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BWW Interview: Benjamin Summers of StreetCorner Arts

Continuing our series of interviews of Austin Theatre companies and the artists behind them, BroadwayWorld had the opportunity to talk to Benjamin Summers about StreetCorner Arts during their Tech Week for their latest production, PERFECT MENDACITY.

BWW: What is the history of StreetCorner Arts?

BS: Whiskey and a script. Rommel and Benjamin had been working together on a show here in Austin. Both had spent a time living and working within the Chicago theatre scene; over drinks, they chatted about friends, venues, and scripts. In particular, scripts that they'd like to do here in Austin if they had the chance. They both really loved the storefront theatre feel that is so common in Chicago. That blue-collar feel. Rommel had MEN OF TORTUGA at the top of his list of projects he'd like to see staged. Benjamin and Andrea read the script and loved it; a reading was held not too long after that and, from there, it moved quickly into production----like 3 weeks later! A slot had unexpectedly opened up at Hyde Park Theatre and we jumped at it! We used the opportunity to work with our friends (Ken Bradley, Garry Peters, and Joe Penrod). It was a rowdy bunch and a ton of fun. I don't think it was until the show closed that we realized we really wanted to do it all again and form an actual company. People kept asking us what we were doing next and we kind of looked at each other and said, "Next?" We hadn't really thought that far ahead. So, we spent about a year, reading, planning, applying for our non-profit status, etc. We really wanted to take our time and do it right. Then, we became a company in earnest in early 2013.

BWW: Who founded the company?
BS: Benjamin Summers, Rommel Sulit & Andrea Skola
BWW: What is the company's mission?

BS: Formally: "Relevant, engaging theatre in a collaborative way." Our focus is always on scripts with a clear vision and crisp, intelligent dialogue. From there, we are actor-centric---making acting the focal point of the process by hiring some of Austin's best and brightest professional actors and giving them the opportunity to shape the production through our collective, collaborative process. We seek to engage our audience in a conversation about current topics through our productions with the goal of enriching and strengthening our community by the performance of theatre. We always say that if the audience leaves the theatre and finds themselves talking about the show hours later, then we have done our jobs.

