor_Michael Graupmann
Austin photo: News_Messenger No. 4_Poster
Cambiare Productions presents: Messenger No. 4 Courtesy of Cambiare Productions
Austin Photo Set: News_Mike_Cambiare/Paper Moon collaboration_feb 2012
Paper Moon Repertory presents: The 21 Would-Be Lives of Phineas Hamm
Austin photo: Event_Orchid Flotilla_Poster
Glass Half Full Theatre presents: The Orchid Flotilla
Austin Photo Set: News_Dawn_Alien Baby_jan 2012_trouble
Trouble Puppet Theatre Company presents: The Crapstall Street Boys Courtesy of Trouble Puppet Theater

The constant output in Austin's creative scene can be a double-edged sword. It's easy to find inspiration when you're surrounded by a million other creative people. But if everyone is busy making art, there's no one left to comprise an audience to enjoy it.

With the proliferation of new theatre companies blooming across the Austin landscape, it can be difficult for audiences to decide which shows to see. There is so much new work in town, in fact, that members of the theatre community and the Austin Creative Alliance developed an Austin New Works Community focus group to address the growing needs of this community and get the word out on all of the great new shows happening in town every month.

Caroline Reck, the Community Liason for the the New Works Community, understands all too well the challenges faced by new work theatre companies in Austin. She is also the producing Artistic Director of Glass Half Full Theatre, a company that focuses on puppetry and experimental movement.

"New works take longer to create than existing plays," Reck explains. "New work also involves trying out ideas and scrapping them various times in order to create the best possible result.  It's harder to anticipate a budget when the product isn't clear from the beginning.  There is a lot of risk involved, and having another company that has your back makes it possible to take that leap of faith."

Glass Half Full is lucky that another new works company in town, Trouble Puppett Theater Company, also has a creative interest in theatrical puppetry for adults. Together, the two companies have worked together to put on The Austin Puppet Incident, which showcases work from both companies, shares audiences and allows them to learn from one another while working side-by-side.

For the busy folks creating new theatre work, however, the possibility for collaboration can be tricky. With the constant writing, directing, performing and promoting, they're usually too busy birthing their latest work into reality to catch anyone else's shows. "It’s an exciting environment to be surrounded by, but you also miss out on seeing so many of these great shows from these great playwrights and directors," explains new work theatre writer and director Rachel McGinnis.

To help make the birthing process easier for her small new theatre company, Paper Moon Repertory, McGinnis negotiated a collaboration with more traditional Austin Playhouse for their company's first production, The Adventures of Iris and Momo. Paper Moon used the space during the day for children's theatre while Austin Playhouse used it at night time for their production of 39 Steps. "I thought, 'This is the perfect setup! Why isn't everyone doing this?'" recalls McGinnis.

Learning from the benefits of that partnership, she began talks with Cambiare Productions, another company in town with a similar commitment to new work and a mission statement that included collaboration within the community. While both companies choose to maintain their individual approaches to telling their creative stories, they recognized the immediate benefits of sharing a space and an audience.

"We discussed having a festival pass or a punch card that would include all of the new works shows happening during that time," says McGinnis. "This way we could encourage people to go to shows that might be outside their immediate window of familiarity."

After those initial talks began a year ago, the two companies decided to reveal their latest works in a creative manner that may or may not revolutionize the way Austinites see their new works theatre. Both shows will take place back-to-back at the Blue Theatre, using the same set for two very different shows.

Paper Moon will present The 21 Would-Be Lives of Phineas Hamm, a cautionary coming-of-age story about a boy given a dangerous device that gives him the power to escape his poor decisions. Written and directed by McGinnis, who says the play is "strangely autobiographical," is tinged with steampunk aesthetics. With a large cast of characters that appear in all 21 of Phineas' lives, the show will be visually and moralistically appealing to anyone who has ever run from their past rather than facing it head on.

Then after a 30-minute cocktail break sponsored by Deep Eddy Vodka, Cambiare will present their latest production, Messenger No. 4 (Or... How to Survive a Greek Tragedy), written and directed by Will Hollis Snider. Here, Snider highlights the otherwise nameless messengers of Greek tragedies who have no job other than to deliver the epic speeches detailing the unseen action of the play's resolution. In this instance, Messenger #4 is fed up with his lame job and starts re-writing history to catastrophic effect.

Besides sharing a space and a set, McGinnis and Snider agree there is a shared vibe between the two shows that audiences will immediately connect. "They are set in two very theatrical universes, but they share that same Greek and science fiction vocabulary," states Snider, who admits he wrote Messenger while watching episodes Dr. Who.

Each show will run 90 minutes, which will translate into a very full evening of theatre. McGinnis says she got the idea from her days studying Theatre at Northwestern University. "There, it was common for us to do two or three shows in a space per night," she explains. "And Austin’s a young city, people stay out late here, so there’s an argument in favor of doing a late night show."

Paper Moon and Cambiare are thrilled about this weekend's theatrical pairing, completely aware of the potential complications to the four-week run ahead of them. "Collaboration goes far beyond sharing the space. It’s ticketing and marketing and a whole slew of other considerations," McGinnis predicts. "It’s not a perfect system yet. But I have to say, we all work together very well. It’s been a great collaboration, there’s a great synergy that exists there."

"We should probably write a best practices of sharing a space after this is all said and done, after we work out all the kinks," adds Snider. "Talk to us after the shows happen, and we'll likely have plenty to reflect upon."

The rest of the new works theatre community will no doubt be taking notes on the outcomes of this exciting experiment between Cambiare and Paper Moon. If collaboration proves a successful route to raising attendance, we might be seeing a whole slew of delicious theatrical pairings in the months to come.

"Austin New Works artists are notoriously scrappy, and somehow we keep finding ways and places to make work in the toughest of times," says Reck. "It's heartening to work in a town where, even when the resources are limited, folks band together to get through it."

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The 21 Would-Be Lives of Phineas Hamm and Messenger No. 4 play at the Blue Theatre Feb. 17 - Mar. 4. Tickets to either show can be purchased at their combined ticketing website. Individual show tickets can be purchased for $15.00 each, or the combined ticket is $25.00.

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