Treasure

Boise Contemporary Theater hits a turning point in its 20th year

Mathew Cameron Clark produced his first play in Boise in 1996. He was just Matt Clark then, an ambitious 23-year-old who became enamored of theater in college. He grabbed his friend and fellow actor Matt Ramsey and produced, directed and co-starred in James McLure’s two-character play “Lone Star” in the basement of The Mode Building.

He maxed out his credit card, sold 105 tickets over two weekends and made enough to bank $23. A minor profit, but it showed Clark that he could find an audience for his brand of theater in his hometown. The next year he founded Boise Contemporary Theater as a vagabond enterprise. Its productions popped up in storefronts, bars and small theaters for the next four years while he searched for a permanent home.

Now, 2016 will mark 20 years of the company, and BCT now is one of the city’s core arts organizations. Its three-level brick building at 854 Fulton St. is a fixture in Boise’s Cultural District. Clark produces a five-show season, the 5 X 5 Reading Series and Family Series, and its reputation grows regionally and nationally with each year. In 2013, BCT received the Mayor’s Award in the Arts for Artistic Excellence.

“I certainly intended to create something that was going to last,” Clark says, leaning forward on his office couch, his carefully honed baritone reverberating in the basement acoustics. “That’s one of the reasons I gave (the company) kind of a boring name, because I didn’t want it to sound like a fringe theater. I wanted it to sound established.”

On stage, BCT’s work has encompassed everything from contemporary classics, such as Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” (2002) to modern masterpieces such as Doug Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “I Am My Own Wife” (2005). Audiences have come to see a growing number of new plays such as “A Permanent Image” (2011), a commission from Idaho’s Samuel D. Hunter, and interactive experiences, such as Tracy Sunderland’s “SuperSecretSiteSpecificSomething” (2015) that took the audience out of the seats and onto Downtown streets.

“It’s been amazing to watch BCT grow,” says BCT artistic associate Dwayne Blackaller, who worked with BCT as an actor when he was at Boise State University, and works now as an actor, director, playwright and head of the BCT Theater Lab education program. “When Matt first started, it was the scrappy underdog. That feeling has lingered, but now the company is maturing into one of the city’s two big companies. It’s fun seeing that scrappy position get taken over by Alley Rep, Homegrown Theater and others who are coming up.”

That maturity is leading the company to a turning point as Clark and his team look to the next 20 years of BCT.

Longtime Managing Director Helene Peterson, 45, departed in June after 14 years, and Clark and his board are conducting a national search to fill the position.

“Helene is remarkable, and she’s done such a phenomenal job keeping this company in working order, and it’s sad to lose her,” Clark, 44, says. “But it’s also an opportunity to find a partner who can help me shape the vision I have and who can help me raise money to make it happen.”

That vision includes an eventual expansion of the building to include a coffee and cocktail bar, cabaret stage and bookstore to better engage the audience. But that’s a few years off yet, he says. The more immediate plan is to position BCT as a larger presence in the regional theater scene as a generator of new plays for the American contemporary stage. This year, Clark and BCT will launch The River Prize, a combination playwright’s residency and fellowship that will facilitate the invention, creation and production of an original play each season, in a deeper way than in the past.

“The idea is to support a play from the very seed of it, all the way through the world premiere and then on toward a second production,” Clark says. “I want to build in the flexibility to be able to choose the playwright and their idea, then figure out how we best serve their process. I’m really excited for how it’s going to help us move forward.”

The prize will start this season, thanks to a leadership gift from board member Susan May and her husband, Andrew Owczarek. Clark plans to establish an endowment that will support the prize annually.

The first recipient is playwright Eric Coble. This will be Coble’s third world premiere at BCT and his first commission from Clark.

Coble’s “The Velocity of Autumn” made its world premiere at BCT in 2011, before it opened on Broadway in 2014 starring Estelle Parsons, who received a Tony nomination for her performance.

Coble wrote the first draft of his new play in longhand at his home in Cleveland. In January he will travel to Boise and spend a week working with actors, a dramaturge, a director and Clark to further develop the idea. Then in March he will again be in Boise in April for the production of the play.

“I’m so grateful for this opportunity,” Coble says. “There’s no greater gift to a playwright, and to be able to do it in Boise, which is one of my artistic homes, is great. And there’s such a level of trust with Matt. Writing a play is like giving birth. It can be really painful. We have a shared language, and I know the people he pulls together will be good. I can relax, and that makes it a safe place for me to create.”

WORK AND PLAY

“I started the company as an actor who wanted to create opportunity for myself and my friends, who all are so talented, and it’s been great,” Clark says.

Clark discovered theater at Whitman College where he majored in English. One day, someone asked him to audition for a play because they needed a tall guy. Clark stands 6 feet 4 inches. He didn’t get the part but he did catch the bug. After that he spent most of his time in the theater department. After college, he headed to Seattle with the intention of going to graduate school for theater but decided he would just dive in and start his own company instead.

“I read this David Mamet book and the one smart thing he said was, ‘Don’t go to school, just do the thing.’ So, that’s what I did,” Clark says.

Then a trip back to Boise in 1995 changed his direction. He met Idaho Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Charles Fee and auditioned for the summer season.

“He hired me,” he says. “I carried a spear for a summer and learned a lot.”

That summer he met Ramsey (who is now a Blue Man in Chicago), actors Tom Willmorth and Joe Golden, Sara M. Bruner, Stitch Marker, Danny Peterson and Lynn Allison Hofflund, to mention a few, and costumer Star Moxley — all of whom at one time have worked with BCT.

In 2000, with the help of his father Rick, who at the time was a commercial real estate developer, Clark renovated the wholesale warehouse into a theater and cultural center. It opened as the Fulton Street Theater, but Clark changed the name to align it with the company in 2007 when he and Peterson successfully ran a capital campaign to purchase the building.

“I think of it in terms of people who dug in and set down roots and it has been paying off,” says Hofflund, who has acted for and had a play produced by Clark. “The purpose has been to look around and pull into their circle people who are committed to this community. It’s been a boon to all of us who want to stay here and work professionally.”

And now that’s still how it works for Clark, even though this circle has grown to include theater artists from across the country. He brings them to Boise to work and play in his theater.

Lighting and set designer Rick Martin works with Idaho Shakespeare Festival and is now a regular at BCT. He first came to work on “I Am My Own Wife,” a co-production with ISF. The experience was so positive, he jumped at the chance to return. He designed the set for last season’s “Fata Morgana” and will return this season for a project that’s still to be determined.

“Here’s where they’re exceptional,” Martin says. “Matt is so good at perfectly matching the scale of the production with the support needed to do what you want. That’s an incredible accomplishment. I feel when I’m working there, there are no limitations. Now, that’s not practically true, but it never feels like a limitation.”

Clark sports a graying beard these days. It somehow suits his role as producing artistic director and now playwright, having co-written four plays with artistic associate Dwayne Blackaller. His office is a clutter of mementos and memories from his and the theater’s past: a photograph of the Parisian cafe Lapin Agile signed by comedian and playwright Steve Martin, a gift for the opening of Martin’s “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” the production that inaugurated the theater in 2000; a cockeyed wooden window frame that was nearly the entire set for “Danny and the Deep Blue Sea,” which Clark produced at Neurolux in 1998. There are posters from past productions, playbills from New York theaters and old BCT programs, a small library of thinly bound plays.

A couple of dry-erase boards and a host of colored markers fill one corner. This is where Clark plots out his season with lists of titles and actors’ names, a column for directors and designers, some slightly illegible notations and, at this point in the process, question marks and blank spaces.

The most recent addition was the title for Coble’s commission “Margin of Error (Or, The Unassailable Wisdom of the Mouse and the Scorpion).” It’s a two-character play about a savvy political operative and his young assistant who are stranded at the turning point of the campaign season during a freak snowstorm in Boise.

Play and playwright

It turns out every playwright’s process is slightly different. Some need space and quiet. Others want to be in a room working with actors by day, writing and perfecting a script by night. Some want a bit of both.

Creating new plays always fascinated Clark. He first dabbled in it in 1998, with his friend Maria Dahvana Headley’s “Drive Me.” He produced a successful run of it at the now-defunct Bacchus Cabaret. The experience of putting something on the boards for the first time stuck with Clark. In the early development of BCT he decided to ease his company into becoming one that would regularly create new plays.

He started by producing the second production of a new play, legendary contemporary writer Don DeLillo’s “Love-Lies-Bleeding” in 2006.

It happened by chance, when Clark met DeLillo while working with his friend, Boise-based film director Michael Hoffman, who was directing DeLillo’s “Game 6” in New York City. The film starred Michael Keaton and centered on the fateful game six of the 1986 World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Mets.

DeLillo and Clark connected through the discussion of the play DeLillo was writing at the time for Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company.

“I couldn’t believe it. He let us do a 5 X 5 Reading of it,” Clark says. “Don was a legend to me. I had a little bit of an inferiority fear, you know, being this kid from Boise, Idaho, who was trying to do this thing. I’d have these conversations with people from elsewhere and they would be like, ‘Boise? Really?’ So, for me personally as an artist, getting that affirmation from someone like Don DeLillo was huge. He said ‘I’m going to come to Boise and we’re going to tell this story. Then, I’ll let this theater company I’ve never heard of — and most people hadn’t — do the second production after Steppenwolf.”

Since then, he’s been on a steady path toward establishing The River Prize, as Clark sharpened his aesthetic for new theater. He produced new plays by a mix of local and national playwrights: such as Boise’s Willmorth and Golden and Michigan’s Brian Quirk.

In 2011, Clark commissioned Idaho-raised playwright Sam Hunter for a Christmastime comedy. It was one of Hunter’s early commissions, just after his debut with the Obie Award-winning “A Bright New Boise.” Today, Hunter is a highly sought after playwright with commissions across the country and a recipient of a 2014 MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship.

“The amount of faith that BCT had in me and my writing at that point in my career was unparalleled,” Hunter says. “BCT was one of the first professional theaters to do my work, and when Matt commissioned me he gave me pretty much total artistic freedom. It was thrilling. At the time I was a relatively untested playwright, so for an organization to have that much faith in me and my work was very inspiring. To find it in my home state was close to unbelievable.”

Hunter’s production was less successful than either would have liked, largely because of timing, Clark says.

“We laugh about it now,” Clark says. “The truth is I asked Sam to write a comedy for Christmas, and he wrote a play in which a mother and father kill themselves. It ended up being difficult to market.”

If there had been more time to develop the idea, or to move it to a different slot in the season, things might have been different. The play is getting more productions that are proving to be successful. But that experience got him thinking of ways to build more flexibility into the play-writing process.

That’s how he came up with The River Prize, inspired by his admiration for programs at New York’s Signature Center. That organization supports five playwrights who are assured three productions of new plays over the next five years.

“We’re not on that level but this is a great way to start,” he says.

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