Lending a Stage Hand: Theater of the First Amendment Nurtures Playwrights and Composers

Staging of
Theater of the First Amendment’s “Nathan the Wise” was taped and broadcast on WETA-TV.

By Colleen Kearney Rich

At the 2003 First Light Festival, playwright Mary Hall Surface and composer David Maddox had many questions for the audience that had just viewed the first staging – and singing – of their musical “The Odyssey of Telemaca.”

Surface joined a group of elementary school-age children who were still in their seats and asked them which character was their favorite. Their responses were similar, except for one boy. He liked the bad guy, the scorpion.

“Really? You liked him?” asked Surface.

“Yep,” said the boy.

The yearly First Light Festivals are one resource that the Theater of the First Amendment (TFA), Mason’s resident theater company, provides for artists – the opportunity of testing their work in front of an audience.

While Broadway producers remount new productions of the same musicals year after year, TFA works with playwrights and composers to create new work – spectacular musicals and thought-provoking dramas. As the company approaches its 15th year, many believe it has come into its own and found its niche as an incubator for new work.

“If you want to put it in academic terms, we are the theatrical equivalent of basic research,” says Rick Davis, artistic director of TFA and Mason’s Center for the Arts.

“We offer these playwrights the resources to develop their ideas and put them before an audience.”

Many TFA shows have gone on to major productions in other cities. “I believe we are emerging as Fairfax County’s regional professional theater company,” Davis says. “And we have developed this wonderful combination of stability and flux, which makes the best kind of family.”

And family is often the way those connected with TFA refer to themselves. Over the years, the company has developed a number of long-term relationships with playwrights.

Dianne McInyre and Olu Dara

Last year, award-winning choreographer Dianne McInyre and bluesman Olu Dara returned to TFA to work on the world premiere of a new musical, “Open the Door, Virginia!” The musical explores the historic moments of a student-organized strike in Virginia’s Prince Edward County in 1951 that led to one of the pivotal court cases forming the Brown v. Board of Education decision.

Preparing for
Dianne McInyre works with John A. Stokes on historical accuracy and details for “Open the Door, Virginia!”

“TFA’s relationship with Dianne is an interesting one,” says Davis. “Some of the productions we’ve done with her began as notions, ideas she had. ‘Open the Door Virginia!’ was one of those. They are risks, but they’ve always paid off.”

Paul D’Andrea

Robinson Professor of Theatre and English Paul D’Andrea has also played a critical role in the development of TFA from its earliest days. In addition to serving as an artistic associate with the company, D’Andrea’s play “Indian Love Call ” was one of TFA’s first productions in the winter of 1991.

Following that first year, the collaboration with D’Andrea has continued with the productions of his plays “The Einstein Project ” (cowritten with Jon Klein), “The Wonderful One-Hoss Shay “and “Nathan the Wise. ” “Nathan the Wise, D’Andrea’s adaption of L.E.Lessing’s classic 18th-century play on religious tolerance, has enjoyed continued success. In addition to being nominated for the Charles MacArthur Award for Best New Play, it has been broadcast on WETA-TV and presented around the world. Most recently, it was translated into Italian to be performed at the Centro Dionysia in Rome.

Mary Hall Surface and David Maddox

The award-winning team of Surface and Maddox are currently at work on their fifth production with TFA: “Lift: Icarus and Me,” which will open in George Mason’s Harris Theater on Thursday, Jan. 19. The production is co-commissioned with University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Center.

Mary Hall Surface directing actors
Mary Hall Surface rehearses with actors for “The Odyssey of Telemaca.”

In 2000, TFA presented the team’s “Sing Down the Moon,” a musical of Appalachian wonder tales, which was followed by “Perseus Bayou,” “Mississippi Pinocchio” and “The Odyssey of Telemaca.”

Hall and Surface combine mythical themes with unusual settings. They take Perseus to the Louisiana bayou, Homer’s “Odyssey” to revolutionary Mexico, and now Daedalus and Icarus to turn-of-the century East Texas. By combining a lively musical score, oversized puppets and kid-friendly stories, TFA has been able to provide a theater experience for the entire family.

Heather McDonald

It was TFA’s 1994 production of Heather McDonald’s “Dream of a Common Language,” with McDonald directing, that captured the attention of the Washington, D.C., theater community. Despite previous Helen Hayes nominations and wins, “Dream of a Common Language” was awarded four awards that year, including Outstanding Resident Play.

Several years later the company performed another of her plays, “Faulkner’s Bicycle.” An associate professor in the Theater Department, McDonald has even had her work on Broadway: In 2002, Kevin Bacon starred in McDonald’s “An Almost Holy Picture. ”

All in the Family

“American theater is a large and diverse organism. You could go your whole career and never work with the same people twice,” says Davis. “One of the ways you can advance artistically is through relationships. When you are working with people you know, you can dig deeper, work faster … there’s room for more exploration.

“A good development process is more interested in the playwright than the play,” says Davis of how the company makes selections. Sometimes a work is presented at First Light and never goes on to a full production. Others presented in full production go on to larger successful runs elsewhere.

For its excellence, TFA has garnered 12 Helen Hayes awards and more than 36 nominations over the years. “Mason is making a difference in the American theater,” says Davis. “That’s our contribution to the region and the nation.”

Getting ready for
Kim Thurston works on costumes for TFA’s upcoming “Lift: Icarus and Me.”
Creative Services photos
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