By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star
In Shakespeare’s day, strolling players traveled from town to town, performing in barns, courtyards, taverns or wherever they might find a place to set up shop and entertain a willing audience.
They might earn a little money. They might lose a little. Or they might break even.
This week theatergoers will have a chance to see the modern equivalent of the strolling players.
Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, the nonprofit company that operates under the artistic leadership of Karen Paisley, and Central Standard Theatre, the for-profit company set up by her husband, Bob Paisley, are partnering to present British Invasion 2011, a mini-festival of solo performances and one two-actor play.
This will be the second consecutive year that British actors, playwrights and producers have settled into the MET’s 99-seat midtown space. They will include three performers in multiple shows produced by or associated with Guy Masterson’s company, Theatre Tours International, as well as actors from Blackout Theatre, a community group in Bedford, England.
What makes this venture unusual is that it is strictly for-profit, with its commercial success to be determined by the take at the box office. That’s true of massive touring Broadway shows, of course, but these are small-scale pieces with minimal scenery and props. And most of them run about an hour.
“I live on the edge and I live on my wits and I don’t know any other way to do it,” Masterson said from his office north of London.
Masterson’s company produces and presents one-actor shows almost exclusively. His shows are regularly seen in major fringe festivals, including those in Edinburgh, Scotland, and Adelaide, Australia.
“I wouldn’t be doing solo shows if I had my druthers,” Masterson said. “I’d love to produce bigger pieces, but the finances don’t allow it. We’ve never had a penny in subsidies. It all works on the box office.
“Bob’s not offering any guarantees, and we’re not coming out with any guarantees. But we know there’s a theater audience out there, and there’s a lot of good talent coming out, so the audience won’t be disappointed with what they see. It gives Kansas (City) something new and it gives us a week of work in a lovely town, eating good food, sipping martinis and meeting interesting people.”
Masterson will perform three pieces: “Shylock,” written by Gareth Armstrong, which examines prejudices and perceptions of Jewish culture by the way the central figure of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” has been portrayed through the centuries; “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” a remembrance by Dylan Thomas; and “American Poodle,” which is two short plays performed in repertory offering a comical view of Anglo-American relationships since the American Revolution.
Rebecca Vaughan will reprise “Austen’s Women,” which she composed from the writings of Jane Austen, including letters and an unfinished novel; and “I, Elizabeth,” which she assembled from the writings of Queen Elizabeth I.
Richard Fry, making his first trip to Kansas City, will perform two original pieces: “Smiler,” a play about a friend who was struck by a drunken driver when he was 18 and how the brain-injured survivor relates to the world; and “The Ballad of the Unbeatable Hearts,” a show Fry describes as a “celebration of life” as it examines the causes and consequences of gay teen suicides.
Blackout Theatre will be represented by “September in the Rain” by John Godber, in which David Baxter and Elizabeth Thomas play a married couple whose experiences are traced from youth to old age in their annual seaside vacations in Blackpool; and Alan Bennett’s “A Chip in the Sugar,” featuring Frank Spackman as a timid, middle-aged man thrown off balance when his elderly mother reunites with an old flame.
In the beginning
The first Brit invasion last December started something. Bob Paisley responded by mounting an “American Invasion” timed to the city of Bedford’s fringe festival in July. Paisley performed the one-man show, “The Event,” and appeared in Central Standard’s production of “Driving Miss Daisy” with Harvey Williams and Marilyn Lynch. But before that he accompanied Masterson to Adelaide in February and March.
“While (Guy) was here a year ago, one of his boots-on-the-ground producers in Adelaide pulled out, so he was down one person. And he said, ‘It pays really rotten but the job is yours if you want it.’ So I said ‘OK, sign me up.’ So I sort of acted as a producer, troubleshooter, house manager-slash-stage manager person for several of the shows he was doing there. I wasn’t performing but I was really getting to know what was going on there.”
So now he’s planning to take “Driving Miss Daisy” to Adelaide in 2012, and a group of Aussies are planning a trip to Kansas City.
