Heather Parish came to visit me at the Fresno LGBT Community Center and we sat down for an interview. Heather is the Artistic Director of the New Ensemble Theater Group, which has been staging productions at the Broken Leg Stage, in the Tower District, for the last two years. The theater, located at 1470 N Van Ness Avenue, is a store front style space seating about 50 people per performance. Two other small production companies work out of the same space.
The New Ensemble is a group of theatrical artists committed to developing engaging work together– work with literary merit , an ensemble approach and a commitment to emotional immediacy in performance. At this time, the projects chosen tend to be lean in scale, stark in aesthetic, with an emphasis on the relationship between the actor’s voice and body with the text and action. Committed to the rights of artists to have control over the development and production of their own work, The New Ensemble also guides production for guest directors who wish to take a hands-on approach to their work in a lab-style environment.
Prior to this, Heather was the Artistic Director of the Woodward Park Shakespeare Festival for two years.
I first started talking to Heather when her theater company recently staged a female version of the play HAMLET in the same space. Before that they opened a play titled Chesapeake, about a performance artist who staged a protest against a conservative senator.
They are currently about to open with the play BAPTIZED TO THE BONE. (Ottis (Matthew Schiltz) is dying to leave Sand Hills, North Carolina and produce his “Gospel Poetry Opera” in New York. With no money and few prospects, he decides to hustle Gladys (Hayley Galbraith), the local preacher’s wife. What she doesn’t know is that Ottis is also hustling her husband, the preacher (David Marinovich). The scams deepen, complications ensue, and events take an unexpected turn. In a swealtering North Carolina summer, be careful what you wish for!)
Chris Jarvis: "So who is the New Ensemble Theater Company?"
Heather Parish: "We're very urban, downtown, hole in the wall, find a place and set it up. Our niche is, we looked around and asked ourselves what isn't being served here in Fresno. We found there was a lot of contemporary work that could be produced here which spoke to a different audience that is being served, by, say Roger Rocka's. "
CJ: "Have you found that base?"
HP: "We have. We've found a core audience of about 350 people that come out to our shows."
CJ: "Do you only produce plays?"
HP: "No. We also do readings and pub nights, where we throw together fun stuff."
CJ: "How do you choose the plays you produce?"
HP: "We choose plays that are compelling to us. Plays that have something interesting to say."
CJ: "How to you find the plays?"
HP: "We read a lot of plays. I pay attention to what's going on in San Francisco, New York and London. There are lot of plays that get produced in those cities that never get produced anywhere else. These are places where you can do play about politics, or feminism or religion."
CJ: "How is that playing in Fresno? For instance how did COPENHAGEN go over?"
HP: "Better than I thought it was going to. I figured we were going to get less than our normal audience, but then I reached out to Science Professors at the local schools, they came and then they came back for HAMLET. And we've found that when you reach out to these groups they then realize that theater in Fresno is not just about OKLAHOMA, and they come back for CHESAPEAKE and then they're talking about politics afterwards."
CJ: "So your marketing in Fresno has to be fairly specific."
HP: "Yes, but after a certain group starts coming they realize we're not so specific. The next time it might be religion or politics, or whatever theme these plays are wrestling with. These are themes that in people's everyday lives they're also wrestling with. You just don't see it much in local theater."
CJ: "I grew up here and there used to be absolutely nothing. Things have changed."
HP: "They have, especially in the last ten years."
CJ: "With things like the ROGUE FESTIVAL."
HP: "Exactly, which we've participated in. But then we started producing independently. We have a collective right now of about 10."
Current Members: Heather Parish (Artistic Director), Kristin Lyn Crase, Brooke Aiello, Jaguar Bennett, James Sherrill, Anthony Rico Nan, Chelsea Bonilla, Haley White, Gabriela Lawson and Bruce Robinson.
CJ: "And those 10 do it all, from producing to acting to crew?"
HP: "Yes, we bring in guests sometimes. But the collective itself, one time you'll see someone on stage and the next time they're working box office or stage managing, etc."
CJ: "How do you fundraise?"
HP: "Ticket sales. Occasionally we'll do other things, but for the most part it's box office. And our ticket prices are $10 - $12 so it's very reasonable. Which makes it available to all kinds of people...students, young people and others who are struggling financially. Our prices mean they can still afford to go out and see something interesting."
CJ: "Sounds like your plays are produced in a very intimate setting."
HP: "They are. A lot of people in Fresno find it kind of shocking. They're right there on top of the actors."
CJ: "Are your seasons themed?"
HP: "What happen is we tend to plan the plays for our season, and then realize about halfway through the season that a theme is coming up. Our first year we did a play called THE PILLOW MAN and then a play called PICASSO. THE PILLOW MAN is a literary play, about a writer in a totalitarian state who gets called in by the cops in an investigation over murders. Then in PICASSO, Picasso is being dragged in and being interrogated by a Nazi because his work is considered degenerate art. So we realize we've done two shows centered around an interrogation. Then we go into COPENHAGEN, which is about Nazi's trying to get the atomic bomb. So we discover a theme."
CJ: "And this year?"
HP: "This year we went into CHESAPEAKE about a performance artist who happens to be bisexual. It's a small part of the play. Then we move into HAMLET, with a female Hamlet in a lesbian relationship with Ophelia. And now, BAPTIZED TO THE BONE, about religious hypocrisy but with a gay undertone. We discover a theme, but all these plays came through different people."
CJ: "Tell me about BAPTIZED TO THE BONE."
HP: "It's only been produced two or three times in the United States. The playwright is a poet, so it's beautifully written and punctuated by gospel songs. It's a three character play featuring a preacher from North Carolina and his wife, who are struggling because she hasn't been able to get pregnant, and let's face it, that's God's plan. In comes a young hustler, who's trying to get to New York City. The hustler starts an affair with the preacher's wife and then it comes out that ten years earlier he'd had a brief encounter with the preacher. So the main thrust of it is all these characters hiding who they are and what they really want and how religious hypocrisy gets in their way. So it deals with who you are on all levels, on a belief level and on a physical level."
CJ: "How many plays do you do a year?"
HP: "We tend to do about 3 a year."
CJ: "After this what do you have planned?"
HP: "After this we're going to be doing some reader's theater, an outdoor event, with some H.P. Lovecraft stuff, around Halloween, and then plan for next season."
The New Ensemble Theater Company may soon expand out of the Broken Leg Stage and look at other, slightly larger storefront options, in the Tower, and are looking at writing original plays of their own.
Visit the Official Website of the New Ensemble Theater Group at NewEnsemble.com
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BAPTIZED TO THE BONE (by Dave Johnson Directed by J. Daniel Herring Featuring Hayley Galbraith, David Marinovich, and Matthew Schiltz) Plays on August 17, 18, 23, 24, 25, 31 & Sept 1 @8PM * Aug 18, 25, Sept 1 @2PM
Tickets for BAPTIZED TO THE BONE are $12 at the door or $10 reserved or online * Visit www.newensemble.com or call 559-457-9613 VM or text reservation FB/thenewensemble*@newensemble