Kate Bryer, associate artistic director for Imagination Stage, couldn’t believe it when she received an e-mail asking her to direct a show for Constellation Theatre Company. She and Constellation’s artistic director, Allison Stockman, were acquaintances, but Bryer hadn’t worked on a show for adults in many years.
“For the longest time, Allison and I would have lunch together and I’d go see her shows, and she’d come see mine, and we’d be sharing actors, and I thought that she would like to work at Imagination Stage,” Bryer says with a laugh. “And then I got this e-mail and I was shocked. I had to read it four times and keep it to myself for a day before I could actually voice it and say this is happening.”
Bryer isn’t the only person Stockman tapped out of the blue to work on “Scapin,” Bill Irwin and Mark O’Donnell’s adaptation of the Molière farce. The commedia dell’arte play, about a trickster tasked with helping two young men who fall in love with penniless women, has a role for an onstage musician. And Stockman knew just the person: Travis Ploeger, the man behind Washington Improv Theatre’s long-running “iMusical.”
“When I got the call from Allison late last spring, saying, ‘Hey, we’re doing “Scapin” and there’s a role that is perfect for you,’ I looked at it and said, ‘This is amazing. I can work with my favorite theater company,’ ” Ploeger says. “Normally when I talk to Allison it’s either to congratulate her on a show or beg her for comps so I can go to a show.”
True to its name, Constellation has become a connector, reaching into the Washington theater community and creating unexpected alliances. The practice has turned Constellation productions, which are often both astonishingly ambitious and unfathomably low budget, into theatrical incubators where best practices are exchanged. That perk is a draw for potential collaborators who aren’t likely to take the gig for the money.
In working with Constellation for the first time, Bryer shared Imagination’s inclination to cast actors early. But she also benefited, learning a new approach to design. Before rehearsals, actors read through the script for the set and costume teams to better inform design decisions.
When considering new partners, Stockman says she looks for such qualities as passion and open-mindedness. Then there’s something else that doesn’t pop up on a typical theater résumé.
“I like to make sure they’re going to be fun to work with,” she says. “Nobody is making enough money for this to be anything other than a positive experience.”
One of Constellation’s greatest collaborative success stories may be Stockman’s hiring of Tom Teasley in 2007. She stumbled upon the percussionist’s work while searching for a musician for “Arabian Nights.” Already well-regarded in his field, Teasley had never done theater, but since working on a number of Constellation shows, he has gone on to win two Helen Hayes Awards and work with Folger Theatre.
The process was a little different for Matthew Wilson, artistic director of Faction of Fools. He approached Stockman after seeing “The Marriage of Figaro,” which impressed him for its “kind of quirky, kind of spectacular” aesthetic. “It’s a great play that doesn’t often get done,” he says, “and I thought, ‘Who is this awesome company doing this great play?’ ”
Wilson has since acted in and worked on a number of the company’s shows, including the fight choreography for “Scapin.”
“I think everyone at Constellation dreams really big,” he says. “I mean, they built a swimming pool at Source, for crying out loud, for ‘Metamorphoses,’ so they’re always looking to find the next exciting thing they can do. And that makes it fun to work with them, but it also makes their shows larger than life.”
Bryer says she thinks the company works toward a higher goal, one she hopes other companies will aim for.
“A lot of times people think that theater is competitive, because we are competing for some of the same grants and the same development money,” Bryer says, “but I think that’s the thing I love about Allison — I never get that from her.
“I love doing this kind of thing, because it totally supports the idea that theater isn’t competitive and that we should all be supporting each other absolutely. When we learn from each other and support each other, that sends a message and gives us all more theater all the time.”
Through Feb. 16. Source, 1835 14th St. NW. 202-204-7741. www.constellationtheatre.org. $35-$45.