Make That a Second Date: For Stage West and Texas Christian University, that is. Their second co-production at Stage West, the musical First Date, opens tonight.
by Jan Farrington
Fort Worth — “The three TCU students found out at 5 p.m. on Monday that they were cast,” says Stage West executive producer Dana Schultes. “And rehearsal was at 7 o’clock that night. Crazy!”
She talking about Stage West’s upcoming co-production with Theatre TCU, a light-hearted rom-com musical called First Date. It’s the second time the company has done an “official” co-pro with Texas Christian University (first was The Heir Apparent in 2015), but Schultes quickly adds that it’s one of “many times” Stage West has worked with university faculty, students and recent grads, and with Dr. Harry Parker, the dynamic chair of the TCU Department of Theatre.
And while the three students joining the cast—Mary Burchill, Lance Jewett, and Collins Rush—were being asked to go (in theatrical terms) from zero to 60 in one afternoon, their professors assured Schultes they could handle it. (Rehearsals had begun, but auditions for their three parts had to wait until students returned from the summer break.) Performance opportunities on campus are constant, and theater students are actively encouraged to make connections—and work when they can—“out there” in the professional theater community.
First Date, which ran on Broadway in 2013, follows a young couple meeting at a café for a blind date. The script is by Austin Winsberg of Gossip Girl; with music and lyrics by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner. He’s a Wall Street guy who’s had his heart broken; she’s a “serial dater” who seems chill…but maybe not. From drinks to dessert, they try to make this “gleefully awkward evening” work, helped by advice from pop-up patrons suddenly transformed into best friends, sisters, ex-loves, parents and more.
Parker directs, with TCU faculty members Alan Shorter as the show’s musical director and Penny Ayn Maas as movement choreographer. Seth Womack (The Last Five Years, Evita, La Cage Aux Folles) and TCU grad Amber Marie Flores (Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, A Doll’s House, Part 2, The Ballad of Little Jo) play the oddly matched couple, with Randy Pearlman (Sweeney Todd, Disaster!, Funnyman) and Brett Warner (Murder Ballad, The Nance) taking on a variety of roles.
With a biggish cast that skews young—not to mention the need for (expensive) live music—First Date is the kind of “pick” Parker and Schultes look for in a co-production. “A good fit, manageable size, fun,” says Schultes. “Something anyone would enjoy coming to see.” Each is quick to point out that this is a two-way street, with plenty of benefits for both the theater company and the university.
First, let’s get practical.
“I’d say that co-productions, just from a monetary view, can take between $4,000 and $10,000 off the cost of a production, and maybe more depending on the show,” says Schultes. “And First Date, being a musical, is a show we wouldn’t be able to produce without some help.”
Parker notes that for him—and for both Shorter and Maas—working on the show is treated as just another part of their academic year assignments.
“I’m not getting a director’s fee, he’s not getting one for music directing, she’s not getting a choreographer’s fee. They save our three salaries, plus the salaries of three actors who are TCU students.” The whole idea, he says emphatically, “is to make it mutually beneficial, to give our students a professional experience they can’t get on campus and to help the theater company do a show that otherwise would have been prohibitively expensive.” Those savings, he notes, make it possible to cover other costs, including royalties, musicians, microphone rentals, and so on.
Another side benefit, Schultes believes, is that this partnership brings in a slightly different audience mix. “Some people become familiar with Stage West through a co-production—family and friends, others with a TCU connection. It’s an especially great benefit to have other students coming, for sure, and getting to know us.” And the company, she adds with a grin, appreciates getting “an early look at the talent” coming through the university’s theater program—rising young actors they might want to keep an eye on.
Grad Makes Good…
Just a few seasons ago, Amber Marie Flores was one of those up-and-comers. An El Paso native and 2014 graduate of TCU’s musical theater program, Flores had already been cast in TCU productions, and in roles with the on-campus Trinity Shakespeare Festival [begun with a grant spearheaded by Parker], whose casts always included a mix of student actors and Equity “pros.” After graduation, she played the lost princess Perdita in the Festival’s 2016 The Winter’s Tale.
Now Flores has a number of area professional roles to her credit. She played Nina in Stage West’s 2015 Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, was featured in the song “America” in Casa Mañana’s 2017 West Side Story, and played a crucial role in Stage West’s production of Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2 in 2018. This year, she took on a major singing role in WaterTower Theatre’s sprawling production of The Ballad of Little Jo.
Flores thinks TCU is “more flexible” now about letting students take on outside work.
“Students were, and are, supposed to be committed first to the program at TCU,” she says. “But I really feel the camaraderie between TCU and local theaters has grown, and I love that. It’s a great move for everyone. Meeting people outside the college bubble, making connections, knowing people, it’s so important. Theater is all about relationships, and it’s wonderful to have those when you’re a new, fresh face on the scene—and you already have people rooting for you. They keep you in mind.”
Flores is having fun with her lead role in First Date. “I laugh way too much,” she says. “It’s a great mix, basically a play with music and lots of conversation. It’s one of the few musicals I know that has such a strong book. And the [song] numbers come in at just the right time, to snap you out of a serious moment, or make fun of something. The things we’re doing with it are hilarious.”
With five years of professional work behind her, is Flores mentoring the three TCU undergrads who’ve joined the cast? She laughs. “I would hardly say that—no, not at all, I’m just enjoying meeting new cast mates. They’re so talented!”
