Pallas Theatre Collective: An (Informal) Introduction By Michael Boynton
Pallas Theatre Collective had its humble beginning in the Graduate Assistant Office, deep in the bowels of the Clarice Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland, College Park, in 2010. It was here where Tracey Chessum and I, both working on our Ph.Ds at the time, would sit and chat about the state of American theatre, usually to procrastinate from grading papers. We had some ideals in common: we wanted to give challenging artistic experiences to talented artists; we wanted to see stronger and smarter dramaturgical influences in the creative process; we wanted to entertain and educate our audiences in a different and invigorating way; we wanted to support new works; we wanted to foster collaborations between artists and theatre companies; and a laundry list more of such idealistic tenets. We also both had a strong passion for supporting new musicals—we are both musical theatre scholars, and we both have extensive experience with musicals, Tracey as a director and musical director, and myself as a bookwriter and lyricist. That, and we both are big Harry Potter geeks. That certainly helped to cement the friendship as well.
We also have many differences, many approaches and experiences that on one hand make us an exceptionally broad-minded collective – there’s not a form of theatre or performance we will not give serious and supportive consideration. I brought a command of Shakespeare, a dramatic writing background, classical acting training, and some Broadway credits to the mix; and Tracey added some impressive L.A. connections and credits, professional experience in conducting, strong relations with noted musical theatre scholars, and years of experience in educational theatre. In this way, we complimented each other well. On the other hand, we also challenge each other with our different approaches: Tracey, eminently grounded and thoroughly practical, with her eye ever on the bottom line; and myself, who has often been described, for better or worse, as the idealistic, bohemian artist with his head in the clouds. In short, we support one another with the big picture, fill in the gaps for each other, and yes, sometimes have to slug it out to get what we want. But that’s the way theatre should be, right? Better than being stagnant, doing the same sort of material over and over, never allowing your artists or your audiences to learn and grow.
Regardless, we (perhaps foolishly) decided to start a small theatre company together. Wisely, however, we immediately pulled in Caroline Brent to be our Managing Director, the third member of our triumvirate. A bright young woman with both business and artistic savvy, Caroline keeps the gears turning, and has a certain skill, shall we say, for arbitration. And once Scott Kincaid joined up, working under Tracey as the Production Manager, the die was cast.
So what exactly is Pallas Theatre Collective? What do we do? What are our guiding principles? And as Caroline wrote on our website, “Who the heck is Pallas?”
Well, let’s start with our Mission Statement:
“Pallas Theatre Collective exists to develop and workshop new, original plays and musicals; to offer new interpretations of canonical works; and to foster a creative environment for artists where new approaches and processes may be explored. This emphasis on the ‘new’ defines the work and spirit of Pallas Theatre, in terms of process, product, and governance. The ethos of ‘the ensemble’, expressed through collective enterprise, collaboration on all possible levels, and community engagement, serves as a guiding principle for Pallas. While experimentation is vigorously supported, the primary focus is upon applied innovation, creating performances that are not only new, but also commercially viable for their intended audience; specifically universities, small theatre groups, and regional theaters. In this respect, Pallas Theatre Collective strives to serve as the vanguard of the neo-avantgarde theatre movement, skillfully combining fun and substance, broad audience appeal with profound and powerful productions.”
Sounds pretty fancy, am I right? I think it sums up the raison d’être of Pallas rather well. In other words, we simply want to foster smart and creative artists as well as smart and creative audiences. We want to cultivate collaborations and conversations, not just say we want to cultivate collaborations and conversations. All too often, theatre artists and theatre companies fall into the trap of either being so small that they can’t branch out, or so big for their britches, that they can’t branch out. Too often, (and understandably, given the state of working in the theatre today) we all get stuck in our ruts, and we don’t take risks anymore.
What about the director for that cool company that does tons of Shakespeare… what if she wants to try to direct a musical? To expand her repertoire, to pad her resume, to learn a new form, to tackle a new directorial challenge… regardless of the reason, we want to see that happen. What about the actor for that wacky fun improv troupe? What if he wants to try the experience of doing a Greek tragedy, to help broaden his range and make himself more experienced at his craft? What about the playwright who usually writes youth theatre plays? Want to give performance art a try? Go for it! Personally, I think all good theatre artists have those secret little projects in the back of their mind, those roles we all love but don’t quite fit, those crazy ideas we keep putting off because we’re too busy with other projects, other shows, day-jobs, whatever. At Pallas, we want you to bring us those projects.
We want, as Tracey often says, “to stand in the gap” for people interested in new theatre experiences. I think this is part of what she means by it. True, it’s a razor’s edge, a difficult grey area to navigate, but a necessary one.
Pallas also wants to work toward cultivating new audiences, and expanding the theatrical experience for theatregoers. Giving audiences insight into the creative process, to see how new works are created, to participate in real dialogues about the work, not just awkward, tacked-on talkbacks where audiences marvel at how the actors memorized all those lines. Why not really have a dialogue with the audience? Really talk to them about the choices we’ve made and why we made them? Really take to heart their feedback, instead of just using it for marketing purposes? Why not extend our concept of theatre community to include theatregoers, too?
