[Author's note: The following was written for TheCurtainbox.com, the Web site for our area's Curtainbox Theatre Company, of which I've been a proud member for nearly a year.]
Recently, Curtainbox Theatre Company founder Kim Furness and I sat down over a glass of wine - all right, maybe a couple of glasses - to celebrate her company's 10-year anniversary. She had recently taken over the directing position for the Curtainbox's latest production, Speed-the-Plow (in the wake of original helmer Philip W. McKinley's recruitment as new director of Broadway's Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark), and during our conversation, was happy to share her thoughts on the company's history. (The David Mamet comedy Speed-the-Plow - featuring Erin Churchill, Dan Hernandez, and myself - runs at the Village of East Davenport's Village Theatre from April 10 through 23, with preview performances April 8 & 9.)
Pizza Man (2001)
"Pizza Man was actually an idea that came before the Curtainbox," says Kim Furness of the Darlene Craviotto play that served as her theatre company's debut. A dark comedy about two vengeful women and one hapless delivery guy, the show was originally produced, says Kim, so she and her co-stars "could get cast in TV stuff. Theatre in L.A. is done mostly to get exposure for yourself so you can become a film actor. Not so much to do theatre."
I met two of the original founding members - Dalia Vosylius and Kyle Bornheimer - in an acting class in Los Angeles, and Dalia brought the script to me and said, "This is a show we should do. We should produce it ourselves and put ourselves in it, and use it as a vehicle to get casting directors to come see our work." So we all got together at my apartment, and in the midst of reading the script and talking, Dalia said, "You know, we should start a little theatre company." And we were like, "Ha ha ha, yeah. Funny."
But I couldn't sleep well that night, because it kept sticking in my head, this thought of, "You know what? We could have a little theatre company. That would be kind of fun." So I asked my husband, David Furness, if he would direct [Pizza Man] for us. And I contacted my friend Allison Francis, who had her master's degree in stage management. And that was it. That was the beginning of the Curtainbox. The five of us.
We rehearsed maybe a couple months, late nights at my apartment, because we all worked full-time jobs during the day. And we rented a little space in Santa Monica, called the Rose Alley Theatre, that was relatively inexpensive, as it should have been. Because it was not a pretty space. It was really a dump. The five of us just pooled our own money, and called our parents and relatives and begged, "Will you send us money so we can do a play...?!" And we ran it for two weekends, and got great audiences.
I didn't like the script. (Laughs.) What we liked about it, and the reason Dalia brought it to us, was that it was very sit-commy, and that's what you're out there to do in L.A. - land a sit-com, or a commercial, or whatever. And the roles were pretty ideal for the three of us. So yeah, it was just a showcase vehicle for us as actors, and it was perfect for that. It is not something I would choose for the Curtainbox now. (Laughs.)
Two Rooms (2002) and Three Viewings (2004)
The Curtainbox's next two productions, and the last ones to be produced in Los Angeles, were Lee Blessing's terrorism-themed drama Two Rooms, and Jeffrey Hatcher's trio of funeral parlor monologues Three Viewings, which Kim had previously appeared in at Davenport's St. Ambrose University. The shows found the company adding to its membership Dave Bonde - director of the former, and co-star in the latter alongside Kim and St. Ambrose professor, and eventual company member, Cory Johnson - and Curtainbox Web-site creator/manager Joseph Janz III, who worked long-distance from Davenport. Kim recalls that despite the creative highs, neither of the company's Pizza Man follow-ups were free of stumbling blocks.
We applied for the rights [to Two Rooms] and rehearsed it, and then right before we were about to open, we got a letter saying we were declined the rights to the play, because somebody else was doing the show 60 miles away from us. And I was in a panic, because we'd already done advertising in some of the papers, and all of this stuff, and so I called the licensing company. I was like, "Look, nobody is going to see this show. Nobody knows who we are. I promise you that, at most, we're going to get 50 people to see this play. Please let us do it." And they were like, "Well, we can't, but we'll give you the number to Mr. Blessing's agent."
