Toy Boat Theatre Sets Sail

“It is a hopeless endeavour to attract people to a theatre unless they can be first brought to believe that they will never get in.”
~Charles Dickens

Toy Boat Theatre member Josh Bornstein in a UPS production of "The Cradle Will Rock" directed by Marilyn Bennett. Photo courtesy of UPS Theatre Arts

The energetic founders of Toy Boat Theatre (TBT) are making one point perfectly clear: The community theatre scene in Tacoma is a stalwart beast; it is seasoned, it has stamina, it’s a survivor, and despite the struggles (and competition) shared by arts organizations, it makes room for hungry experimentalists – such as themselves.

Tacoma Little Theatre is 93 years old. Lakewood Playhouse is 73!” enthuses Jen Davis, the group’s Associate Artistic Director, and a 2011 University of Puget Sound graduate in Theatre.

Tacoma Musical Playhouse has a strong following, but retains an older subscription base,” adds Dr. Marilyn Bennett, who holds a Ph.D. in Theatre History and Criticism from the University of Washington, and is TBT’s Artistic Director. “Shakespeare in the Parking Lot is over 10 years old….and, of course, the Broadway Center for the Performing Arts is a vibrant road house.”

A third principal, actor/designer/theatre technician Alex Smith, offers the classic rationale of why, in the age of downloadable entertainment, live theatre isn’t hovering near extinction: “Artists have an effect on the people who view and experience their art in person. The audience helps create the unique energy and exchange at every performance.” Smith is TBT’s Design Technical Associate.

Deya Ozburn and Marilyn Bennett in the Gold from Straw Theatre production of "Doubt" directed by Aaron Schmookler.

The TBT co-founders and their troupe are recipients of a three-month Spaceworks residency that will support the production and performance of Dakota’s Belly, Wyoming, a play by Erin Cressida Wilson. Spaceworks talked to the trio via e-mail about their fringe manifesto: “Toy Boat Theatre is a selective scavenger. We troll the back alleys and mean streets of Tacoma and environs in search of the overlooked cranny, under appreciated artist….and dog-eared, coffee-ringed script with unrealized potential to engage, awaken, even stun.” The three previously worked together on the Gold from Straw Theatre production of Doubt, performed locally in the Mecca building using packing boxes for makeshift dressing room walls. We wondered if the stripped-down approach to theatre was mainly by choice or necessity.

“Choice and necessity both,” says Davis.

“We will break even,” vows Smith. “It takes almost nothing to do good theatre, and we have almost nothing!”

A scene from "The Princess Project," an Annie Wright production directed by Marilyn Bennett.

“If we hold to our motto – ‘Good theatre in a humble house’ – we should be fine,” avers Bennett, an Equity actor who has performed on t.v. and on stage from Seattle to New York City. “More important than the trappings, we have selected a play, Dakota’s Belly, Wyoming by Erin Cressida Wilson, which we are completely compelled by.” The drama is “a lively interlude set in the American West, in the manner of Sam Shepard’s early short plays. Dakota has just finished birthing a cow when her brother, Vern, arrives at her trailer; he and wife Trixie have split up, and the play unfolds around the quirky, sexy and tangled relationship between the three characters.”

In addition to a smart script (Wilson wrote the screenplay for the movie Secretary, adapted from a Mary Gaitskill novella), the production will benefit from multilevel support from the University of Puget Sound Department of Theatre Arts, which is collaborating on the project. Bennett is teaching the Theatre Experience Course at UPS this summer, “which is part of why UPS Theatre Arts is so supportive of the project….In addition to [the] basic curriculum, which I have modified for this summer, [students] will be meeting in the space, participating in its creation, in PR and marketing…hopefully in a fundraiser or two, and the Third Thursday arts events.” Students will receive academic credit for their participation: “Such a perfect opportunity for hands-on theatre making,” says Bennett. “UPS has a superior program which offers both a substantial literary/dramaturgical base and provides opportunities in production for students to become true journeymen, skilled in all areas.” The school has championed community involvement with projects such as the August Wilson reading series at the Washington State History Museum. Dakota’s Belly will feature local actors and recent UPS grads.

TBT will occupy a rehearsal space at 1314 Martin Luther King Way, next door to Fulcrum gallery, through September 2011, with performance dates to be announced. Bennett says there is one stark void in the local scene, and that is the lack of an Actors Equity (AEA) theatre that pays actors scale. She looks to Olympia’s Harlequin Theatre as a successful model: “They got there by a very careful strategy and very humble means, capturing the imagination of their audience, building a base of support. We aren’t looking much beyond this summer project, but it is a trial balloon of sorts, this ‘Mini Me’ enterprise!”

“We’re on the ground floor, we’re just committed to do this one thing well. Come join us,” says Davis.