‘Doing a Job'
Shorter, one of Flores’ TCU professors, is music directing First Date, and the actress says she always loves seeing teachers in a new light.
“Professors are different in an academic setting,” she notes. “It’s good for students to see one of their teachers, who directs them at school, directing professional actors outside that. There is a difference.”
Associate department chair Shorter agrees that perceptions can change as students watch teachers at work. “They see me doing a job, from first day of rehearsal to final performance, a long run and a real commitment. It’s valuable for students to see our work in the profession, when we take off the teacher/mentor hats.”
Flores remembers rehearsals for university productions being “more structured and strict, I’m sure because it was part of training to start out with that high standard and discipline. If you were late for rehearsal at TCU, professor Walsh [T.J. Walsh, founding artistic director of the Trinity Shakespeare Festival] would just send you home.” Working off-campus with professionals, says Shorter, may mean he phrases things differently in giving notes to experienced actors—“but I have the same high expectations in either place.”
Shorter has directed multiple shows at Circle Theatre (including Opus and Mass Appeal), and composed music for the Trinity Shakespeare Festival. “I don’t do much composing at TCU during the academic year,” he says. “So students sometimes would be surprised about me composing for Trinity. But survival in this business means having multiple skills, so it’s good for them to absorb that.”
Playing the Long Game
First Date is only the latest in a string of co-productions TCU’s Parker has shepherded onto area stages in the past 13 years. (First up was a 2006 run of the William Inge classic Bus Stop at Circle Theatre.) Parker told the Dallas Morning News in a 2014 article that from the minute he came to TCU, he was determined to “build bridges” between the university theater program and local professional theaters.
In his previous college post in Kansas, Parker remembers, the nearest professional theater company was 150 miles away. “This is such a great area,” he says about North Texas. “Our students can see a lot of exciting theater here, and they can participate. It’s a little clunky to work out, but why wouldn’t we want them to have these opportunities? That’s part of why they’re in school, to gain this kind of experience—so people will want to hire them and pay them to perform.”
Associate professor Maas agrees that “the co-pro model has been super valuable.” She teaches musical theater and dance, and works regularly with professional companies. Over the past few theater seasons, she’s been especially involved with Lyric Stage’s musicals as both a director and choreographer on Mame, Guys and Dolls, I Do! I Do!, Man of La Mancha, and for the upcoming Evita.
“I think that’s a real strength of our program,” she says. “It’s the kind of training where students are always connecting the dots, not just learning theory. Here’s your chance to do it! We had eight students in Man of La Mancha, a great opportunity for them to work with professionals and to get some Equity points that eventually will lead to membership. And as the director, I could mentor them a bit through the process—they’re guided, not just thrown in the deep end.”
Since Bus Stop, formal TCU co-productions have included Picasso at the Lapin Agile, The Fantasticks, and Luna Gale at Circle Theatre; Hunting and Gathering with Amphibian Stage Productions; and The Heir Apparent at Stage West. But TCU students as individuals have found work with a number of area companies. (In additions to the three students in First Date, two others currently are rehearsing key roles in Evita.) Parker is in demand as a director, and has helmed multiple plays at Circle, Stage West and Jubilee Theatre. And many other faculty members—including Jennifer Engler and Krista Scott, who each directed one of the co-productions—have worked in a variety of artistic and production roles with local companies.
The 2018 closing of the Trinity Shakespeare Festival, which had provided 10 seasons of opportunities for theater students to act—and learn—from an Equity company and its talent, is “much missed,” says Parker, who was Trinity Shakes’ founding managing director. “But I try to spin positive on that. We had 10 terrific years, and I feel a lot of pride about what we were able to do.
“Trinity was its own unique, special thing—and we miss it,” he adds. “But we survived, and now have the opportunity to create something else of value. I don’t know yet what form that will take, but we’re certainly having conversations about creating a collaboration for the summer, to give our students the opportunity to work with the professional community on our campus, in our facilities—just as Trinity let them.” (Maas, who came to TCU with New York experience, wonders why there aren’t more musicals onstage in the area; perhaps a gap TCU, with its sizeable contingent of musical theater majors, might help to fill.)
Parker notes that the Festival was expensive to produce, but “beyond the beautiful sets and costumes”—plus pay for actors, musicians and designers—there was something there that dollars couldn’t give, or take away.
“The opportunity so many of our students had, to work with the David Coffees and the Blake Hacklers, the Lydia Mackays and Trisha Millers and Richard Haratines of Dallas-Fort Worth in peer relationships, that was a very full experience of what theater can be,” he says. “And T.J. Walsh gets a lot of credit for creating the extremely democratic feel of that company. It’s one of the great things about repertory, that you can play the lead one night, and have four lines in the other play.” [Trinity ran two shows each June on alternating nights in “rotating repertory.”]
“It keeps you grounded, knowing how much we all need each other,” he says. “You live the fact that we need community to make theater. You can’t do it alone.”
For now, TCU students will continue seeking out opportunities off campus, in one of the nation’s booming theater markets. And from where Dr. Harry Parker stands, his stated mission of breaking down walls between academic and professional theater—embodied in the co-pro of Stage West’s First Date (opening Saturday, Sept. 14 and running through October 13) appears to be going very, very well.