Before I offer you an introduction to the stellar season planned by New City Players, the Fort Lauderdale company I was invited to join in November of 2020: to say that the past two years haven’t been the easiest ones for the group may be a bit of an understatement. Aside from the pandemic’s far-reaching and long-lasting effects on the theatre industry as whole, an internal conflict during the summer of 2021 briefly threatened the company’s future, necessitating a concerted effort by company members to ensure their work could continue.
Yet, against all odds, the group was able to recover, restructure, and forge ahead with their 2021-2022 season, and is headed into 2022-2023 under the leadership of company founder and producing artistic director Timothy Mark Davis. As well, after a long history of involvement with the company, prominent local actress and director Elizabeth Price will step for the first time this season into the role of associate artistic director and production manager.
Working with a group of company members with expertise in various aspects of theatre known as the Artistic Programming Committee, or “APC,” the two have selected an exciting and eclectic group of three plays to bring to production this year. And, though the process of season planning has also had its obstacles, there does seem to have been some serendipity at work in their selection.
In fact, after coming to the conclusion that their December slot at current home venue Island City Stage would be best occupied by a Christmas show, Davis and Price suggested It’s A Wonderful Life: A Radio Play to one another almost simultaneously.
“In a two minute span in our conversation we both Slacked each other at the same time, the same production. It was weird.” Davis remarked.
“And so obviously it was like, the universe wants us to do that play,” Price added.
Of course, along with this sign from the cosmos, there were plenty of practical reasons the show made for a particularly good choice. Among them are its radio play format, which will make It’s A Wonderful Life both less technically demanding and less expensive to produce than a fuller-fledged production. And, perhaps most opportune of all, because it is based on the classic movie, the show has both instant name recognition and instant popular appeal.
“So maybe we can actually get some audiences in there and excited, let them know about the rest of the season,” Price remarks.
But, more importantly, the themes of the poignant and inspiring story perfectly align with the company’s stated vision and mission of using transformative theatre to help South Florida become a more thoughtful and empathetic community.
In service of this goal, NCP customarily arranges a series of community engagement events to be held in conjunction with their productions. These typically include weekly talkbacks following select performances and a free event known as the Forum, which features a panel discussion led by experts in a particular socially relevant topic that is explored in one of NCP’s plays and spotlights on community members and organizations that have some kind of connection to it.
“We want to be able to highlight organizations and individuals that know much more about this topic, are on the ground solving problems related to the topic,” Davis explains.
“That’s the thing I’m always pitching to people: that we know how to tell a story, but the people involved in these issues, they’re the ones making change happen, they’re the ones educating our community. So we’re almost like, hey, look at us, now look at them, and that’s our role in terms of enacting social change,” he adds.
This focus on community engagement is something that emerged early on in NCP’s history, after Davis began to become aware of the “play to homogenous audience pipeline,” that typically limited the theatre’s reach to a predominantly older, whiter, and wealthier crowd.
“For a lot of reasons, a lot of them being systemic issues in our culture. But does it have to be that way?” Davis reflected.
“If we can break away from that and get people in the theatre who maybe wouldn’t find themselves there through a free community event, or get people connected to a company through something like that, that was an exciting idea to me. Because it’s that realization of, people maybe don’t care about going to see a play, but people do care about being seen, having their voice heard, having their name spoken at the front door. Feeling like they are a part of something that is bigger than themselves, bigger than just a production.”
For It’s A Wonderful Life, NCP’s community engagement efforts will center around the issue of mental health, and especially on how the holidays can serve as a trigger for mental health symptoms in vulnerable individuals. As of last season, I’ve also personally taken the lead on expanding our community engagement efforts into the virtual sphere by spearheading the creation and execution of The Build, a blog offering further reflection on the themes explored in our productions.
Since beginning my research into It’s A Wonderful Life, I’ve found myself discovering some fascinating sociological implications to the classic story that I’m excited to delve into. But, at its core, perhaps what’s most important about the show is its celebration of the very community that New City Players is striving to foster and the feeling of joy that Davis hopes the audience will come away with.
“I think people are just gonna leave with a tear in their eye and a smile on their face,” he says.
He also hopes that this experience will open their hearts a bit, setting the tone for the next step on what he describes as the company’s “season journey,” Jeff Augustin’s Cry Old Kingdom.
“Which, you know, might be a bit of a gut punch, or at least an eye opening,” Davis says.
Indeed, the second show of the season is one that may be a lot harder for many audience members to swallow than a theatrical twist on an upbeat Christmas favorite. Taking place in Haiti during the height of dictator Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s oppressive regime, it’s also one that follows through on NCP’s established commitment to telling stories that highlight the region’s diversity and the hardships faced by underrepresented groups.
