Brandon Oliver Jones’ play When Mom Died on Saturn opens at the Las Vegas Little Theatre on April 29th as the winner of LVLT’s 3rd Annual New Works Competition. According to the theatre’s website, the play’s main character “lives in a world full of magic caves, enchanted backpacks, and visitors from other planets.” Hmm. Certainly sounds like Las Vegas. In fact, Jones’ play emerged from a group of three finalists that, for the first time in the competition’s young history, were all written by Las Vegas writers. Jones is also the first Las Vegas-based writer to win. These benchmarks are just the latest examples of the recent emergence of a distinct and prolific “fringe” theatre scene in Las Vegas.
Las Vegas, of course, is a show town. Be it Cirque du Soleil, Wayne Newton, or long-running productions of Broadway hits, the shows that strike gold here are famous for their sparkle. And even though Sin City’s independent, non-commercial theatre is likewise nothing new, playwright and actor Dave Surratt says that the boom of the past few years is “unprecedented in terms of breadth of the scene, companies involved and ambition of productions.”
David McKee, the theatre critic for Las Vegas CityLife, cites Insurgo Theater Movement’s “The Little Prince” and Las Vegas Little Theatre’s “Hellcab” as emblematic of what he calls the “vagabond but upbeat” energy of Las Vegas fringe theatre. “I lived in the Twin Cities for nearly 20 years—where Equity theater* was much healthier—and you just didn’t see this kind of ferment at the community and semi-pro level.” According to McKee, while not-for-profit Equity theatres have not faired well in Vegas, many performers daylight working in commercial fare on the Strip. They then seek out the fringe scene in order to feed their hunger for more satisfying material. Surratt says that, often, the clowns, dancers, magicians, acrobats, and other artists working on the Strip will journey off-Strip to perform and train others. The same goes for the designers and technical experts. The size of the theatre community, he says, is “still pretty small…Once people understand how ultimately interdependent the theatre scene’s constituent parts are, it’s hard for a community not to develop.” (This daylighting dynamic exists in other artist communities—Segment C of SOTRU’s Las Vegas episode is about a band made up of musicians who have day jobs on the Strip.)
“There’s art going on in your city, no one seems to believe it, but psychotic hipsters paint themselves for P.B.R.’s like they do in Williamsburg. Check out a First Friday.”
Insurgo Theater Movement’s Ernie Curcio is one such multi-venue artist. He makes a living through acting in “Tony ‘n Tina’s Wedding,” but off-Strip he is one of the most visible and respected writers and actors in Las Vegas. Visitors to SOTRU’s Las Vegas webpage can read his “Dear Las Vegas” letter, in which he says, “There’s art going on in your city, no one seems to believe it, but psychotic hipsters paint themselves for P.B.R.’s like they do in Williamsburg. Check out a First Friday.” I asked him whether the commercial theatre part of Las Vegas informed his work or Insurgo’s, but he said that, “It doesn’t inform my work a bit, neither personally nor with Insurgo.”
But for Surratt, the Strip does exert influence, mainly as something to work against. When he first left theatre criticism for playwriting and acting, he felt “very David-and-Goliath, very ‘screw the Strip, we got soul.’” He has since become convinced of the need to accept Las Vegas for what it is, and simply do his best to create. He says, “French stage theorist Antonin Artaud, at the end of his preface to Theater and Its Double, said something about the need for actors to stop screwing around and be ‘like victims burnt at the stake, signaling through the flames.’ Substitute ‘neon’ for ‘flames,’ and that’s Vegas.”
Another explanation for this surge of creativity is the nation’s economic downturn, a crisis that has hit Las Vegas particularly hard. “Recessions prove fertile for the arts,” says Curcio. McKee agrees: “I’d say it’s the adversity of the Great Recession itself that has really seen the theatre community put its shoulder to the wheel. Amidst so much hardship, an incredible degree of ingenuity has arisen, as though in a gesture of defiance.” Surratt is less convinced. He credits “a few particularly driven individuals and companies” with starting the wave.
Whether or not the recession inspired indy theatre artists, it has certainly forced them to be resourceful. Student discounts, senior discounts, social networking, and even seats sold for five cans of canned food have all been used to attract audiences looking for low-cost entertainment. Add to this the prohibitive cost of performance rights for well-known recent plays and a large and talented pool of college theatre grads and you get an explosion of new work performed in all types of spaces.
One question now is whether Las Vegas indy theatre, having gained attention and respect from audiences and local publications, will be considered by the Las Vegas establishment as it plans the city’s development. Curcio’s “Dear Las Vegas“ letter tells his city that, “It feels like you’ve have forgotten about us.” But in a later interview, he moderated his stance. “I feel a little guilty about that line, actually,” he said. Curcio mentioned that one of the heads of the Smith Center recently attended one of his performances, and that they spoke a little after the show. “For him to come out meant a lot to me because he didn’t have to. He’s one of the cats running the Smith Center; he doesn’t need to come out, but he did, and if more powerful people like that [supported] us then they wouldn’t have to look too far for productions to house, and that’s what I meant by that line.” Curcio acknowledged as well that artists nationwide need this kind of support, not only those in Las Vegas.
But the Smith Center, still under construction and slated to open in the spring of 2012, will not necessarily be a partner for independent theatre in Las Vegas. “Unless the [Smith Center] were to designate a ‘resident’ company or two,” McKee says, “and let them use the space(s) rent-free, I’m not sure there’s a big future for spoken-word theater at the Smith Center.” That assessment was somewhat confirmed by Myron Martin, the Smith Center’s President and CEO. He says that the Center will be a large-scale presenting house akin to the New Jersey Performing Arts Center or Fort Worth, Texas’ Bass Hall. Its resident companies are the Nevada Ballet Theatre and the Las Vegas Philharmonic, and it has already booked the tour of “Wicked” for its inaugural season.
Still, Martin says that his dream is “to use the top floor of our education and outreach building to house local arts agencies in a sort of executive suites configuration. A place where they can pick up their mail, have an office, and a shared receptionist, copier, fax and conference room…a place for arts professionals from both large and small companies [to] meet at the water cooler, share ideas, and find new ways to collaborate.” According to its website, the Center is being built with a financial commitment of $170 million from the City of Las Vegas and a promised $150 million in grant money from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation. Private donations from individuals, companies, and organizations have been given as well.
For the moment, though, the Las Vegas indy theatre scene continues to create new work (remember When Mom Died on Saturn, now through May 15th) and dramatically re-imagine the classics (Curcio adapted and directed Insurgo’s Ubu Roi playing now through May 7th). Las Vegas visitors take note: if you venture off-Strip to view the work of a growing and boundary-pushing community of artists, you might more accurately remember Las Vegas for its rich theatrical mosaic. And neon.
* “Equity theatre” indicates productions in which the actors and stage managers work under a contract negotiated by their union, Actors’ Equity Association.
Photo caption: Insurgo Theater Movement presents “Ubu Roi” now through May 7th.