Come for the Art, Stay for the Party: Exclusive PinkLine Interview with DC Actors Salon
Of the numerous small theatre companies harbored in our fine city, the DC Actors Salon has carved out a special niche over the past three years; having been on both sides of the stage with them*, I've been continually impressed by their "art/party" concept. Gearing up for their upcoming event, a reading of Fay Kanin's GOODBYE, MY FANCY on Sunday, July 22, I had a chance to ask co-founders Liz Mamana and Beth Hylton about how the Salon continues to convince DC audiences to break out their fancy pants.
1. Tell us what prompted the creation of The Actors Salon? Was this planned as a one-off, or did you see it becoming the regular institution it has become? How often do you produce these events?
We started talking about what would eventually become the Salon shortly after we met in 2003. We had both moved to DC for family reasons from L.A. (for Liz) and NYC (for Beth). We had some producing experience from those towns, and immediately started to think about how we could work together.
Both of our husbands are "civilians" (not in the entertainment business), as are a lot of friends and we felt an urge to share with them what we do – to make it more accessible and the experience more immediate. We knew we wanted to combine the excitement of opening night with the joy of discovery in rehearsal, take the act of creation and make it a shared, exhilarating event for an audience. We started talking about what became the Salon format immediately: combine ART and PARTY. So finally producing (HOLIDAY, in 2009) was really a test just to see if it worked. When the audience stood up at the end of that presentation and applauded, we really nearly almost cried. And afterwards people said they felt like they were "in on something" in precisely the way we had been talking about: it was that moment that we knew we had to keep going.
We have met some fabulous theatre artists along the way who help us keep going, expanding and growing. In that first Salon, we were joined by Cody Nickell, who immediately came to us with ideas: this past Spring, we added Cody as a fellow actor-producer. We have all kinds of ideas about how we can grow and change in the future but keeping true to our basic tenets of good plays + good actors + good party = good times.
2. You guys seem to exclusively select plays from the 1930s and 40s, certainly a Golden Age of American theater, not to mention about as far away as imaginable from the "Fringe" work currently inundating DC. What about this era attracts you as artists, and what do modern audiences get from watching these plays?
In the beginning we were committed only to doing classic plays, presented in an informal way, to help put the focus back on the words, and the actors. But once we started reading these plays (we joke that we have read nothing in the past three years save sides for auditions and old plays) we realized there was a whole world of great American plays that we just didn't know. Well written, smart stuff (particularly strong women!) that needed to be heard.
It seems that, maybe, by putting so much focus on INTERNATIONAL theatre that we stopped paying attention to AMERICAN theatre traditions. Of course, International theatre is great, but it seems that in the past 50 years in America, "classic" plays have come to mean "classic European" plays. We love Noel Coward just as much as your next snarky actors, but S.N. Behrman was considered "AMERICA’S Noel Coward" and before The Salon, we had never heard of him! American comedy rhythms are different than English comedy rhythms, and we really feel that they could be lost without being shared. We have no interest in museum theatre (and don't think that is what we are doing) but it IS a delight to feel like we are making a contribution to both honor our past and make better our future.
3. Tell us a bit about Fay Kanin's GOODBYE, MY FANCY, and about why you chose this script?
So many of these plays from the 30s and 40s feature such strong women; this one, written by a woman, with a political woman at the center of it, written at the end of WWII, in the midst of all this "war against women" talk – well, it was pretty hard to resist.
4. You consistently bring in talented actors and directors from both DC and NYC; can you speak about what it's like for theater artists trying to navigate that corridor?
In the very beginning, it was our goal to ensure that the conversation in the rehearsal room was as interesting as the one we hoped to inspire in our audience. To bring artists together from different cities, to think about ourselves as AMERICAN artists rather than exclusively DC artists or NYC artists (or Philly artists, etc.); that was important to both of us. We’ve also made it our mission to fill the roles with the very best actors and the most interesting casting choices we can make. We’ve had actors join us from all over the place (DC, Baltimore, NYC, LA, Philly, Charlotte) and we think that’s part of what keeps our work so exciting!
5. Your slogan is "Come for the art, stay for the party!"... have you seen other similar attempts to integrate art-making with socializing, and why do you think this approach works for you? Are there other organizations doing similar work in other parts of the country?
We see The Salon as an opportunity to engage the audience in new ways, and also to develop an audience that others may not be attracting. Theatre should be a fun event. Even better if it makes you think, too – but who says you have to sit in the seclusion of a dark theatre to be stimulated and engaged?
We’ve since been inspired by both The Actors Company Theatre in NYC and by Antaeus in LA. In terms of combining art with party, I think this is part of a larger discussion happening in America at present: it is imperative that we find ways to creatively, theatrically engage our audiences in new ways.
6. Are there any larger-scale plans for the Salon? Finding a larger venue? Doing a musical? Linking up with a local fashion organization like Dandies & Quaintrelles?
We are always trying to think of new ways to expand. We are always looking for new partners, new people, new fellow artists to help us grow. We'd love to do a musical and have discussed it for sometime. We’ve enjoyed doing interesting pairings for some of our previous events – ONCE IN A LIFETIME was paired with a book signing by author Jason Killian Meath for his book HOLLYWOOD ON THE POTOMAC and our reading of THE WOMEN was styled by jewelry stylist Kimberly Jones from Stella & Dot.
7. For anyone "on the fence"... what makes the Salon a unique artistic experience and why should people seek you guys out?
Well, first of all: it's a party, and a good time. It's an easy, elegant Sunday night out. And because it's Sunday, you don't have to compete with the Friday or Saturday night crowds. We have everyone out by 9, but guests are welcome to stay later to chat with the cast and director – and each other.
We also stand out because of the plays we produce – you may never have a chance to see them again!
And lastly, let us just say, our actors are sublime. The Salon readings are put up with less than 10 hours of rehearsal, but the actors are on their feet with scripts in hand, living in the space. This requires a very quick, very focused actor. The experience is fast, furious and exhilarating – and the audience gets to share in that!
The DC Actors Salon presents a staged reading of Fay Kanin's GOODBYE, MY FANCY at The Library at Darlington House (1610 20th St. NW, Dupont Circle), Sunday evening, July 22, 2012, 5pm cocktails, 6pm reading. Mandatory RSVP at email@example.com. Suggested donation $20. Party dress encouraged.
*In full journalistic disclosure, I'm also appearing in this upcoming reading. Don't hold this against them. :)
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