One Actor in Search of a Theater Company: Prologue

Ken Knight

OnStage Los Angeles Columnist

Many artistic endeavors begin with someone declaring: “I could do that. I could that better.” There are many reasons one may launch a new theater company. This can include one’s ego, a frustration with local theater companies and their politics, or creating opportunities for oneself. Most actors tend to audition and then hope to be part of someone else’s creative vision.

However there often comes a point where just being included is not enough. 

This column, “One Actor in Search of a Theater Company,” will be monthly chronicle of the relaunch of a previously existing theater company, but within a new city. It will document the various steps and hopefully give readers some insight on how to do this successfully.

Producing quality theater requires a team and the ability to be flexible when obstacles arise. It will center around the relaunch of the Knights of Allentown West production company in the Los Angeles area. The first project will be a production of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus in the summer of 2017. The goal is to have this be a part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival, and then a 2-3 week run in a rented space. 

The Brief History of Knights of Allentown:

Many secondary artistic markets, places other than Los Angeles or New York, are found throughout the United States. The number of theater opportunities can vary, depending upon the population. However the talent pool and the existing theater community often have a similar structure. This often includes a number of community theaters (unpaid), a number of semi-professional companies without permanent homes (sometimes paid) and maybe one or two Equity theaters (paid less than a larger market).  The local group of actors form a community where everyone knows one another. From this one might gravitate to working with the same people because they have a specific connection and chemistry together. Over time the hope is that the local theater patrons will want to follow you as you build your reputation.

It is not uncommon for theater companies to work together and share resources to reach as large an audience as possible. Asheville, North Carolina is definitely a small city with plenty of creativity. Knights of Allentown seemed like it would be a good it in this environment.

Knights of Allentown was initially launched in the summer of 2013. I met Bonnie Allen a year the summer of 2012 when she was stage managing and acting in the Montford Park Players, the third longest running Shakespeare festival in the United States, productions of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Merry Wives of Windsor in Asheville, North Carolina. We were drawn to one another because of our love of theater. In addition to this we had a similar work ethic and shared similar frustrations with the local theater scene. We both felt that good work was being done locally, but many of these institutions were bogged down by too many people trying to come to consensus. There was too much time and energy being spent on reputation and not offending local artists because, for the most part, they were not being paid. This in turn made the process slower and less efficient than it could have been.

The following summer Bonnie and I worked together again with Montford on a production of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost. I found myself in the director’s chair and Bonnie was once again acting as stage manager. The show was set in a John Hughes 80’s style high school.

People either loved or hated this show but once again the experience reinforced the professional and artistic bond between us. Bonnie was, and still is, incredibly smart and well organized. A true professional that I could see working with long into the future. In addition to this, the actress who played Costard in Love’s Labour’s Lost, Lauren Rivas, motivated KOA’s first passion project which was Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. I knew that I needed to get her on stage to play Viola.

Bonnie and I decided to launch KOA for two reasons: 1) to keep politics to a minimum by having a two-person administration. 2) To put into motion our passion projects as well as the passion projects of others. We hoped to create opportunities for local talented artists which could include acting, directing, designing etc. The first two shows to be produced would be Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and Beckett’s Waiting For Godot. Two ambitious projects with a minimal budget and a rough performance space. 

The Twelfth Night Rehearsal Process

After a brief read through at the end of 2013, the rehearsal process for Twelfth Night officially began in the January of 2014. Various members of the local theater community were offered roles. Bonnie and I were familiar with their work and various levels of professionalism. We wanted to work with those performers who we knew would deliver the goods and make a good first impression on the local theater scene. Little did we know that a drafting process, not uncommon in a larger market, would cause the ruffling of feathers. Many felt that it was our obligation to go through the appearance of the production being open for anyone to audition. Why this is fine in theory, and may be the preference by some companies, I believed this would be more direct and efficient. The show was also being co-directed by me and another talented local named Robert Edwards. I was playing Malvolio, and Robert was brought in to direct scenes that I was in, which was about half the show. 

The end result was an entertaining show that was financially successful. The process that led to the show was far from easy. There were creative clashes in the approach to directing, multiple illnesses during the rehearsal process and two weeks of blizzard-like conditions in Asheville. All in all, we lost about ten days of rehearsal in a six-week rehearsal process. In total, there were five performances in March of 2014 at the Toy Boat performing arts collective. And as with most short runs, I felt that the show became stronger with each performance. We were also, for our first show, $600 in the black. 

By having success with a first production it certainly can be a blessing and a curse. While success builds confidence, it always good to keep certain limitations financially until a larger fan base is built. Also, establishing certain creative boundaries with a co-director is essential. When co directors are not on the same page from the beginning, this leads to confusion and frustration for the actors. On the producing side, the bond between the “Wonder Twins” of Bonnie Allen and Ken Knight became stronger. The money made from this was then put towards our second production, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot.