Because this history is still such a fraught topic for many in the Haitian community, NCP’s artistic team took extra care to ensure the material’s cultural appropriateness, including by enlisting a variety of readers from that community to peruse the script before they chose it for production.
“That was definitely a step in the process that slowed things down a little bit, but the APC unanimously agreed that it was important that we take the time. Because there is traumatic material in the play, we wanted to be culturally sensitive and psychologically sensitive to how we handled that,” Davis said.
But the reaction they got from these readers was overwhelmingly positive, including from ensemble member Marlo Rodriguez, who had already been slated to direct this midseason piece and who is half Haitian herself.
“Her being excited about the project and wanting to do it and also wanting to share it with people and get feedback, that was sort of the very important first,” Price described.
Another piece of feedback that Davis noted as particularly important to them was one given by a Haitian woman who works at one of the organizations that NCP plans on enlisting as a community partner during Cry Old Kingdom’s run. She saw the show as a potential opportunity to bring the unprocessed and underrecognized generational trauma many Haitians experienced around the regime and its fallout out into the open, where it might finally be worked through.
Davis and Price are also taking care to celebrate Haiti’s rich culture and heritage rather than solely focusing on its painful history during the community engagement programming that will surround Cry Old Kingdom, meaning that more care and effort will have to go into that programming’s curation.
“It needs more partners, we need more voices at the table. Because it’s delicate, and we need to hold it in a way that is honorable.” Davis says.
Along with these social responsibility challenges, the play also poses some substantial technical ones, which it now falls to Price to navigate as production manager. For instance, during the course of the play each night, a portrait must be painted and a boat must be assembled onstage. And that’s before we even arrive at the third show of the season, Little Montgomery, which features what threatens to be an even more difficult array of staging conundrums to be muddled through.
“There are like, a thousand different locations, tons of crazy stuff happens, including things being blown up, people bleeding, all kinds of wacky stuff….and we don’t even know yet how it’s gonna get done,” Price describes.
Though Little Montgomery is another title that isn’t particularly well-known, it is one that fans of New City Players may recognize if they happen to have encountered the podcast adaptation of the script that the company released during the height of the pandemic.
“We have familiarity with it, we’ve got an audience who would have some familiarity with it, it kind of just was already there. So we reached out and grabbed it,” Davis said.
There’s also another, rather simpler reason that Little Montgomery made for a perfect choice when it came to bringing the aforementioned “season journey” to an appropriately fitting conclusion; the chance that Davis hopes the comedy will give audiences to “laugh their asses off” after the heavier stuff of shows one and two.
“Let’s finish this season with a comedy,” he explains.
“It’s got some grit to it because it’s these teenage girl characters who are just so full of life and passion, but there’s this undercurrent of, finding your family, finding your identity, finding your place. There’s beautiful music in the show, there’s really beautiful relationships, people caring for each other and coming to know each other. But it’s wrapped in a comedy that’s gonna be a lot of fun,” he continued.
Little Montgomery will also give both Price and Davis the chance to get back on stage, reprising their roles from the podcast, after spending the rest of the season behind the scenes.
“I’m so excited to get to play that character again. That police chief is the most fun I’ve had in years,” Price says.
“She’s a hoot,” Davis added.
“I mean, I’m thrilled,” he continued.
“When I go into rehearsal, I can just be at rehearsal for a few hours and nothing else about the company matters. I’m just zeroed in on this character, this role. I love those opportunities. It’ll be a challenge, but it’s one that I’ve faced before and look forward to facing again.”
Little Montgomery is also a title that Davis brought to the APC with the intention of celebrating something else that distinguishes New City Players in the world of South Florida theatre: the fact that the group aims to be a true ensemble theatre company, serving as an “artistic home” of sorts to a cohort of creators who are encouraged to commit their talents to the group’s productions whenever appropriate as well to play various other staff and volunteer roles over the course of the season.
Especially after such a challenging year, choosing a show that will feature mostly members of this core group felt like a much-needed morale boost, as well as a way to play to one of NCP’s unique strengths.
“There’s a greater chance of experimentation and risk taking when you begin to create with the same people and find a place of safety, artistic safety and artistic nourishment.” Price elaborated.
“It’s the idea that we can take greater risks together because we continue to work together. Not that new members don’t join and old members move on and things like that, but there is some consistency. And then if people do go away, they come back with what they learned, so it’s also being fed from outside sources, which I think is ideal.”
In fact, NCP’s emphasis on ensemble is one of the things that Price found most appealing about the company after first becoming involved with them as an actress in their production of Twelfth Night in 2017.