So I called his agent, and he got me on the phone with Lee, and I just begged Lee Blessing. I was like, "I promise you, Mr. Blessing, you will hear nothing about this show." (Laughs.) And he was great. He was like, "Oh God, it's fine, it's fine... ," and he let us do it. Thank God.
With Three Viewings, I had done the show once before and loved it. But when I played it at St. Ambrose, I felt I was kind of young for the role, so I really chose that show for me - as a showcase vehicle for myself. Dave [Furness] directed it, and Dave Bonde played the male part. And Cory - who was in it at Ambrose - came out to L.A. on sabbatical, and I said, "Do you want to do this play while you're out here?" And she said yes.
I was able to get the Stella Adler Theatre, which was a black-box theatre right on the Hollywood strip, and had a big sign out front - a fabulous location to be in. We could only get it for one weekend because it was really expensive, but we were like, "This is good exposure." But I remember it was raining on opening night, and in L.A., when it rains, nobody goes anywhere. So we were like, "Rain?! No! No-o-o-o!!!" (Laughs.) We thought we were going to have two people in the audience that night - Kyle and Dalia - but we didn't. We wound up having, I think, 35, and we were in shock.
Three Viewings (2008)
After she and David moved from Los Angeles to Davenport in 2005, Kim began appearing in shows for the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse, New Ground Theatre, and the now-defunct Ghostlight Theatre, Inc. "I sort of thought that was the end of the Curtainbox," she says, "which was really sad." However, after a conversation with Daniel DP Sheridan - who would not only direct the Three Viewings remount, but become both a Curtainbox member and Artistic Director for Davenport Junior Theatre - Kim realized that her company hadn't folded. It was just beginning the next leg of its evolution.
Dan and I got talking about the possibility of starting the theatre company up here, and I was like, "Well, we'll see... ." But he really kind of lit the fire under me. He was like, "No. Let's do this." And so I said, "Well, if we're gonna do something, I'm gonna start with something small, easy, that I know we can do... ." So: Three Viewings. Plus, it's my favorite show, and I'd kind of made the decision that, about every five years, I was going to remount it. Because I love that show and audiences love it.
So we put it up over at St. Ambrose, in their studio theatre. Because I'm an alum over there, and it was June, and I was so close to Cory and Kris Eitrheim and everybody over there, we got right in and were able to use the space.
Daniel is a really good director. For him to come in and take a show that we'd already done - that had the same cast that we had in L.A. - and find so many new things for our characters was just tremendous. It was a great experience. And the reaction that we got from people was just like... . Wow. Just an effusive reaction. I got bombarded with e-mails and people saying things like, "That was so great - when are you guys going to do another one?" And I was like, "Oh my God... really? We're really gonna do this?"
Danny & the Deep Blue Sea (2008)
The idea to follow Three Viewings with John Patrick Shanley's dramatic romance - the first Curtainbox production to be staged in the Village Theatre, and the first to co-star eventual company member Eddie Staver III - was, says Kim, Sheridan's inspiration. "Eddie and I were doing The Full Monty over at Circa, and Dan came to us one night and said, 'Read this script. I want to do this with you two. You'd be perfect for it, it's cheap, there's no set, there's only two people... .' All stuff that really speaks to a producer." And Kim says she loved the script, the process, and the final product... even though the show's rehearsals did give her occasional pause. "You know, Daniel had just gotten done with grad school," she says with a good-natured laugh. "Clearly."
There was a lot of meditative stuff that he'd have us do. One exercise was a 45-minute meditation exercise, almost, where Eddie and I just laid on the floor across the room from each other, and then we'd have to stand up and be in our character, and then just walk around the room with each other, and sort of feel the energy between these two characters. And then he had this wonderful exercise where you walked out of your character and into yourself, and then out of yourself and into the opposite of your character. It was great. I would say it was one of the more developed performances that I've had the chance to give, because he really did make us work a lot.
