Arkansas Artists Take Original Production to Windy City
By Stephanie Harte
Photo Credit: Design by Jake Fruend. Photo Courtesy of Todd Taylor
Over 600 miles may separate the cities of Fayetteville, Arkansas and Chicago, Illinois; but these two distinct art communities are about to come together in a unique way.
Block St. Theatre Co., a Fayetteville company started by University of Arkansas theatre MFA graduates, will bring their new production Flamingo & Decatur to Chicago’s Theater Wit this January.
Flamingo & Decatur, written by Block St. Executive Director Todd Taylor, shows the often-unseen world of professional gambling. The dark comedy follows protagonist Jackson, played by Artistic Director Jason Shipman, a down-on-his-luck poker player struggling to stay a float in the aftermath of the 2008 housing crash.
Taylor has a personal connection with the characters in the script, as he lived and worked in Las Vegas as a professional poker player from 2004 to 2010. He says he experienced the good times in Las Vegas while the economy was humming along, as well as the bad times being there during the thick of the crash.
“Vegas is a little bit of its own world,” Taylor explains. “People pop in for the weekend and go to the casinos, but it’s also a city of almost two million people that has its own identity. I wanted to invite people into a world that they are not familiar with.”
Although the official world premiere of Flamingo & Decatur will be at Theater Wit in January, a small group of about 150 people saw an academic production of the show at University of Arkansas in 2013. Of the four actors in the show, three were in this original production. Nathaniel Stahlke came from Ohio, Stephanie Bignault came from Los Angeles, and Shipman came from, of course, Arkansas, to revive their roles.
“When I heard these people were all going to leave their lives and their careers in other places to come to Chicago and make this happen…I just got so excited by that,” says Director Kevin Christopher Fox, who has been based in Chicago for the past 25 years. “I’m really inspired by them for realizing this dream and choosing Chicago as opposed to New York or L.A. They wanted to come here because this is a great theatre town. This is where they wanted to see their play come to life and where they wanted to have success.”
Rounding out the acting ensemble as the newcomer is Chicagoan Drew Johnson, who also coincidentally graduated from the University of Arkansas MFA theatre program. “We kept it in the Arkansas family,” Taylor proudly says.
Taylor went on to explain that without the help of Fox, the Chicago production could not have been a reality. Fox reached out to his connections in order help them get a great production team together.
“Everybody likes to work on new stuff,” Fox says. “I knew I could bring a great design team together, which may have been tougher for them. If I didn’t know the guy, I knew the person to call to get the guy for everything they needed from PR and marketing to a tech director. For me, it was just a few quick text messages, but for a stranger in Arkansas it might not have gone as quickly.”
Taylor and Fox first met through TheatreSquared, a professional theatre in Fayetteville. Fox intially went down to TheatreSquared to act in Theresa Rebeck’s Mauritius, which was directed by his friend Kimberly Senior and casted almost entirely out of Chicago. TheatreSquared’s dedication to producing new work—through ventures like the Arkansas New Play Festival—encouraged Fox to pursue more projects with the company.
“I didn’t move down there, but I commuted down there so much that people thought I had moved to Arkansas,” Fox jokes.
In regards to the upcoming Chicago production, Taylor says he is most excited about getting the original U of A crew back together.
“Getting three of the original four people back on stage to do it again, but this time as professionals, at a professional world premiere in Chicago…that is just super exciting,” Taylor says.
Flamingo & Decatur runs at Theater Wit January 4 - February 15. For tickets call the box office at (773) 975-8150 or visit theaterwit.org