Nov 22, 2013

Waiting for a New Godot or Working with Small-Batch Theatre

World premiere production of Waiting for Godot:
Pierre Latour (Estragon), Roger Blin (Pozzo), Lucien Raimbourg (Vladimir) and Jean Martin (Lucky) 

Samuel Beckett's En Attendant Godot debuted in January 1953, when it was performed at the short-lived Théâtre de Babylone in Paris.

En Attendant Godot (Waiting for Godot) almost never saw the light of day. It was rejected by thirty-five would-be theater directors before it was passed to Roger Blin by the playwright's wife, Suzanne.

For some, the manuscript was some kind of joke. For others it was a pile of steaming unplayable, incomprehensible nonsense. For other would-be backers, this Beckett fellow represented a swaggering newcomer who claimed to bring something new to the table. "Respectable" theatres in Paris at the time simply did not do experimental little plays like Godot.

Blin had just recently taken over the small 233-seat theatre from Jean-Marie Serreau. The venue had opened in May of 1952 and by December of that same year it hovered on bankruptcy. That's when Blin took over. Unfortunately, by September of 1954, less than two years later the venue would close due to financial difficulties.

There were no famous names or big funders to back the play. Instead the whole thing depended on the actor/ director Roger Blin to hustle for cash and a venue - and once it had opened it relied on word of mouth for survival.

The Théâtre de Babylone was one of the fabled pocket theatres of post-war Paris. Small, progressive venues that ran on shoe-string budgets and were adventurous and intellectual. The Théâtre de Babylone had been the offices of a magazine previous to its short life as a more or less, makeshift, theatre facility.

This concept of small "pocket" theatre is not dead. Nowadays, it goes by several names: boutique theatre, micro-theatre, indie theatre, or my own preference... small-batch theatre.

The boutique moniker is interesting in its connotations. These days, if you want to position your offering as small, exclusive, fashionable and up-market, all you need to do is append 'boutique' to its description. We have clothing boutiques, boutique hotels and even boutique wine stores. Art galleries have understood the appeal for decades. But we're also seeing the emergence of the boutique theatre, an intimate performance space, seating between 40 and 150 people, often located in a nontraditional, converted or informal setting.

Though boutique theatre sounds so much more genteel and refined, these little venues are not necessarily all high-end or schmancy. Most are quaint, quirky, trendy or even a little bit strange (think the living room vibe of Dixon Place in NYC).

What these pocket-sized performance places have in common is that they provide alternative spaces for artists and shows that don’t fit into the mainstream cookie-cutter mold.

Contemporary pocket theatres are also important incubators for new talent. They serve as space in which to test, refine and debut new work, particularly experimental, adventurous and boundary-breaking productions. And this scrappy "under dog" approach may be exactly what theatre needs to survive and maybe even move forward in contemporary America.

The downside of such small venues is that often they can seldom afford to sustain long runs — a week or two at most. This means that word of mouth seldom has time to kick in. Plus, it is easy to write off these small theatres. Because these intimate venues do away with pomp and ceremony and let the spotlight fall on live, original performance and a memorable all-round theatre experience, they can be targeted, in rather smug uninformed ways, as places where no real "serious" theatre is going on.

Small is also sometimes code for amateur. Community theatres are "small." For somethong to be percieved as professional, shouldn't it be in a large downtown venue with pay-to-park lots and big ticket prices? This is especially true in Dallas, where the emphasis is on new and novel, big and bold. Dallas is a hard place for small things.

The Margo Jones Theatre at the Magnolia Longue in Fair Park, Dallas TX.

I am interested in this sort of thing because my small company Audacity recently moved into a new home base venue in Dallas. We, along with a few other tiny companies, share the Margo Jones Theatre inside the Magnolia Lounge at Fair Park. It has quite a history. Besides the several companies involved with keeping the facility up and operational, it is currently rented out to pretty much any one on a a first-come-first-served basis. And at an incredibly affordable rate. This is to say, it is incredibly uncurated.

What this means is that many different groups and individuals pass through the space. Some have more respect for the venue than others and those of us helping with the venue are finding that we are constantly trying to get the space back into a presentable, neutral, useable fashion after every. single. production.

The guy who holds the lease and, for the most part, is there the most, mentioned to me the other day a list of improvements to the space that may be materializing next year. I said that was great and I looked forward to the space getting better and more user-friendly. I was tired of the messy, scattered, jumbled, unorganized wreck of a place the venue seemed to constantly teeter on. Because renters leave the space in a ramshackle condition after they move out and there is no time, or resources to clean before the next group comes in (remember, no one is PAID to facilitate the space), the theatre is in a constant state of mess. I guess renters assume SOMEONE will take care of how they trashed the space, or dispose of the unwanted set pieces left behind, or repair the small damages they have caused. But there is NO ONE designated to do this. What gets done at all is done by the generosity of the artists helping to facilitate the space. The audience is, of course, exposed to this ramshackle space. It gives all the productions in the space a shabby, cheap vibe. It's thrift-store/DIY aesthetic had started to work against the quality of the art in the space.

The guy looked at me and said, "Well, it's your space..."

And with that, I shut up. Apparently, I had been looking at the little 75-seat venue all wrong. I was complaining about a dilemma, with the same obliviousness as the renters, as if someone else was going to fix the problems and present the solution to me. But, if I wanted things to change, I was going to have to be one of the agents of that change. This is how I approached making my art. So, why would it be different when it comes to how and where that art is presented?

But what exactly did I want and need out of the Margo Jones Theatre?

I guess I am looking for a place where the next Waiting for Godot could happen. A clean, neutral, even quirky place to develop my projects, to do my theatre company's productions. A place that doesn't get in the way of the shows, but instead works in coordination with the art within its walls.

I do not want to manage or facilitate a performance space. This has been a defining decision up to this point in the history of Audacity. The company stays small and nimble. We have worked hard to keep the usual administrative things out of the way so we could simply be creating the shows. Things like outreach, constant fund-raising and spending time running a venue draw time and energy away from actually making theatre. I leave this stuff to institutions. This is one of the reasons Audacity has stayed so small and scrappy all these years. There is freedom in compactness. But...

Something has to change. As a venue run by committee (especially, a committe of artists) no one individual sees that day-to-day things are done. Everyone assumes someone else is taking care of things.The space at the Margo Jones Theatre needs attention. It needs some systems in place to make it user-friendly. And, I'm facing the fact that I'll need to be a part of it.

A welcoming and, more importantly, affordable performance space is a boon to Dallas. The Margo Jones Theatre could be the little pocket theatre where a new Waiting for Godot could happen. Or, as an artist-run entity, it could devolve into unorganized chaos. Or, the City could realize what is here in this little corner of Fair Park and swoop in and take it all away.

And if the Margo Jones Theatre ultimately ends up not to be that place, so be it. Audacity will move about as urban nomads until we find the pocket theatre we need.

For now, MJT has all the potential. We'll see what happens...

NOTE: (April 2, 2019) As of January 2019, the City of Dallas has allowed Fair Park to be privatized. The new key-holders are a group that includes the nonprofit Fair Park First and Spectra, a Comcast-owned food-and-entertainment company that manages 319 properties around the country. It is doubtful that the Margo Jones Theatre will stay an affordable venue for small arts groups.

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