So we spent a lot of time working on characters - not so much working on blocking, or lines even - and I actually started to get really nervous. Because as a producer, I was just like, "Uh... Dan? Can we block the show? 'Cause we open in five days!" (Laughs.) I exaggerate. It wasn't five days before we opened. But it was close to that! And Daniel was just very adamant the whole time about, "No, it's not about that. It's about the characters and these relationships... ." And I was like, "Aa-a-a-a-a!!!" Eddie, on the other hand, was like, "I love it!" He's like, "This is great! Give me more! What's my motivation?! Let me be a tree!" (Laughs.)
Really, though, working on that show was just fantastic. My husband David did the lights for it, which were beautiful, and it was just this very intimate process with good friends... . And that was the first time we had to add a performance for a show. Because of the sales, we added a Tuesday, and that's when we realized, "Oh, wow... people come out on Tuesdays for theatre! This is great!"
Glengarry Glen Ross (2009)
"I wanted to do a show that did not have me in it," says Kim of her decision to next stage David Mamet's acerbic comedy/drama about shady real-estate salesmen. "I was starting to feel a weirdness about producing and acting at the same time. And Glengarry is one of my favorite shows, and I knew it had a huge cult following as far as the film was concerned." The production also marked the first Curtainbox participation for eventual company members Michael Kennedy and Aaron Randolph III (who performed in the show), Jessica Sheridan (Glengarry's stage manager), Tyson Danner (backstage crew), and Joe Goodall, the set designer entrusted with a goodly chunk of the show's sizable budget.
Seriously, I'm not sure what I was thinking. I was so certain that it was going to make money that I was like, "I'm just going to spend. We're gonna do this right." So it was about a $10,000 show, and there was probably about $1,500 in the bank account. So dumb. (Laughs.) But I was so confident. I knew that buzz was building about our company, and with that show, everybody I had talked to was like, "I can't wait to see that." And I knew it was gonna build the Curtainbox audience base, so I was like, "Screw it, you know? We're doing it."
We were really smart with that one, because we started so far in advance. We were doing it in September and had auditions in March, and we had a huge turn-out at auditions. It think 35 to 40 people. It was really hard to cast because there were a lot of really good people. And [director] Dave Bonde put months of work into it. And it showed. It is still, to me, one of the all-around best productions we've done.
I didn't really know Joe Goodall very well - I'd met him a couple times - but somebody mentioned that he was really good with sets. So I met with Joe. He came to see Danny & the Deep Blue Sea and told me, "If I can be involved with you guys in any way, let me know." So when Glengarry came around, I was like, "You wanna do the set?" And he built the most fantastic set. It was the first show where we really had a set - I mean, like a built-from-scratch set - and it was awesome.
It was also the first time we did three [performance] weekends for a show, because reservations started to come in, and I had never dealt with anything like that before. I was almost panicked - I couldn't keep up with them. So we made money on the show. I house managed, and I watched the show every single night, and I watched the money roll in, and I was so happy. God, I was so happy.
Fool for Love (2010)
"So after Glengarry," says Kim with a laugh, "we were like, 'This is it! We can't be stopped! Let's do a whole season!" And the first of the Curtainbox's 2010 presentations was Sam Shepard's surreal, four-character relationship drama, in which I made my Curtainbox acting debut, and which found a number of Curtainbox members participating off-stage, among them director Bonde, stage manager Jessica Sheridan, and designers David Furness, Joe Goodall, Joseph Janz, and Cory Johnson. "And we actually had a little money to play with," says Kim, despite a portion of it having to go toward the new Curtainbox conservatory located on Davenport's Annie Wittenmyer complex.
Like with Three Viewings, I chose Fool for Love for kind of selfish reasons - May was a role that I always wanted to play, and I knew I was getting on the cusp of being too old to play it, and so I was like, "Yeah, we're gonna do this now." And it was a great piece, and I liked that the show was a one-act and it was short. I'm really big on trying to choose shows that are two hours and under. I feel like audiences today are antsy - they're movie people - and so I don't like to have them sitting for three hours, if possible.
