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Wednesday, June 29,2011

Bringing contemporary concepts to classic works

Tommy Gomez tackles the TASC of launching a new theater company

by Paul Wozniak

Tommy Gomez does not appear to tire easily. He exudes
passionate, kinetic energy about theater. Introduced to the bawdy side
of William Shakespeare in high school, Gomez took to the stage  to perform with such companies as  the Purple Rose Theatre, the California Shakespeare Festival, Berkeley Repertory Theatre,  L.A. Theatre Works and the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival.


Now Gomez hopes to invigorate Lansing ’s interest in the
classics by bringing together unique interpretations of well-known works
and bringing in established theater veterans from across the country
for his new project, The American Shakespeare Collective.


Even with co-artistic director John
Neville-Andrews on board, there is virtually no comparison between TASC
and Jackson’s Michigan Shakespeare Festival where Neville-Andrews was
artistic producer for 12 years before resigning in 2009. Conceived
jointly by Neville-Andrews and Gomez, TASC seeks to pursue what it calls
“brave new interpretations of the classics … synthesizing the work of
its artists both locally and from around the country.”


It sounds impressive — but what does that entail?


For Gomez, that means providing the space and resources to
nationally renowned artists who wish to produce fresh and daring
adaptations of the classics (not just Shakespeare), exposing new ideas
that traditional productions might not explore.


“All these people have a similar philosophy of theater —
for educating — as a tool for change,” Gomez says. He hopes that through
the productions, the actors and audiences will discover the meaning of
the play


“It’s like good ballet: You get it so thought out and so
smooth that through that you get the message, but it’s not until you
reach that point that something transcends.”


Considering the collective that Gomez and Neville-Andrews
assembled, transcending looks highly possible. Robert Benedetti, Tim
Ocel and MaryBeth Cavanaugh may not be household names, but their
biographies include phrases like “multiple Emmy- and Peabody
Award-winning,” as well as leadership roles at the Yale School of Drama,
Sacramento Theatre Co. and Berkeley Rep School of Theatre.


In total, 12 distinguished names from across the nation make up the team. But they won’t be relocating to Lansing.


 “The
idea of this model is that none of them have to move here,” Gomez says.
“All of these people will live and work wherever they are now, except
me and John.


“When we do a show, one or two of them come (and) be a
part of the show, plus people that are here. The idea is that we’re
hiring both locally and nationally. That’s the collective. There’s not
another model that I know of.”


But there are other professional theater companies in
Lansing, which might make one wonder if the venues will compete against
each other, like sprawling pharmacies on opposite street corners.


Not really. Williamston Theatre executive director John
Lepard explains that while there may be some overlap, each company
caters to niche audiences.


“I think we’re all establishing what we
do best,” Lepard says. “Peppermint Creek (a community theater) does
shows that we couldn’t do here (with) shorter runs (and) edgier work. We
do stuff for a boutique audience that wants the kind of stuff that they
have a feeling they are going to see here (at Williamston Theatre).”


Lepard wants the entire theater audience to expand and
thinks that more theater options could bring in new patrons and jobs for
actors and directors. 


Stormfield Theater artistic director Kristine Thatcher agrees.


“Welcome into the fray, Tommy,” says Thatcher, via email.
“The more the merrier. Any vibrant community, any civilized community
understands, not only how the arts drive jobs, but how the arts add
quality of life.” 


“The population here can handle it,” Gomez says,
expressing certainty that Lansing’s diverse population of white-collar
and blue-collar workers can all connect with the universal themes
present in the classics, including Shakespeare.


“The history of Shakespeare is meant for
all classes of people. I’m as working class as it gets, and I’ll always
be working class. But I still see Shakespeare in my life.” 


Longtime Michigan Shakespeare Festival actor Mark Gmazel offers another perspective.


“If people were to see a real professional classic done
successfully, they would love it as much as ‘Hairspray,’” he says. “I
know at MSF, I always felt like we had to make up for the every bad,
boring, clunky Shakespeare (production) anyone had ever seen — but I am
telling you, with a good or great show, people get hooked.”


TASC’s debut performance is a six-actor adaptation of
“Othello,” focusing on the primary male and female relationships
throughout the play. Lansing audiences can get a taste of TASC on July
18 at a staged reading at Schuler Books and Music at the Eastwood Towne
Center.


Fully staged productions are tentatively scheduled to begin next May.  

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