In just its sixth season, Denton’s Sundown Collaborative Theatre is staging a play at its third invitational fringe festival.
The local company stages the second of three performances of Sweet Chariot, a heavy drama written by 25-year-old University of North Texas graduate Cody Lucas, today and Saturday during the Out of the Loop Fringe Festival in Addison.
Out of the Loop invites dance and theater companies from across the country to stage new work — dance, theater, music and art — during the 10-day event hosted by the Addison-based Water Tower Theatre.
Sweet Chariot is a “long one-act” drama about a man named John, who sits in his bathtub, getting drunk and hoping to get answers to philosophical questions from Boyd Worely’s midnight radio show. Chicago actor Billy Baraw plays John, and Denton actor and director Morgan Hillan is the voice of Boyd Worely.
Lucas, who earned a bachelor’s degree in theater at UNT, said fringe festivals are something of a test for a serious playwright. Fringe festivals get the name because they showcase unconventional and untested art, and getting an invitation to a fest is usually cause for celebration among performing arts technicians and artists.
“It’s a different exposure, different environment,” said Lucas, who lives and works in Chicago. “It also makes you boil your work down to something lean that doesn’t require all sorts of bells and whistles. And the audiences at these festivals want weird or dark or ‘incorrect’ — they want something different than the community theater staples.”
Lucas said playwrights have few opportunities to see their plays produced, as few companies — professional and nonprofessional — want to risk already-tight budgets on work that audiences aren’t familiar with. Fringe festivals have stood in the gap, and become an avenue from the workshop phase of play-making to professional production in university programs and professional repertory theaters.
Tashina Richardson, an actress and director in the local company,shared directing duties with Lucas.
“When the show got picked [for the festival], Cody and I worked together to get a team together here in Denton,” she said. “He found an actor who was coming to the Texas for the festival [Billy Baraw] to play the role of John, and I worked with an actor here who is the voice of Boyd.”
Lucas led Baraw through rehearsals in Chicago.
“Up until a week ago, I was working with the actor here [Morgan Hillan],” Richardson said. “Then Skyped rehearsals on the weekends.”
Baraw arrived in North Texas on March 1, and Richardson staged the show with Lucas.
Producing Sweet Chariot was neither easy nor convenient. Richardson was and is in rehearsal for done/undone, Sundown’s spring show opening March 21 in Denton. But the company thought Chariot was worth the work.
“Well, you know back in, probably, November, Cody is still on the[Sundown] advisory board, and he had written this show and wanted to send it to the festival,” she said. “Out of the Loop is one of the bigger theater festivals in DFW. If you have a project that you think could make it, that’s an incentive.”
Lucas wrote the early drafts of the play to explore Ernest Hemingway’s “Iceberg Theory.” In a nutshell, Hemingway wrote short stories and avoided any superfluous information. He’d concentrate on the surface elements,never explicitly naming underlying themes.
“I wanted to play with heightened language … and also play with the limitation of having no movement on stage,” Lucas said. “But those are the technical things. The show deals with an ‘in between’ moment for this character.”
Lucas said his personal transitional phase from college student to professional has felt like a long, slow one.
“I guess everything is always transitional,” he said. “I just started writing these enigmatic monologues that were pretty representative of my often-neurotic thought process. Once I grasped on to the idea of a character drinking alone in the bathtub, it seemed so limiting and so pliable at the same time. Cleansing, refreshing, relaxing or alternately being dirty, and drowning,and helpless.”
Baraw spends the entire hour in a bathtub full of water, fully clothed. Lucas was going to title the drama Man in a Tub Play.
“Sweet Chariot had a better ring to it. ‘Sweet Chariot’ is an evocative song,” Lucas said. “And I kept seeing the bathtub as the character’s chariot — the thing that will take him to wherever he’s going.”
Both Richardson and Lucas said festivals help companies do better work.
Fringe festivals challenge companies to shed the spectacle of Broadway-style production and pour themselves into bringing a story to life with honest acting and sharp storytelling.
“You know, I think the most important thing is kind of thinking on your toes,” Richardson said. “Festival theater is the same as any kind of theater. Roadblocks come up, especially when you are a small company.”
Richardson said Sundown was originally scheduled to stage Chariot in the Stone Cottage Theatre, a small, alternative space managed by Water Tower Theatre.
“We’re using a cast iron bathtub in this show, and it’s supposed to be full of water,” Richardson said. “The space had a new floor and it wouldn’t hold the cast iron tub. We went from having a really intimate experience in a small space, which is what we wanted, to having to restage the whole thing in a much bigger space.”
The company has put the audience on the Water Tower Theatre’s main stage to bring the audience closer and avoid the proscenium dilemma — in which an audience is directly in front of the action and only in front of it. The company re-created the thrust space, which puts the audience on three sides ofthe action.
The experience has also demanded that Lucas be merciless with his writing.
“Once I have a beginning, middle and end, it goes through the wringer,” Lucas said. “I don’t like reading and editing on my computer, so I prefer to print off a clean copy, edit it by hand, whether it’s entire pages or just commas and typos. Then I make the edits again on the computer if only to second guess what I did or find something I missed.”
Lucas said his writing is more of a pragmatic thing than an attempt to write the next Pulitzer piece.
“I’m not vain enough to believe I’m filling some void in American theater,” he said. “I write selfishly at first. It’s for me. Eventually I want to share it and hope for the best. Sometimes people like it. Sometimes they don’t. But it’s always mine — beginning to end, good or bad — and I enjoy that ownership. Like a carpenter building a table. It’s my trade.”
LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at940-566-6877.
What: A one-act drama by Cody Lucas. Rated R for mature themes.
When: 9 p.m. today and 9:30p.m. Saturday
Where: 2014 Out of the Loop Festival at Water Tower Theatre, 15650 Addison Road
How much: $10. To buy tickets, visit http://bit.ly/1cD3xxv.