Backstage: One-Year Theatre DC1 looking for a venue for its debut


Euan Morton, as Leo Frank, and Jenny Fellner, as Lucille Frank, in the Ford’s Theatre Society’s upcoming production of "Parade." (Scott Suchman/Scott Suchman)

This is the true story of seven strangers experimenting with the definition of theater. Following instructions left via postcards by an anonymous source at the Capital Fringe Festival last July, they started the One-Year Theatre DC1, which, as the name implies, will disband exactly one year after its inception. Though the cryptic person behind the postcards has neither been revealed nor provided any funds, the group is fueled by the prospect of establishing a theater company from scratch. All the members are theater enthusiasts — mostly actors, with a dramaturg and playwright thrown in: Charlene Smith, Elizabeth Hansen, Peter Orvetti, Brett Abelman, Grace Overbeke, Mikhel Wirtanen and Jon Jon Johnson.

According to Abelman, the group still does not have a venue for its Sept. 30 inaugural production. “No one has given up yet,” he said. “If it doesn’t work out, we could always form a new theater company.”

Johnson, a 25-year-old actor, explained the organization’s mandate and plans:

What happened at your first meeting? We met at the main office of the Fringe Festival. Someone whipped out this mysterious clipboard that gave us instructions and guidelines. It’s a democratically run theater company, everything done by votes, without the hierarchy.

And you feel adequately qualified for this venture? None of us have ever run a theater company.

Your kickoff project is coming up next week? Our first challenge was to put on a production by the 30th of September. We’re assembling a team of actors, directors and writers and giving them a secret theme. [They’ll have] 24 hours to write a 10-minute play, [which] will go up at the end of the run.

Any other rules? We have to produce all the work ourselves. We can receive donations. Everything has to be as self-sufficient as possible. We’re not allowed to charge for tickets.

What have you discovered from working on this? It’s possible with people, with no knowledge of one another, to work together and produce art. . . . [But] it helps to have structure. There’s no one person to answer to; there’s no one real coordinator.

Do you think you’ll make it to July 2012? We’ll see. . . . It’s a very valuable lesson, [learning] what it takes to put on a show. Of course, these circumstances are a little more surreal.

Showing kids a new world

Janet Stanford has a vision.

“Aladdin’s Luck,” written by Stanford, the artistic director of Imagination Stage, and adapted from “The Arabian Nights,” opens Friday night at Imagination Stage in Bethesda. Stanford imagines the theater filled with 400 children under the age of 12. They will be charmed by Aladdin, played by Chris Wilson. They will be enchanted by Princess Leilah, played by Katie deBuys. They will dance along to the music by Fahir Atakoglu, the Turkish composer and performer. They will watch, they will applaud, they will go home.

And then, Stanford says, something incredible will happen.

“If I [as a kid] see a Muslim in the newspaper” after seeing “Aladdin,” she said, “I’ll have more than one point of reference for that. It won’t just be, ‘That man looks like the person responsible for 9/11.’ It’ll also be, ‘He looks like Aladdin, and I like Aladdin.’ ”

It’s a lofty ambition: to combat racism rooted in a fear of terrorism with the misadventures of a lovable Middle Eastern miscreant. But Stanford is a believer. “We as an arts organization can do a lot to resist those stereotypes.”

Stanford has “always loved” the story of Aladdin. “Here’s a kid with extraordinary luck. I wanted to look at luck as as much of a curse as a gift. What is the nature of luck? To what extent does Aladdin make his own luck? And what if you’re totally dependent on luck?”

A college trip to Lebanon and Syria sparked Stanford’s interest in Middle Eastern culture. When the United States invaded Iraq, Stanford “felt it important for the theater to humanize that culture.” Aladdin seemed to her to be the perfect vehicle.

Kathryn Chase Bryer, Imagination Stage’s associate artistic director, is directing “Aladdin’s Luck” and was intrigued by Stanford’s reworking of the show, originally intended for six actors; Stanford has cut the cast in half. Two actors play multiple roles and many of the sets are done with video. Bryer was also drawn to what she saw as the heart of the story.

“We’re watching a kid learn to believe in himself and not use the crutches society put out for us,” she said. “Kids need to know . . . there’s a road to travel. At the end of this show, we know Aladdin will fail and make mistakes. But that’s okay.”

‘Parade’ to honor Lincoln

“Parade” is a musical based on the true story of the trial and lynching of Leo Frank. Frank, a Jewish factory manager, was accused of murdering a young girl in Atlanta in 1913. The Tony Award-winning drama, which had its premiere at Lincoln Center Theater in 1998, is part of Ford’s Theatre’s Lincoln Legacy Project, a five-year project aimed at fostering communication on “tolerance, equality and acceptance.” At Ford’s just before the first tech rehearsal, Steven Landau, the music director, discussed the score, the scale and the scope of the show, which opens Friday night.

On his 9-to-5: “I oversee the entire shape and sound of the score. I teach the music to the actors, I rehearse the orchestra, and [I’ll be] playing and conducting the orchestra during the show.”

On his personal style: “How someone conducts can shape a show’s spirit, the emotions of it. I try to just be as clear as I can. I don’t think I’m flashy.”

On the music of “Parade”: “The music helps tell the story. The songs are written to the characters. They really sound honest . . . especially in moments of the show where the most upheaval is occurring.”

On the not-so-simple life: “The score is very rhythmically complex and vehement. You can hear the struggle and the hatred of the crowd in one scene, and [in another scene] the sound is just heartbreaking.”

On the silver lining: “It is not a happy show. [But] within the whole structure of the story is the love story between Leo and Lucille [Leo’s wife]. The fact that they grow together is beautiful.”

On lessons learned: “I think it’s a show that can really take you away, sometimes to a place that’s very difficult to visit. But it’s important to go there, to think about how we treat other people.”

On the aftermath: “The songs entertain on a level, too, and I hope [the music’s] enjoyable. But it will affect people. They might not be singing it when they leave, but I think they’ll be hearing echoes of it inside.”

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