Six Months Planning for Godot and the Official First Season

Knights of Allentown, as stated before, was and is about passion projects and creating challenges for everyone involved. I am a character actor which can be sometimes limiting. Mounting a passion project, whether one admits it to themselves or not, is often about ego and ambition. Godot was no exception but we still also kept in the mind that the audience still deserved to see something engaging and entertaining. Bonnie and I hired a talented local director named Adam Arthur, who’s passion project was to direct this show. Again, to the grumbling of the local theater scene, we drafted several talented performers. The plan was to have nine performances in the month of October, again at Toy Boat. We also planned, for the first time, to pay our designer, stage manager and director. By the third KOA show we planned on paying our actors.

In addition to the second show, KOA started to plan a larger season of six shows for the coming year. In retrospect, our motto was “Go big or go home.” We also began to talk to other performers and directors about their passion projects and making those creative ambitions a reality. Unfortunately, this was not to pass due to circumstances that would arise during the run of Godot.

The Godot Rehearsal Process, Performances and the End of a Marriage

Godot rehearsals began in late August 2014, mostly in my garage. As fate would have it, the actor who played Didi lived next door of my apartment complex. We found time to run lines and blocking when our unusual schedules would allow. Like Twelfth Night, the enlisted performers worked hard with the non-conventional material over five weeks. By the last ten days the show was being drilled for speed and became a well-oiled machine. What was especially challenging was the thought that I and Jeff Cantenese, who played Didi, would be the focal point for over two and a half hours of stage time. In addition to this Adam, Jeff and I embraced this loose aspect and agreed that a certain level of improvisation would be acceptable. Also we agreed that we would acknowledge the audience if the occasion presented itself.

Waiting For Godot opened in October of 2014 for nine performances. Going into the run Bonnie and I, as well as the rest of the crew, were aware how difficult it would be to market such a challenging show. Bonnie and I pursued the usual outlets for promotion which included posters, radio interviews and notifications in the local weekly free press. We were prepared to lose money, or at least break even. The first weekend averaged about ten to fifteen audience members. However we were not too concerned at that point because we were confident that word of mouth would prevail.

By the end of the first weekend my then wife told me she no longer wanted to be with me. This was a great shock to say the least. As many readers who are theater artists themselves know, an opening weekend can be quite the endurance test straining both sanity and relationships. The endurance test that was already Godot became more difficult. That being said, the commitment to the show increased and did my best to stay focused and do the best work I could.

Looking back on the last six performances, they are a bit of a blur. The audience numbers remained about the same, although we did have twenty-two at one performance. I remember making more connections with the audience and not being afraid to interact. It became a hybrid of both Beckett and Second City. We also had one Beckett purist who walked out at intermission. By the end of the run I was exhausted emotionally and physically. However Beckett’s surreal and challenging script kept me focused and engaged despite the end of a marriage. 
Unfinished Business, the Return of KOA and Lessons Learned

On October 30th 2014 I left Asheville and relocated to Los Angeles. In the two years that have passed I have been consumed by the unfinished business. Despite the challenges and heartbreak, the ambition to pursue passion projects continues. Knights of Allentown West is the new production company title, although this may change. Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus will be the first show produced for the Hollywood Fringe Festival in the summer of 2017. I am currently assembling a new team to make this passion project a reality. 

There are still many lessons to learn as a theater producer and artist. I believe some of the best training is on the job. That being said, if you are thinking of starting your own theater venture keep these things in mind:

1)    Make sure you have a partner/partners that share your artistic vision and ambitions. Do not take on all the logistics on your own. 

2)    Start small and do not let early success lead you to biting off more than you can chew later.

3)    No matter how stressful things get, always show your crew and artists love and respect. Choosing to be an artist is in and of itself an act of bravery. If you cannot pay them currency, then let them know how much they are appreciated. 

4)    Keep your performances accessible and affordable. Nobody will want to spend $20, or more, on a company with little to no track record. For the first set of shows, make sure there are butts in the seats. The company’s reputation will build over time and money will come later.

5)    Stick to your method of casting. If you want to build a core company and avoid open auditions, you have the right to do so.

6)    Have fun doing all of this. As artists, we all have different motivations for producing theater, or other various forms of art. However these do not start and stop with one individual.

Those volunteering their energy and time should want to return into the future. 

Next month’s column will begin the chronicle of the rebirth of a theater company and the various challenges with developing a project with limited resources. Feel free to follow along and make comments, make suggestions or share your experiences. Come join us.

Photo: “Twelfth Night” produced by the Seattle Shakespeare Company