I knew we had Michael Kennedy at this point, who we had just used a little bit in Glengarry, and people loved him. So I was like, "We need to pick something where we can showcase Michael a little bit, too." And Eddie was pre-cast, because I felt it was just a perfect role for him. I mean, his character's name was Eddie! (Laughs.) Plus, we had done several shows together by this time and kind of had a little Kim-and-Eddie fan base, so I thought, "This [Fool for Love] is a good choice."
That was the first show that we actually rehearsed in our space at the conservatory, which was great. But all of a sudden, it was like, "Oh God, now we've got a lot of overhead," because I was trying to pay the rent and heat on a space on top of sinking ten grand into a show. And thankfully, we made money. We didn't make a ton, but we made money.
With David Furness directing, the company's next venture was Yasmina Reza's three-character one-act featuring Aaron Randolph, frequent area actor Adam Michael Lewis, and myself. It was the Curtainbox's first full-out comedy since Pizza Man, which Kim says took audiences somewhat by surprise. To be more precise, "I think people were in shock that it was a comedy. They weren't prepared for a Curtainbox show to be so funny. They howled, and on their way out, people said to me, 'Thank you for doing something light." The show also found Kim employing some cost-saving methods... one of which, she freely admits, did not save on costs.
I went out and talked to [furnishings store] Calla, down in the Village of East Davenport, and said, "We're doing this show, and we need to have an expensive-looking apartment, and we love your furniture. Would you be able to work out a deal with us?" And boy were they wonderful. They not only moved the furniture in and out of the space, they probably gave us $25,000 worth of beautiful furniture, and were happy to let us have it for three weekends in exchange for an ad in the program. They were wonderful to work with.
And I decided, "You know what? If I want to save some money, I'll do the costumes. I will save so much money if I costume the show." Little did I know that I don't know how to costume. (Laughs.) I didn't know where to begin. So I called my best friend Brian, who is a costumer, and he sent me some things - thank God, or we'd have spent even more money. And then I said, "I'm taking the boys shopping." So I got an Express credit card and we went shopping. It was such a fun day.
Except for Aaron. (Laughs.) Poor Aaron. I'm buying really great stuff for you and for Adam; I'm like, "Go try this on, now try this on," and you're parading around in your really expensive suits and looking really snappy. And then I make Aaron bring in some clothes from his own closet, and a couple of ties he borrowed from his grandpa... . (Laughs.) I think I bought him one shirt from T.J. Maxx.
Meanwhile, I spent a small fortune dressing you and Adam. You guys looked fabulous, I have to say, but it did not save me money at all to have me costume the show.
"I had a meeting with Phil McKinley after Glengarry," says Kim of the Broadway veteran who directed her in 2007's St. Ambrose production of Crème de Coco. "And Phil said, 'You know, I'd love to direct something for you if I have a free time slot.' And I thought that was awesome, and the only prerequisite I had was that I wanted to do a show that showcased Cory Johnson." Kim and Phil agreed on Margaret Edson's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, which also found eventual company members Erin Churchill, Adam Parboosingh, and Dianne Dye participating, and wound up the Curtainbox's biggest financial success to date. This despite an opening weekend suggesting the show would be anything but.
At the time, I was doing a show at Circa '21 [Squabbles] and producing this show with a Broadway director, and I was terrified about dropping the ball in any way. But the thing I was most worried about was that we were doing a show about cancer and death in August. And as rehearsals started, I was getting really nervous, because we did not have strong reservations coming in. Even Phil was a little nervous about it. He kept calling every day, "Are there reservations?"
Wit cost about the same amount of money as Glengarry [$10,000]. I was fortunate to get all the medical supplies and the hospital bed and everything for free from Kelly Medical, who were as kind as could be to donate equipment for an ad. But it was a big cast, and there were a lot of other people involved.
So that first weekend, when we had like 20 or 30 people a night, I was like, "Oh God, this isn't gonna sell." And I knew it was a great show, which was what made me so sad. I was like, "This is one of the best damned shows we've ever done, and it's not gonna sell! No one wants to see cancer in the middle of the summer!" But word-of-mouth started to get out. I think that was the big thing. Word-of-mouth about Cory's performance, and Phil's direction, and the show as a whole. And the second week, the numbers started to pick up.