And while I’m on a roll, another “gap” that Pallas hopes to help fill is that awkward chasm between college actor and professional working theatre artist. There are many excellent theatre educational programs out there, especially in D.C., but they mostly cater to middle and high school students. D.C. also has many fine colleges and universities that work hard to educate their undergraduate theatre majors, of course. However, there still seems to be that awkward, make-or-break “hump” that many college students cannot overcome when they try to get work, Non-equity or Equity, both in terms of expectations as well as the day-to-day necessities of a theatre career. This is something that Pallas would like to address, and requires, I feel, a different pedagogical strategy than most traditional educational programs. After all, many of these collegiate actors come out with fine technique and training and hence do not have to be treated like children; they simply need that helpful mentor to help give them advice on the lay of the land, as it were. As such, Pallas is led by artists who are also teaching professionals, people who aim to give hands-on experience to college and post-college artists. Funnily enough, there was recently an interesting blog post on HuffPost Arts and Culture by Scott Walters that tangentially touches upon this issue in a rather telling way… I’ll post the link below.
And, yes, we here at Pallas are the types who read blogs and articles and journals about the state of theatre all the time. What can I say? We’re artists and scholars. That’s not a contradiction: It just means that we’re big nerds.
So enough jabber about theories and ideals… What have we done here at Pallas? And what would we like to do?
Well, for our first endeavor, instead of playing it safe, we launched our collective with a new avantgarde musical tragedy, The Many Women of Troy. If we were reasonable, we probably should have started with something simple, a well-known title that would have made us some easy money. Looking back, who knows what we were thinking! Thankfully, though, it did put us on the map, both in the D.C. area as well as L.A., where we got some very nice recognition (L.A. Weekly and Backstage both liked us! They really liked us!)
Thanks to the critical success of our first show, and perhaps as further evidence of our foolhardiness, we decided not only to keep Pallas going, but also to expand our season. We started with a fun and funky gender-bending cabaret at Busboys & Poets, the Criss Cross Cabaret, chock full of LGBT themes.
Then we did a wacky take on Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors (retitled The Comedy of Mirrors) at the Capital Fringe. Finally, we kick-started what we hope to be our annual Table-Read Series for new works with a domestic realist tragedy, Trophies. About as varied a lineup of productions we could muster for our second season. And what’s really crazy is that we had some big and appreciative audiences! Who knew?
So now we are poised to launch our third and most ludicrous season to date. Our collective has almost tripled in size, we’ve expanded beyond summer-only productions, and have reorganized ourselves to be a more streamlined and efficient Non-profit. To be perfectly frank, no one is nearly as surprised as I am: those of you who have started a small theatre company like this know the insanity of such a project, and how lucky and blessed it is to even get this far along so successfully. (Man, I hope I didn’t just jinx it…)
First up for us this January is a radical new interpretation of The Tempest, directed by our very own Tracey Chessum. (More on this production in a moment…) After that, Quill Nebeker is working on Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, and fiddling around stylistically with this fascinating play. Then I will be personally spearheading the second Table-Read Series this year, giving workshops and staged readings for two new musicals. And then we wrap up the year with another Capital Fringe production, this time directed by Ty Hallmark: a hilarious collection of intertwined Chekhov scenes we call The Tragical Mirth of Marriage & Love. Again, we’ve strived to create a season with magic and realism, comedy and tragedy, musical and straight play, modern and classic… all the while challenging ourselves to keep growing, and giving opportunities to promising theatre artists.
So come join us as we grow! Audition for us, send us your portfolios, and of course come to our shows. Working for a cool company? Let us know that, too: maybe we can work on a project together and co-produce something. An avid theatregoer? Drop us a line and let us know what you love about theatre and what you would love to see in your theatre. Let us know how we can help you.
And it goes without saying: feel free to send us sizable donations so we can fund all of this reckless creativity!
So join us for the adventure.
To help foster this sort of communal conversation, Tracey and all the amazing artists working on our next show, The Tempest: such stuff as dreams are made on, will be posting here on DC Theater Arts (thanks, Joel!) a behind-the-scenes peek into the Pallas process. Every week for the next month or so, you’ll be hearing from the designers and the actors and the crew and who-knows-who-else as they rehearse the show: their trials, their triumphs, their choices, and of course their wacky backstage antics. This will all lead up to the opening of the show, where you can come and see the final product yourselves! So stay tuned…
So to wrap this all up, Pallas is interested in smart, fun, challenging creative dialogue: new works, new interpretations. In fact, that’s why we decided to name ourselves “Pallas Theatre Collective” in the first place. We wanted to be more communal in spirit, and in this corporate day and age, we felt “Collective” better reflected that than “Company.” Now as for “Pallas” (pronounced “Palace”), well, that we derived from the epithet Pallas Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom and war… like the shrewd goddess herself, we selected the word “Pallas” because it is ambiguous and contradictory, referring to many different things (genders, myths, energies, qualities) with no precise known definition, only a multiplicity of possible meanings and interpretations, much like Pallas Theatre Collective itself. Well, that and it sounded really cool.
Like I told you, we’re nerds.
The Tempest plays January 10th – 13th, 17th, 19th, 20th, 24th, 26th, and 27th at 7:30pm at Pallas Theatre Collective at Warner Memorial Presbyterian Church – 10123 Connecticut Avenue, in Kensington, MD. For tickets, purchase them online.
Pallas Theatre Collective’s website.