Stage West’s current show, Nell Benjamin’s British period comedy The Explorers Club, marks an important milestone in the venerable Fort Worth company’s 35-year history. It’s Stage West’s first full-fledged co-production, this one with Addison’s WaterTower Theatre. The partnership with WaterTower began last year when late co-founder Jerry Russell decided he loved Stage West’s one-woman show Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins so much, he wanted it to be seen more widely in the area. Russell contacted his friend Terry Martin, producing artistic director at WaterTower, to see if the Addison theater would like to host Red Hot Patriot for another run. Martin agreed, and the show, featuring a much-acclaimed performance by Georgia Clinton as Ivins, was a box office hit for both theaters.
But The Explorers Club is a significantly more complicated collaboration than Red Hot Patriot. Essentially, all WaterTower did was host Clinton’s solo performance after Stage West, with each theater assuming its own overhead costs for the two runs. The Explorers Club is a cost-sharing co-production featuring a cast of nine actors, with the two companies splitting the budget straight down the middle for sets, costumes, props, and rehearsals. As soon the show closes at Stage West in early January, Claire Floyd DeVries’ elaborate, detailed Victorian set will be packed up and trucked to WaterTower –– with only minimal adjustments –– for a second run in mid-January.
“It would be very difficult for us to do a show as rich in value and period detail, with nine actors, on our own,” said Dana Schultes, Stage West co-producer and a co-star in The Explorers Club. She plays a woman scientist who crashes a prestigious 19th-century gentlemen’s group with the claim she has discovered a lost city. “WaterTower has a bigger budget than we do. So far, it’s been marvelous.”
The show’s director for both venues is Stage West co-producer Jim Covault. To avoid clashes of ego and artistic temperament, he and Martin had early conversations that established clearly that the two of them would be on equal footing in terms of creative and financial choices. Martin is the one who selected The Explorers Club script as a good option for a first co-production, since both companies have had good audience reactions from past British farces. The biggest hurdle for the theater leaders was overcoming the “Metroplex mentality” that insists that all North Texas theaters are vying for the same relatively small theater-going demographic. This long-standing assumption is one of the big reasons that co-productions among area theaters are a fairly rare phenomenon. But the success of Red Hot Patriot in both Fort Worth and Addison suggested that each city has its own distinct group of patrons. Stage West had already discovered this accidentally back in 2011, Schultes said, when Stage West and Dallas’s Theatre Three wound up staging separate productions of the same show, Seasons Greetings, around holiday time. The play proved a big box office draw for both houses. Still, all nonprofit theaters, no matter how well established, feel constant pressure to maintain ticket sales in a world of fierce competition with on-demand digital entertainment like movies and TV. Sharing costs for consecutive productions of a large-cast play with authentic period elements will probably always feel a bit like a gamble.
“I think for a long time we felt were in competition with each other,” Martin said. “On paper, the idea of restaging the same show that had just been done in Fort Worth didn’t make sense. But Red Hot Patriot showed that it didn’t make much of a difference. There just wasn’t much overlap [in audiences], maybe in the single digits, from what I could see. When I started to think of the financial benefits of sharing a larger budget for a show like The Explorers Club, it seemed silly not to explore the idea.
“My biggest fear was getting two artistic directors on the same page as far as taste goes,” he continued. “Jim and I are both used to driving our own buses, so to speak, but when it became clear that we were serious about sharing the bus-driving duties, it was an easy choice. Working with Jim and Dana has been an amazingly smooth process.”
Martin admitted he has a lingering concern about all co-productions –– the diminished press attention the second staging will receive. The Stage West version of Red Hot Patriot earned considerably more North Texas media coverage than the later WaterTower production. In reality, that didn’t inhibit attendance for the WaterTower show. But the production costs of The Explorers Club are much higher, which means the stakes are, too. Martin is taking a wait-and-see attitude.
“It’s not an issue of good reviews or bad reviews,” he said. “It’s an issue of no reviews. If all the buzz is around the Fort Worth show, will it be old news by the time it comes to Addison? We have a strong subscriber base, but single-ticket sales are important, too. For me, this would be the deciding factor on co-productions in the future.”
The Explorers Club
Thru Jan 4 at Stage West, 821 W Vickery Blvd, FW. $30-34. 817-STG-WEST. • Jan 16-Feb 8 at WaterTower Theatre,15650 Addison Rd, Addison. $35.