Mason Alumni Create Theater Company That Breaks Boundaries

Posted: September 12, 2011 at 1:03 am, Last Updated: September 12, 2011 at 6:41 am

By Catherine Ferraro

Actors in Blacktop Theatre Company's production “PUN: (n) A Play on Words” from left to right: Kelly Hennessy (Mason graduate '09/Blacktop Theatre Company member), Tristan Griffin (Mason senior), Chris Aldrich (Mason graduate '11), Mark Jennings, Carina Czipoth (Mason graduate '10), Paul Laudiero (Mason senior), Mason O'Sullivan (Mason senior) and David Andrew Knoche (Mason graduate '11). Photo by Andrew Bossi

Do you remember spending hours outside as a child, colorful chalk in hand, drawing countless pictures on the blacktop? The members of Blacktop Theatre Company, one of the Washington, D.C., area’s newest theater companies, are bringing these memories back to life.

The company was founded earlier this year by five ambitious Mason alumni: Patrick Magill, BA Theater ’09; Aaron Fisher, BA Theater ’09; Kelly Hennessy, BA Theater ’09; Andrew Hawkins, BA Theater and BA English ’09; and Christy Denny, BA Theater ’08. All are currently working theater professionals who volunteer their time to keep the company running.

As the name suggests, Blacktop Theatre provides new and veteran artists a “blank slate” where boundaries are as easy to create as they are to erase. The company strives to produce relevant, provocative and challenging works for its audiences in the region.

“The purpose of Blacktop Theatre is to allow the imagination of the artist to run wild. We want artists to feel at home here,” says Magill. “As a young theatre company, our goal is to bring the enjoyment of the arts to the community in the form of witty, yet meaningful productions.”

Initially, the company was created as a way to produce the group’s first full-length production, “PUN: (n) A Play on Words,” for the 2011 Capital Fringe Festival. Held each year in July, the festival provides performance venues for local artists who want to showcase their works. The artists are responsible for self-producing these works, from securing the actors to producing the set and designing costumes.

Fisher wrote “PUN: (n) A Play on Words” in 2007 as a sophomore at Mason. The play takes an interesting look at the struggle to maintain power and status among key words in the dictionary as new words are added. Current and former Mason students filled seven of the eight roles in the production.

Immediately after the play was accepted into the festival, the team began brainstorming ideas to finance their production in ways that would bring the arts to the community. What they found along the way was an outpouring of support from the local community, as well as plenty of friendly faces from Mason.

“We owe a large part of our success to Mason’s theater program, which offers so many opportunities for students to create unique ideas and see them through to fruition,” says Fisher. “Even after students graduate, many of the faculty are right there every step of the way supporting each student’s goals.”

Specifically, the group singles out several Mason faculty who gave them unwavering support in their own ways: Kevin Murray, managing director of the Theater of the First Amendment (TFA), Mason’s professional theater company; Heather McDonald, theater professor and co-artistic director of TFA; Mary Lechter, theater faculty member; Ed Gero, associate professor of theater; and Rick Davis, professor of theater, co-artistic director of TFA and executive director of the Hylton Performing Arts Center.

After launching what is called a “kickstarter” campaign, which encourages donations through a website, the team got the ball rolling with its first fund-raising event. Held in March at theSPACE in Old Town Fairfax, “21 Days to Play” challenged a local playwright to create or revise a script in 21 days. For this event, Hawkins accepted the challenge.

After working on the script, the final performance consisted of a staged reading of Hawkins’ play, “Cliffs,” as well as a session for the audience to provide feedback. Denny helped direct the reading, while Magill, Hawkins, Hennessy and another local theater enthusiast portrayed the play’s characters.

“Cliffs,” a poignant play about the journey of one man’s soul, was a product of TFA’s First Light Discovery Program in 2008. The program provides playwrights the opportunity to develop new plays while working with professionals in the theater industry.

On a high from the success of their first event, the group hosted two more events in May: “Play at Patriots,” a night of fun and games at Patriots Pub and Grill in Fairfax; and “Word Play,” an evening of comedy improvisation held at H Street Playhouse in Washington, D.C., featuring students from the Mason Improv Association, as well as two other local improv teams.

To help produce their fourth and final fund-raising event, the team reached out to fellow Mason theater alum Christina Coakley, BA Theater ’09, director of administration for the Keegan Theatre in Washington, D.C.

Together, the two theaters hosted an event that transported participants back to the fourth grade in “The 1st Annual Blacktop Theatre Company Spelling Bee.” Instead of the standard dictionary list of words, the words used during “The Spelling Bee” were contemporary, D.C.-centric, and, Denny admits, a little bit spicy. Gero served as one of the three judges.

In the end, the team raised about $2,000, more than enough for the production of “PUN: (n) A Play on Words” at the festival. In addition to producing their own play, the group learned some valuable life lessons about business, marketing and money management.

“There is so much that goes into running a business, and I learned to take everything in stride,” says Hennessy. “The most important lesson is that we learn from the things that didn’t go as we expected and to keep moving forward.”

So what’s next for the entrepreneurial founders of Blacktop Theatre Company?

“We’re not sure yet,” says Magill. “We definitely think we have a good thing going here, and we want to continue giving back to the community. Sometimes we can’t believe we’re able to do this, something that we love so much.”

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