Amid Obstacles, Theater of the First Amendment Prepares for a Comeback

Posted: November 16, 2009 at 1:02 am, Last Updated: November 13, 2009 at 3:51 pm

By Catherine Ferraro

A scene from "Open the Door, Virginia!" Photo courtesy of TFA

A scene from "Open the Door, Virginia!" Photo courtesy of TFA

Theater of the First Amendment (TFA), Mason’s professional theater company, will celebrate its 20th anniversary in 2010. Members of the community will come together in a celebration that recognizes TFA’s rich and diverse history.

Throughout its 20-year history, TFA has brought some of the best artists from the Washington, D.C., area and beyond to its stage. It has set itself apart from other professional theater companies by placing the storyteller at its center.

Even in the face of many obstacles, TFA’s mission has always remained the same – fostering relationships and nurturing the talent of young artists; and, through its new play development program, creating and disseminating new knowledge to the world.

Making Strategic Changes

Rick Davis. Creative Services photo

Rick Davis, TFA artistic director.

After TFA’s 2005-06 season, when the uncertain economic climate forced many professional theater companies to close their doors, its management made a difficult, but necessary decision. Rick Davis, artistic director, and Kevin Murray, managing director, in consultation with Bill Reeder, dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts, and other leadership in the college, decided to temporarily suspend full productions.

“During this suspension, TFA continued to remain active and committed to new play development,” says Murray. “This break has allowed us to focus on making strategic changes within the organization, such as re-evaluating the artistic leadership of TFA to develop a clear vision toward the future.”

One of the biggest changes took place in early 2008 when Heather McDonald, a nationally prominent playwright and professor in the Department of Theater, joined TFA as co-artistic director. The addition of McDonald helped to focus TFA’s efforts in establishing its reputation as a major new play development center.

Kevin Murray. Photo courtesy of Kevin Murray

Kevin Murray, TFA managing director.

The success of TFA’s First Light Discovery Program, which provides playwrights an opportunity to develop new plays while working with professional directors, dramaturges and actors, has helped TFA get a few steps closer to this goal. Just last year, 10 new plays were developed in First Light and presented as staged readings for the benefit of the writers.

According to Murray, establishing relationships with playwrights on local, national and international levels and intensifying its development efforts during this suspension has created an arsenal of new work and artists from which to pull when TFA comes back with full productions in 2011.

Looking to the Future
In addition to gaining recognition as a new play development center, one of TFA’s priorities as it moves ahead is involving Mason students, faculty, staff and alumni in any project or event on which it is working. Being able to strengthen its relationship with the university and establish a dominant presence in the community is vital to TFA’s success, notes Murray.

A scene from "Open the Door, Virginia!" Photo courtesy of TFA

A scene from "Open the Door, Virginia!" Photo courtesy of TFA

Establishing that dominant presence was furthered with theSPACE, which had been an empty storefront in Old Town Fairfax. The building has been converted into a performance space and art gallery and is well suited for staged reading, experimental artwork and other events. Pleased with its accessibility to both Mason and the surrounding community, TFA management has already organized several events in theSPACE and plans more.

“Because TFA lacks a private fund-raising base that many other larger theaters in the area have, we thrive on the support of the community,” says McDonald. “We’re hoping to gain as much access to theSPACE as possible to allow us to reconnect with the community and create much needed visibility.”

TFA’s staged reading of “The Rivers and Ravines” is one of its first efforts to reconnect with the community. The play, written and directed by McDonald, is set during the farm crisis of the early 1980s and celebrates hope and spirituality of a community facing economic hardship. The event will take place on Saturday, Nov. 21, at 8 p.m. at theSPACE, 3955 Chain Bridge Road, Fairfax, in the Old Town Plaza retail complex.

TFA has several other projects in the works that will allow artists to release their creative energy. The “Nine Months of Mondays” workshop will gather a multidisciplinary group of artists on Monday nights for nine months of creativity, shared research and creation of a public workshop-style presentation to take place in summer 2010.

In conjunction with the First Light Discovery Program, which will convene in June 2010, TFA is working with the Dramatist Guild of America to create a playwriting intensive workshop for mid-career-level playwrights. TFA plans to arrange and host a National Playwright Conference in summer 2011 that will gather playwrights of all levels in one location.

TFA’s Influence on the World
Throughout its 20 years of fostering relationships and creating new works, TFA has influenced more than just the local community. Many TFA-developed projects have made their way out into the world in the form of productions, publications and broadcasts that carry profound messages.

Dianne McIntyre’s play “Open the Door, Virginia!” is based on the real-life story of 117 African American high school students who staged a walkout at their school in Farmville, Va., in 1951. The event marked the beginning of desegregation in Virginia. Following its origination and premiere at TFA in 2005, the play was revived in August 2009 with the original cast, who performed at the same high school where the events depicted in the play took place.

“The revival of this play reinforces the idea that TFA’s work does make its way into the world,” says Davis. “This play also speaks about how TFA takes risks on unproven stories and artists, perfects them on its stage and then sends them out into the world so its impact can be felt by a larger audience.”

Other examples of new works launched “into the world” include “Nathan the Wise,” written by Paul D’Andrea, Robinson Professor of Theater and English, and “Mariela in the Desert” by Karen Zacarias. Both plays were developed and produced by TFA, and like many others the company has worked on, went on to be performed in cities across the country.

For a full schedule of events and more information about TFA, see the web site.

Write to mediarel at gazette@gmu.edu