It's doubtful anyone needs to be told that launching a new theatre company - particularly in an area already rife with theatre companies - can be a risky venture, which is likely why Quad Cities-based organizations have tended to debut with relatively low-risk offerings. In 2008, the Harrison Hilltop Theatre chose to stage, as its first production, David Auburn's intimate, four-character drama Proof; a week later, the Curtainbox Theatre Company arrived on the scene with Three Viewings, a trio of Jeffrey Hatcher monologues.
And what is Davenport native Nathan Porteshawver, the founder of the Internet Players, presenting for his new theatre company's debut offering? An original drama that Porteshawver himself wrote.
With a cast of 17 actors.
And nine musicians.
"I have other plays that have fewer characters in them," says Porteshawver of the decision to premiere his large-scale drama The Tragedy of Sarah Klein, running September 16 through 26 at Davenport's Nighswander Theatre. "And plays that aren't quite as ambitious as this one. But in order to get our name out there, I wanted to really show the capacity of the Internet Players. It's an idea that I have big plans for."
A 2009 graduate of Brandeis University with degrees in theatre arts and politics, the 24-year-old Iowa City resident explains that his notion for the Internet Players stemmed from his experiences as a fledgling author. "I know that 'overnight success,' as a playwright, generally means '20 years,'" Porteshawver says with a laugh. "But you need to build experience. So what do you do in the meantime? How do you get shows produced?"
His idea, as the name suggests, was to create a company that would employ the resources of the Internet, providing theatre artists with a Web site (TheInternetPlayers.com) where they could submit original works for production consideration. After a particular stage piece was chosen, playwrights and other theatrical talents - such as Tennessee composer Tony Hartman, who wrote the original score for Sarah Klein and serves as the play's music director - would then be brought in to work on the show and, as Porteshawver says, "have the opportunity to really get their hands dirty with a script.
"So this company," he continues, "is a way for me, and people like me, to expedite the production process. We can use the Internet as a paper-less resource to find playwrights, to find production-crew people, to find actors, to find musicians ... . To find whoever we need, bring them to a central location, and produce their work."
The Internet Players' board of directors includes Wally Chappell (the former director of the University of Iowa's Hancher Auditorium), Tara Barney (the CEO of the Quad Cities Chamber), and playwright Will Chalmus, and in describing the type of material the company is seeking, Porteshawver says, "We're looking for thought-provoking plays. New and original works by people who are highly motivated, driven, and have a huge desire to get their plays produced." He adds that it made sense, then, for the company's trial production to be one of his own works that had yet to be staged.
"We're just getting started," says Porteshawver, who also serves as Sarah Klein's director, "and I knew it would be hard to find a play out of the blue, when we're just getting our name out there. So I just said, 'Okay, it has to be one of my plays, so let's give this one a try.'" (Regarding the choice to debut with a piece that he wrote and directed, the Internet Players' founder insists, "It really is about getting our name out. It's not about Nathan Porteshawver and his play.")
Concerning an up-and-coming CEO struggling with professional and family obligations, The Tragedy of Sarah Klein is, according to its author, "a call to step up and take on the difficult issues we face on a daily basis. You know, we have this urge in us to make money and to be successful, but we also have this urge to love and feel loved and feel comfortable at home. And when you're busy all the time, it's hard to find that balance. So the play, in a nutshell, is about that balance."
Yet his description doesn't hint at Sarah Klein's many stylistic flourishes. "The play takes place in Illyria," says Porteshawver, "which is a mystical land that playwrights have used many times throughout history to show dystopia. So the play's very dream-like, and has music that's adding a 'dream feel' to it; at times, characters are being moved by the music, and at other times, they're purposely at opposition with that music."
Adding to the ambitious nature of the work is the characters' tendency to speak in a verse style that Porteshawver calls "impossible to describe. It's a mix between poetry and almost a David Mamet-esque writing - something that hits on the realism within the poetry. You know, when you have ideas and try to communicate them, the words don't always come out the way they sound in your head, so we're trying to be true to that."
He laughs. "It's a very surreal kind of thing we're going for."
Helping bring this surreal world to life are set designer Kelsey Nagel, a graduate of Oklahoma City University, and lighting designer - and Davenport Junior Theatre Artistic Director - Daniel D.P. Sheridan, who says he was impressed by Porteshawver, and his theatrical concept, from the start.
"For me, as both a designer and a producer of theatre of late, I'm really excited about this opportunity for the area to stage some new work," says Sheridan. "Nathan has a lot of energy and a lot of charisma that's extremely contagious, and he kind of propels people around him to want to be involved.
"And one of the things that's exciting about it," he continues, "is that all the people involved are from all over the theatre community." With Sarah Klein's cast members and designers including veterans of numerous productions at Genesius Guild, the Playcrafters Barn Theatre, Quad City Music Guild, and venues in Iowa City, "Nathan has really broken those boundaries a little bit, and considering the production challenge of bringing together all those people - given the fact that most theatre artists around here have full-time jobs - it's being managed extremely well. You have to have ambition not to burn out on such an ambitious project."
"It's ridiculous how great the theatre community is in the Quad City area," says Porteshawver. "and how the area is somehow full of good actors. I knew that going to college - my influences from this area were partly what made my college experience a success - but coming back was even more of a shock, because things had grown even from that time. So the Internet Players would like to join the ongoing effort of bringing theatrical attention to this area.
"For the dream to become a reality, it's going to take a lot of work, but I really don't have any other options," Porteshawver adds with a laugh. "This is what I'm interested in doing, so I've gotta do it."
The Tragedy of Sarah Klein is being staged at the Nighswander Theatre in the Annie Wittenmyer Complex (2822 Eastern Avenue) September 16 through 26, with performances Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15 for adults and $10 for students and seniors, and reservations can be made by calling (563)383-6089 or visiting TheInternetPlayers.com.