“They’re working on the financing,” Paisley said. “If they get their funding done, the hope is that I’ll bring a couple of small (Australian) shows the week before the Fringe Festival in Kansas City, and then they’ll bring a third show that I’ll produce for them in the Fringe. They’ll come in the summer and the Brits will come in the winter.”
To be that mobile and that flexible, the shows by definition have to be small and unencumbered.
“That’s the business model they all work on, particularly for the fringe festivals,” he said. “In order to be portable they have to be small and depend on the poetry and the language. They have to just rely on themselves rather than turntables and light effects and smoke and mirrors.”
But it’s a business model that runs a 50-50 chance of losing money. Baxter of the Blackout Theatre said the productions of “Driving Miss Daisy” and “The Event,” though enthusiastically received by Bedford audiences, lost a little. And Central Standard’s production earlier this year of “A Steady Rain” lost money, despite fine performances by Forrest Attaway and Scott Cordes.
“ ‘A Steady Rain’ was supposed to be the moneymaker for what we’re doing,” Paisley said. “It had affordable production values because it was just two guys, but the royalties were pretty spectacular for that show.”
The plan, Paisley said, calls for one or two box-office hits and the ability to recoup expenses on everything else.
“That’s the model I want to follow: Break even going overseas, and breaking even when they come here, and then do a couple of independent projects and hope they’re the moneymakers. We’re walking the tightrope. Last year, for example, in Australia the sales were not what anybody anticipated and the profits weren’t coming in.
“We’re solely dependent on the ticket sales. You have a list of priorities of what you pay. You have to make sure the airplane fares are taken care of. Then there’s the royalties. But you’ve got to be lucky. And good.”
Leaving the vagaries of show business aside, the British-American-Australian cultural exchanges create opportunities. Theatergoers in Kansas City, for example, get to see the work of bona fide international artists. And the artists get to experience Middle America. Richard Fry, for example, has never performed in the United States.
“I’ve really been meaning to come over to the States,” Fry said. “I’d love to do a proper American tour. It’s so big.”
Baxter and Spackman had never performed in this country before appearing in Kansas City last December. And when Blackout Theatre presented “The Event” and “Driving Miss Daisy” at the Place, a 136-seat theater in Bedford, it gave local audiences a chance to see something they’d never seen.
“We don’t often see professional American theater in a space like that,” Baxter said. “And I think people got a real buzz out of seeing them.”
Vaughan wasn’t sure what Kansas City would be like, but she loved it.
“I was really amazed by the amount of interest in the arts in Kansas City,” she said. “There’s so much theater going on and the arts in general. I think the audiences in Kansas City were particularly up for seeing theater. As Bob says, they don’t leave their brains at the door. They really are interested in ideas.”
Pay a visit to Dyad Productions’ website (www.dyadproductions.com) and click on the tour-date page and you’ll see that Vaughan is virtually a barnstormer, performing one-night stands for weeks at a time. She recently toured Ireland and gave 10 performances in nine days.
Vaughan suggested that the itinerant actor model makes sense in Britain, where virtually every town has a theater and many smaller theater companies have been clobbered by cuts in arts funding. She said she has contacts with 1,500 theaters in the United Kingdom and Ireland.
“There are obviously a lot of companies in the UK that have big arts council funding, but recently with government cuts there’ve been massive changes in the ways theaters are subsidized in this country,” she said. “Because we’re not funded, we’re able to operate in this particular way. The reason we’re able to operate as a for-profit is that there are so many theaters in Britain.”
Vaughan has been in big shows and spent part of her career as a “jobbing actor,” but the solo work provides considerable rewards.
“I do have a real passion for the smaller- to medium-scale work,” she said. “Since I’ve been doing it I really love the intimacy of the audience. As an audience member I like being able to see the whites of the actors’ eyes. I just like the idea, this wonderful tradition we have of people sitting in dark rooms listening to someone tell a story.”
© 2011 Kansas City Star and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved