FORT WORTH FORT WORTH -- The best way to illustrate Amphibian Stage Productions as a company that plays by its own rules, and has found great success in championing nonconformity, is to realize how it's debuting its new home on the Near Southside.
Most theaters would choose, as a first show in a new space, a work that allows the audience to gawk at the new digs even as it's watching the performance. But the group that began as a project of TCU students chose for the final full production of its 13th season a show -- the first at its new Berlene T. and Jarrell R. Milburn Theatre, renovated from a warehouse that was most recently a nightclub on South Main Street -- that is performed in the dark.
The play is Shaun Prendergast's The True History of the Tragic Life and Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana, the Ugliest Woman in the World, a show that the Amphibian crew -- known as the Phibs -- gave its American premiere back in its fourth season, in 2003. It's a play based on a real-life Mexican woman who was a sideshow attraction because of her unappealing, hirsute appearance. The catch is that it's performed in complete darkness throughout, and the audience just has to rely on sound and dialogue over visual aspects (although there are period-appropriate costumes and a set).
So audiences coming to see the new space will have to wait until the next full production, in the soon-to-be-announced 2013 season, to really check out the theater (aside from the lobby and entrance areas). For the Phibs, this is a big moment in their history, but as per usual, the work itself is taking precedence.
"This is a hard show for the audience and the actors," says Jonathan Fielding, a founding member of the company and director of this production. He was an actor in the 2003 staging at TCU.
"The actors have to be completely truthful and believable with their dialects, and heard. On top of that, they have to grope through this completely pitch-black space and find the right place for their cue and find the right sound effect to make. That said, it's incredibly exhilarating, and something you'll talk about for years. It'll heighten the other senses."
Maybe enough to make you appreciate the new theater the next time you visit. The public had a chance to see the space at an open house Saturday, as the neighborhood on South Main, just across Lancaster Avenue from downtown, is steadily developing with new businesses, such as Stir Crazy Baked Goods.
Amphibian shares a 15,000-square-foot building with The Starr Conspiracy, a public relations and marketing firm.
It's the next and most important phase for the theater company, which made a strong impression in summer 2000 with a revival of Lanford Wilson's award-wining play Burn This. For the next eight years, the company produced one or two shows each summer at TCU, then moved into the Sanders Theatre at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center, where it expanded to three full productions, plus a slate of staged readings at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, a series that began while the Phibs were still at TCU.
"Each of those phases has been essential to us," says artistic director Kathleen Culebro. "We couldn't have started here, or jumped from TCU to here."
Formed in friendship
Amphibian began as a way for friends who had studied theater at TCU to keep in touch. Two of the founding members, Carman Lacivita and Jamie Wollrab, graduated in 1999 and went off to graduate school. Fielding was set to graduate in 2000, and like Lacivita, would be going to Rutgers University next and trying to map out a theater career in New York.
"Fate was never going to bring us together again professionally," says Culebro, "so we thought, 'Let's get together again in Fort Worth.' We picked a show that we knew we could tell well."
And with that production of Burn This, the Phibs emerged as a group to watch.
Because several of the founders (the fifth was lighting designer Chad Jung) would also be working in New York, and Culebro had ties there, they initially decided that, like the type of animal for which they named themselves, they would exist in two worlds: Fort Worth and New York.
For the first half of their existence, they did just that. The summer productions at TCU would sometimes also be produced in New York, or they would debut something in the Big Apple that would come here, such as their early revival of the rarely done Georg Buchner play Leonce and Lena. Additionally, productions that happened in Fort Worth were often populated by directors and actors who were primarily working in New York.
"Once we went to producing year-round [after leaving TCU], we realized that our support base is really here, and they want to see work here," Culebro says. "Fort Worth audiences are not interested in, 'Oh, I'm a New York producer.' Also, it was cost-prohibitive to work there; I say you have to multiply everything by three."
They also started making an effort to use more local talent, and veered away from the company model that they started with, of largely returning to the same actors who were company members.
