BWW Exclusive: M. Scott Tatum and Julie Wright on CHICAGO, PASSING STRANGE, and Half and Half Productions' First Full Season
There's something to be said for shattering expectations, and M. Scott Tatum and Julie Wright have much to say about the topic. It's clear that the Co-Artistic Directors of Half and Half Productions are passionate about finding creative and innovative ways to expand the reach of theater by breaking theater conventions while engaging and entertaining their audience.
I recently sad down with Tatum and Wright at a rehearsal for their production of Chicago, which opened last night at Maggie Mae's on 6th Street. Anyone familiar with 6th Street knows that it's famous for its bars, nightclubs, and live music, but not theater. If Tatum and Wright have their way, that might change.
Chicago, co-directed by Tatum and Wright, is the first production of Half and Half's first full season, but the company already has a notable success under their belt. Half and Half's inaugural production, Passing Strange, was nominated for three B. Iden Payne awards last year and won for Outstanding Youth Performer. Its success is a bit shocking given the uniqueness of the material. Passing Strange is part rock musical and part performance art, making it out of place in the musical theater genre.
Nevertheless, the show won over critics and audiences alike. "There have been moments throughout this past year where Passing Strange comes back up again," says Tatum. "Some people have talked about that barrier that they thought they'd have in seeing the show, but they quickly realized it's about family and self-discovery and growing up."
The production's venue also somewhat paved the way for Half and Half's production of Chicago. Passing Strange was a site-specific show staged in a vacated storefront in the Highland Mall. Chicago is similarly site-specific as it utilizes the speakeasy-themed bar of Maggie Mae's Gibson Lounge.
Part of the decision to stage Chicago in a bar stems from the material itself. Bars, nightclubs, and speakeasies are mentioned quite a bit throughout the musical, and staging the show in such an environment should create a memorable and different experience. "The space brings its own feeling to the show," says Wright. "If we were to do Chicago on a traditional, proscenium stage, people would come in not only with a pre-conceived notion about what they were going to see but also regarding how they should act and behave. When you take that traditional space away from them, they have no idea how they should act, and those other pre-conceived notions go away. All we want is for our audience to have a drink, sit down, and enjoy the show."
The choice of venue also allows for an unusual performance schedule. Friday night performances will start at 6pm in order to attract a Happy Hour crowd. "People can come over after work, grab a drink, and see a show," Tatum says. "It'll be a completely different vibe." And by utilizing an unconventional theater space, Half and Half is participating in a trend that is both old and new. "The first permanent theater in London was built about 100 years after a theater culture was created there," says Tatum. "Before that, shows were done in bars and pubs. I love the idea of us returning to that, and the trend in theater right now is to remove more and more of the barriers between the audience and the performer." It's an idea that is picking up steam in other parts of the country. Two of New York City's most talked about productions in recent memory, Sleep No More and Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, are both site-specific. Even Broadway shows staged in traditional proscenium houses, such as Rocky and the upcoming Tupac Shakur inspired musical Holler If Ya Hear Me, are reconfiguring their seating in order to bring the action closer to the audience.
Of course, the limited number of venues in Austin also influenced the decision to stage Chicago as a site-specific piece. While the population of Austin continues to expand, new theater companies form. Half and Half is just one of many new theater companies-such as Austin Theatre Project, Poor Shadows of Elysium, and Street Corner Artists-that have joined the Austin theater community in the past three years. However, as the theater community grows, so does the demand for venues, and building or renting space can be cost prohibitive.
But according to Wright, lack of communication and imagination are the true prohibitive forces. "A lot of theater folks go looking for a theater space, and if they can't find a theater space, it's 'Well I guess we can't do theater.' But what about bars? What about warehouses? What about taking advantage of found spaces? Some beautiful things can happen there. But then there are some communication problems. You have these artists who need space desperately and then you have these owners of non-theater venue who aren't speaking the same language. Some conversations just aren't happening."
Still, there's more to Half and Half than just staging a beloved musical in a bar. Tatum and Wright have strategically selected original, innovative works to fill out their first full season. Their next show, Unpublished, will consist of two original one-act plays, both directed by Josh Denning and performed in repertory. The final show of the season, Walk With Me, will be an original dance piece, and it's a project that Tatum is particularly enthusiastic about. "Our choreographer for Chicago, Brazie Adamez, is choreographing the piece, and honestly, that's the show I'm really excited about this season. Brazie is a genius, and this show is a tribute to her son who survived cancer at 18 months years old. Her son is amazing, and this piece about their experience is moving and beautiful."
But for Tatum and Wright, the full season of productions is just a piece of what Half and Half will do. The pair is also planning an educational series to allow performers and artists to hone their craft. "Artists should continue to receive quality education like audition prep, design classes, and acting classes," says Wright. "I've learned everything I need to know about in theater by working in theater. What you get in college is the philosophy, but you don't get the other stuff like how to write a grant, how to get rights to a show, or how to hire designers." The classes, which will utilize working professionals from the Austin theater community, will also help forge more collaboration between artists, something that Tatum and Wright see as an area of opportunity. "There's not a lot of collaboration between theater groups in this town," says Wright, "And that makes me sad as an artist. We should all want to collaborate. We should all want to come together and think about the bigger picture. We can all be individuals, but we can be so much more effective as an entity."
CHICAGO, produced by Half and Half Productions, plays the Gibson Lounge at Maggie Mae's (323 E 6th St, Austin, TX 78701) now thru June 1st. Performances are Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 8pm and Fridays at 6pm. Tickets are $25-$35. Ages 18+ only. For tickets and information about Half and Half Productions, please visit www.halfandhalfproductions.org.