Informally: Have fun making cool stuff with our friends (old and new).
BWW: What are the company's future goals?
BS: We'd like to keep doing what we're doing, and invite others in to work with us as often as possible. Additionally, we'd like to expand our Sidewalk Series; the Sidewalk Series takes our love for collaboration to the next level, offering mentor opportunities to new artists within the different areas of theatre: acting, directing, producing, designing, etc. During these productions, we pair new artists with veteran artists from within the Austin theatre community.
BWW: Do you have a certain type of script you look for? What do you look for when searching for scripts to produce?
BS: Yes. We look for dialogue and message. And, we look for work that sparks relevant discussion and meaningful reflection. This makes Jason Wells' work a natural fit for us as his plays engage audiences with expertly crafted dialogue and timely conflict at the heart of his plays.
BWW: Where do you typically produce your shows?
BS: Hyde Park Theatre is our current home; we produce there twice a year -- in the spring and each December. Originally, we intended to produce anywhere---that was part of the impetus for our name. We wanted to be itinerant proving that theatre can take place anywhere in any form. But, as a small company, we found it was hard to develop an audience when we were moving around, Plus, how can you pass up working at HPT? It's truly one of the great theatre spaces in this town. The intimacy and history that you feel when you walk in the door are powerful which is why it is so beloved within our community. Maybe someday we will hit the road again, but, for now, we are very happy getting to occupy HPT twice a year.
BWW: Are there any long term plans to have your own venue?
BS: We have looked at spaces; however, taking on a space isn't something we're capable of right now. We pride ourselves on our thriftiness. Being able to produce 2-3 shows a year on a budget of less than $20,000 while still paying our actors and designers a comparable wage to other, much larger companies is a challenge. To try to do so on top of a monthly note payment given property values in this town would be impossible. That's not to say we don't dream of having our own space. We do. It's just not going to happen in the foreseeable future. That being said, if any of your readers happen to have a few hundred thousand dollars laying around that they don't know what to do with...
BWW: Why did you form your own company?
BS: We all work for other theatre companies from time to time; and we're company members of other theatre companies in town. However, we had certain projects that just weren't perfect fits with the other companies. So, we thought this was an appropriate avenue for helping those projects to see the light of day. Ultimately, as we said, we'd like to be able to do that for other folks in the community as well. In a way, we almost view ourselves as everybody's fun side project. Though it's safe to say we are more than that now---our company members spend more time, energy, and money on StreetCorner at this point than they probably do on all of their other companies combined. But that's still sort of our mentality.
BWW: How has Austin's shrinking venue environment affected you?
BS: Well, thankfully, we still have a space. But rent has increased---it has been and continues to be 30-40% of our budget. It's crazy to think that so much of the price of art has very little to do with the art itself. A building, some lights, and some chairs. That's all we really need. And yet those things are pretty hard to come by in this town. Austin. A town so "weird" that it only has a handful of spaces to house the many artists who make this town, well, weird. But we also acknowledge that we are the lucky ones. Thanks to Ken Webster and all of the hard work he has put in to Hyde Par Theatre and the faith he has in us, we do still have the luxury of knowing that we still have a place to perform. That being said, we're also realistic and we know that could change in a heartbeat, so I think all of the artists in this town are always kind of looking over their shoulders, waiting for the sky to fall a little bit.
BWW: How many shows a year do you typically produce?
BS: Right now, I'd say 2 1/2. We do 2 full productions. And we're still trying to figure out what the Sidewalk Series will ultimately become. We're kind of giving it room to breathe and evolve. In a perfect world, we'd like to do 3 full shows plus the Sidewalk Series. But we only have 2 slots at HPT, so we either have to find another space for the 3rd show or wait for Ken or Mark (Pickell) to decide they want more vacation time.
BWW: How many shows has the company produced?
BS: PERFECT MENDACITY will be our 12th production.
BWW: Can you talk a little bit about your program to develop directors and producers?
BS: Sure. Anyone out there wanna direct or produce? Give us a call. Seriously, we have an open door policy. We're always on the lookout for new directors and producers. Aside from the more formal program of the Sidewalk Series, we take on the attitude of "the more, the merrier." The hard thing is that the StreetCorner method (for lack of a less pretentious phrase) is not for everyone. For a director, they have to be willing to surrender a lot of their power to the actors which is not easy. To really put the actors first means that the director's vision has to be malleable to a certain extent. For a producer, it's a very hands-on job. With the budget we are managing, our producers must wear a lot of hats. We're painting sets, building props, washing costumes, creating sound design, writing press releases, designing websites. It ain't glamorous work. But we love it. Typically, we recommend that anyone that wants to work with us on that end sort of intern or assistant direct on one of our shows first to get a sense of the process. If they like it, then we go from there...
BWW: Do you have any other development programs currently operating or planned for the future?
BS: Fine-tuning the Sidewalk Series is our real priority at this time. Though we are brainstorming how we might offer more opportunities within the series. We are considering expanding it beyond just the one production. We just have to figure out how to make sure we have the funds (and the energy) to do that.
BWW: Where do you envision the company in 5 years? 10 years?
BS: Boy, the million-dollar question. I don't think we are really able to wrap our heads around 10 years down the road just yet. We've only officially been around for 4. But I will say that the 5-year plan is just to do what we are doing now more efficiently for longer runs with bigger budgets for a larger audience. We're not looking to do 10 shows a year anytime soon. We don't want to grow beyond our capabilities. But it would be nice to run for 4-5 weeks and to have a little bit more breathing room financially. On the whole though, we're pretty happy with the trajectory of the company thus far.
BWW: What is your company's current greatest challenge?
BS: I would say publicity. We would like to make more people aware of who we are. We're really proud of the product that we have been putting out and audiences really seem to love it. But spreading the word to the Austin community at large is a challenge in this day and age, especially as newspaper coverage has dwindled to next-to-nothing unless you are buying full-page ads. So, we're grateful to BWW and some of the other websites for helping us to get the word out!
BWW: Is there anything else you'd like to share with BWW's readers?
BS: Come and see PERFECT MENDACITY at Hyde Park Theatre, April 7-22. If you don't like it, we'll give you a free beer and your money back! And, if you do like it, we'll probably give you a free beer anyway. Just stick around after the show and ask for one.

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