The third week? Crazy. Final performance? The highest-number audience the Curtainbox has ever had. Ninety-eight people. When we got to 85 people, I was like, "Close the doors!" Because I'm thinking about fire codes and all that. But people were like, "You can't! This is the last show - we'll sit on the floor!" And Phil was bringing out extra chairs and stools and was like, "Let them in! Let them in!" (Laughs.)
Hedda Gabler (2010)
For the company's final 2010 presentation, Kim chose Henrik Ibsen's 1890 dramatic classic; directed by Dave Bonde, it was the Curtainbox's first period piece and, at two hours and 15 minutes, the longest in its history. A technically demanding production boasting a number of other company firsts - including Kim's first hiring of an Equity actor (Patrick Du Laney) and her first Curtainbox collaboration with set designer Kris Eitrheim - Kim says, with a laugh, she's most proud that "it was this monster of a show that finished our season and we survived it."
I actually chose that show not because I wanted to play that role [Hedda], but because everybody else seemed to want me to play that role. I remember Cory telling me, because it was always kind of Cory's dream role, "I can't play it anymore, but you can." And other people had said to me, "Have you ever done Hedda Gabler? Because you've got to play that part."
Plus, I knew we had a costume option, because St. Ambrose had done it before, and the costumes that they had fit me. And I thought it would be great to do a period piece where we had the costumes already, which would save us some money. So I was like, "All right. We'll do Hedda Gabler. Done." (Laughs.)
That was, by far, our most technically impressive show. By far. Kris Eitrheim designed the set, and we had period costumes and period furniture - Denny Hitchcock loaned us furniture from Circa - and it all looked beautiful. And I felt that by the end, it was a very strong show. There was a lot of buzz because it was so different for the Curtainbox, and even though it was our first show that lost money, it didn't lose much. It was worth the risk.
But I felt it was a rocky show, particularly for me. It was such a massive role to play, and acting the role and producing the show at the same time was too much. Like, Fool for Love was a one-act, and I wasn't the main character - that was much more ensemble-y. With this one, I was on stage the whole damned time with the exception of the first 10 minutes. So it was this huge role, and a very difficult role, and I grossly underestimated the amount of time that I had to do everything. I wish I had not produced it and had just been able to act it.
After 10 previous productions, Kim is now making her Curtainbox directorial debut with the movie-industry comedy she calls "truly, among my top-five favorite plays ever. For sure. And my favorite David Mamet play. For sure." She wasn't, however, originally planning to helm the production herself, as original director - and newly-minted Curtainbox company member - Phil McKinley had already been working on the production for weeks.
Before the rumors ever started, Phil gave me a little bit of a head's-up that something might be happening. And I didn't say anything at the time, because it's show business. (Laughs.) You know, I thought, "This could all be talk." But then it wasn't. People started calling me and texting me saying, "What's this about Phil directing Spider-Man on Broadway?!" And I was like, "Wow, it really is going to happen." (Laughs.)
So Phil called me and said, "Honey, I gotta be honest with you... ." And I said, "What are you saying, Phil? That you'd rather do Spider-Man than Speed-the-Plow?!" (Laughs.)
Of course, we're thrilled for him. And with Speed-the-Plow, I was thrilled because Phil got to be at the auditions. He got to see the actors when we did the callbacks, and he felt very comfortable with who we were casting in the roles. He'd also done a lot of work on the show before he left, and now that I'm stepping into his shoes, I'm incredibly grateful for that.
I directed this show when I was in college, so I'm very familiar with it. But back then, I was 21, and hadn't experienced a lot of the film world. Now that I've spent eight years in Los Angeles, though, going to many film auditions and TV auditions - and now that I've done several movies and even cast people in films - I'm much more familiar with that world. So I'm ready to do this, and I'll be able to bring much more to it now than I did back in college. If there was ever a show for me to direct, this is the one.
For more information on Speed-the-Plow and the Curtainbox Theatre Company, visit TheCurtainbox.com.