"It was very limiting," Culebro says. "You get this company and everybody gets excited about being part of this family, and then suddenly you have no roles for some of them. That's hard. Play selection is central to this, for me. It would accept the actors into the company, and rightfully so, they'd be mad that you picked a season with nothing for them in it."
The Kevin Kline connection
But even so, the group still has a stable of folks it comes back to, including New York-based David Miller and Evan Mueller. Also, Fielding and Lacivita have remained in the Northeast, working in theater regionally and occasionally returning to Fort Worth. Lacivita was most recently in this summer's production of Theresa Rebeck's The Understudy, and Fielding was in 2011's Vigil.
Those New York connections have proved to be beneficial.
Fielding is in a personal and professional relationship with Brenda Withers, who co-wrote the comedy Matt and Ben, about Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, with Mindy Kaling, an actress and writer on The Office and the new sitcom The Mindy Project. Amphibian, which produced Matt and Ben early on, is giving a staged reading to Withers' The Ding-Dongs or What Is the Penalty in Portugal? in December.
Fielding, Withers and four Boston-based actors started their own company in Cape Cod this summer, the Harbor Stage Company.
Lacivita, a personal trainer in New York, has had success regionally, and was in the 2007 Broadway revival of Cyrano de Bergerac, which starred Kevin Kline in the title role.
Kline, a film star who has always been a devoted theater artist, forged a friendship with Lacivita, and as a result, became an advisory board member of Amphibian. He is, in fact, billed as the chair of the capital campaign to raise the money Amphibian needs to purchase its new building. (At last report, the company was more than 80 percent of the way there.)
Kline has promised to come to Fort Worth at some point but is currently tied up with filming Last Vegas with Morgan Freeman, Michael Douglas and Robert De Niro.
"He sometimes calls me in the middle of the night," Lacivita says, "wanting to talk about Amphibian. He definitely wants to help."
While raising money for the building, the group has had help with the renovation. Culebro's husband, architect Greg Ibañez, is providing architectural services, and a staggering amount of in-kind donations have helped, including construction and plumbing services, and even the granite countertops used in the bar and concessions area.
"Everyone has jumped on board, because it's not just going to benefit us, but also the economy of that [South Main Street] corridor," Culebro says. "We really hope it's going to accelerate the growth of that area."
The Phibs have become integral to the Fort Worth theater scene, and as of 2011, became one of four Cowtown theaters to have Small Professional Theatre status with Actors' Equity. (The others are Circle Theatre, Stage West and Trinity Shakespeare Festival.)
For Culebro, who has always placed an emphasis on employing trained theater artists, from directors to actors to designers, this was important, even though the group has always paid those involved with its productions.
"There are too many of us who love what we do so much that we're willing to work for free, and that diminishes the value of what we do," she says. "Try to find a musician who will work for free. It doesn't exist. It's because so many think that all you have to do to act is put on an emotion and some mannerisms and you're done."
Growing staff and budget
While the company has grown artistically, it has also grown in other ways. The staff now boasts four full-time employees (Culebro as artistic director, Rebecca Allard as managing director, Natalie Chapa as education associate and Alix Milne as marketing and PR), and one part-time (Melissa Mitchell as outreach associate and events manager). The annual budget is now $300,000. Compare that with the estimated budget for its one-show first season in 2000: $4,000.
"Our years at TCU, you would come to a play and there might be five or six people in the audience. Those were our education years. We were learning how to make a play, that part of it," Culebro says. "When we moved out of that, that's when we learned how to be a business, and not just assume that if you make a good play, people would show up. We really learned that you have to get out there, meet people, network and have your elevator speech ready at all times."
It has obviously worked. Culebro says that with the 2013 season, given that the company has its own space, expect an expansion of programming and some "special surprises."
As if debuting a new home with a play done in the dark isn't enough of a surprise. Or, given Amphibian's penchant for not following the conventional playbook, maybe not.