If the daring young No Rules Theatre Company is now showing something called “The No Rules Show,” what can audiences expect?
“We’re calling it half ‘The Judy Garland Show,’ half Conan O’Brien,” says Brian Sutow, the bearded, circumspect co-artistic director of the fast-growing No Rules.
Joshua Morgan, the other artistic director, is the host, playing piano and interviewing guests. So it’s a variety show, created by Sutow and Morgan, starring Morgan, directed by Sutow. Only with a twist, because the puckish, upbeat Morgan is such a wild card.
He explains the time he and Sutow were performing their own mature-themes comic cabaret, “Assembly Required: How to Write, Produce and Stage a Musical – The Musical!” at the Capital Fringe Festival. They billed it with cautionary warnings, yet at one performance a family showed up with two kids.
Morgan and Sutow glanced at each other, thinking quickly about what to do.
“My eyes were totally like, ‘Get ready for it!’” Morgan cackles.
A moment later, Morgan was in one of the kids’ laps.
“That’s a perfect example,” he says, “of, like . . .”
“What?” the bemused Sutow cuts in, grinning coolly at his brazen collaborator. “Us responding differently to situations?”
Sutow will turn 27 by summer’s end; Morgan declines to reveal his age. “As long as I keep playing 17-year-olds, that’s all that really matters,” he jokes. (Morgan played a troubled teen in Woolly Mammoth’s hit “A Bright New Boise” two years ago.) Yet young as they are to have gained such a firm foothold in Washington’s busy theater scene — No Rules is concluding its first season of a three-year residency deal at Arlington’s Signature Theatre, where the co-conspirators are talking together in a rehearsal room — Sutow and Morgan have been making theater together for a surprisingly long time.
They met in 2005 as freshmen at the University of North Carolina’s School of the Arts, and at first they tried writing musicals together. They abandoned that, but pursued just about everything else in a program that didn’t box them into narrow tracks as actors, directors or writers.
They are hyphenates: Morgan decides that Sutow is an actor-writer-producer. He identifies himself as an actor-writer-teacher.
“We trained as actors,” says Sutow, who played the insensitive Guy in Neil LaBute’s “Some Girl(s),” No Rules’ formal D.C. debut in 2009. “But Joshua was always directing, and I was always writing. We knew we didn’t have to compartmentalize.”
Even though the academic program kept them busy, Morgan and Sutow created outside work, including a production of the campy rock musical “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” On the advice of Colin Hovde, now the artistic director of Theatre Alliance (and a fellow grad of the same school, and currently Sutow’s housemate), they brought the show to Washington at the tiny Warehouse Theatre downtown, and it was a hit.
What they’ve done since is unorthodox: No Rules is a two-city troupe. Their seasons are split between D.C. and Winston-Salem, N.C., where No Rules performs in the 300-seat Hanesbrands Theatre, part of the three-year-old Milton Rhodes Center for the Arts.
The No Rules projects have ranged from “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” to a dark comedy called “Suicide, Inc.,” and not every show plays in both cities. “The No Rules Show,” for instance, won’t move from Signature’s 110 seat Ark to Winston-Salem, and last winter’s “The Fantasticks” was for North Carolina only, as was the musical “The Last Five Years” in 2011. Just over half of the company’s 14 productions since 2009 have been seen in both locations; Sutow and Morgan try to make sure each fit is right in Washington and in Winston-Salem.
They have found pronounced differences. Morgan makes a perpetually rising spiral gesture to illustrate the steady growth of D.C. theater, while for Winston-Salem he makes a line that shoots straight up. In the District, No Rules quickly found enthusiastic audiences; “Black Comedy” at Signature a few months ago became the troupe’s best seller. But they also found intense competition for donor dollars here. In Carolina, that balance is reversed.
Success has been welcome, but it has upped the ante not to fail, artistically or administratively.
“It’s an interesting uphill climb and learning curve,” Morgan says. “Until recently we could say, ‘Oops — we’re actors, we don’t know how to run a theater company.’”
The troupe doubled in size each of its first few seasons, with No Rules performing at the H Street Playhouse until it became clear that the venue would be shuttered. Even so, Sutow and Morgan – Equity actors – still take outside gigs. Sutow writes, and he has performed on tour with the Kennedy Center Theater for Young Audiences program. Morgan was just in “Twelfth Night” at the Folger Theatre, and his identity as a pianist-emcee for cabarets and open mic events at Arena Stage, TheatreWashington and Capital Pride is part of what inspired “The No Rules Show.”
“We’re people who don’t really say no,” Sutow says (though Morgan says for his part, he says “no” fairly regularly). “That’s been a hard lesson.”
A couple times the conversation swings around to tempering the workload so they can have grown-up relationships. Sutow is engaged to theater professor Jessie Mills, and Morgan is in a committed relationship with insurance salesman Louis Phillips.
“It’s very probable that the company has chopped 10 years off our lives,” Morgan says. “People who work with us think we’ve been here for seven to 10 years.”
“Just from looking at us,” cracks Sutow, whose dark beard includes a few flecks of gray.
The logistical challenges will continue as the collaborators figure out where to live. Sutow, originally from Chicago, has toeholds here and in North Carolina. Morgan, born in England but raised in Los Angeles and then formatively, he says, in New Jersey, is trying to be in Winston-Salem at least six days a month when he’s not performing.
They’re standing by the two-city plan. “It’s not easy,” Morgan says. “But that’s the company.”
For the current variety show bearing the company name, scheduled guests include local performers (like Ron Litman and Laura Zam from the Capital Fringe Festival) and media personalities (WRC TV’s Barbara Harrison, WAMU-FM’s Rebecca Sheir). “There is a lot of room for liberties,” Sutow says. “It’s very scripted and very improvised.”
“Totally,” Morgan jumps in. “Because there are no rules.” A little later he adds, “I was thinking how amazing it would be to have Paula Deen on the show.”
“That’s what I love about No Rules,” Sutow says, “and something we haven’t really stepped away from so far: a willingness to try anything once.”
“The No Rules Show,” created by Joshua Morgan and Brian Sutow. Directed by Brian Sutow. Through July 21 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. Call 703-820-9771 or visit norulestheatre.org