“When I had my first experiences with the company I started to understand that there was a greater feeling of ensemble and participation than in a lot of theatre companies. Then I started to see the mission as I got a little more involved and I started to hear about, or attend, the community events. I started to understand that that is a huge way that this theatre company serves the community and creates the community in a way that other theatre companies don’t, or do in a different way.”
Though she had similarly positive experiences while appearing in NCP’s production of Falling a few years later, she was still initially reluctant to commit to becoming a formal member of their ensemble rather than remaining an independent artist. But after continuing to work with the company throughout the pandemic, she found herself getting increasingly involved, especially in the aftermath of the company’s internal structural challenges.
“It was my first time as an artist to take a stand on issues inside a theatre company,” she explains.
“It was empowering, and a new experience for me, and it led me to a feeling of investment in this company, and a feeling of ownership in this ensemble. I always want to remain on the outside, so it was the first time I wanted to be a part of something.”
So, despite her continual reservations, she found herself willing to step into the role of resident director for the 2021-2022 season, and then to move into the associate artistic director position this year.
“I try not to live in extremes, but I’ve been willing to take risks with this company, which is interesting. I’ve never wanted to ask people for money, so for me now to be willing to start talking to people about that and ask people to help fund our projects is very new for me. But a lot of this is new for me,” she says.
Of course, though it isn’t as exciting as preparing for a production, asking for money is more or less an essential part of the process when it comes to non-profit theatre.
“But it’s not even unique to this season, it’s not even unique to our company,” Davis said, speaking of the difficulty of making it all add up. Typically, theatre companies are only able to cover about 30-60 percent of their operating expenses via ticket sales alone, with NCP’s usual percentage being roughly 35. The rest, however, must be garnered through grants, donations, and sponsorships.
“It means that we’re not just doing plays, we’re also fundraising, writing grants, finding sponsors, having conversations, cultivating and nurturing donor relationships… all of that stuff is happening behind the scenes. And it’s not flashy, it’s not sexy, but it is essential work to make the season happen to make sure people are compensated and make sure the quality of the work is there,” Davis notes.
“Even post pandemic, we have raised what we pay actors and designers a little bit every single year and we want to continue doing that. Ideally, we come into some funding or some sort of sponsor or donor relationship, but for now it’s a slow and steady growth of searching for income from these different sources.”
Though Davis names being able to better compensate the artists that NCP works with as one of his top priorities if the company were able to raise its bottom line, he also spoke of the difficulty of pitching that particular cause to the public.
“It’s not very interesting to go to a donor and be like “Hey, I want to be able to pay actors three times as much as we pay them now,” he says.
“We’re gonna do the same amount of programming, we’re gonna do the same type of stuff, we just need more money to pay people more. People don’t want to give to that, and they should,” he said.
“I feel like us wanting to be able to pay all the people who do the work in our company a wage that reflects value for their work is actually socially progressive,” Price added.
“That’s part of our mission that we can’t do yet. Otherwise, we’re operating under a system that is still not sustainable. And ultimately, we want to create something sustainable and fully real, which means our insides match our outsides,” she says
Davis also believes that more equitable pay would ultimately increase the work’s artistic quality.
“In one sense, you have access to a different talent pool that has more skill, and more experience, but then you also have the ability to give an opportunity to a younger artist, who’s like, ‘Woah, that’s a paycheck I’ve never seen before, I can actually survive for these six weeks because of what I’m being paid right now.’ And I promise you, there is a difference, even if it’s in the morale of the artists who are enacting it, that they’re showing up to work with the understanding, this isn’t a sacrifice, this is actually a pleasure,”
“Or, this isn’t a sacrifice, this is my work,” Price adds.
“And work implies I am being compensated, this isn’t pure passion, which is what it is right now for all of us. All of us are going on passion. Which I love, but it’s a flawed model.”
When reflecting on what more NCP might be able to achieve if they were able to develop more resources, Price also spoke of a desire to incorporate more training, growth, and development of the artists in the group’s ensemble.
“So that would be, classes, workshops, retreats, maybe even mentorings. I would love to be able to increase that, I think that would be of value,” she says. Davis agreed.
“I think there is an endless amount of opportunity for growth in that as well, in what does it mean to be an ensemble theatre company,” he added.
“There’s so much historical precedent for theatre artists coming together to tell a story, and learning from each other, training together, growing together, and then telling stories that come from a place of real unity, because there is a unity in the artistic vision of the people involved,” he says.
In the meantime, Davis is trying to harness the power and passion of his current ensemble to help solve the omni-present problem of funding by encouraging them all to reach out to their respective networks ahead of their upcoming Giving Day on November 4th, which will take the place of their usual Giving Tuesday appeal to clear the way for their lead-up to It’s A Wonderful Life.