Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Well seasoned: TITO’s free-for-all at Maudslay

Theater in the Open has always been a cheap date: The first show of a production is free, the rest of the run costs only only eight bucks. Even a seriously thrifty Yankee  — is there any other kind? — can’t complain about that. Well, not too much, anyhow. But this year it gets even better: All of TITO’s “in the open” shows will be free. That’s right, free. The company, which lives and performs at Maudslay State Park, set their ticket-takers adrift on Tuesday,  after announcing its new season, its thirty-second — and if you can’t find something to cheer about this inaugural free season, well, there’s no pleasing you. They’ll be staging another one of those crazy pantos,  a form derived from ancient Italian improvisational shows that features song, dance, buffoonery, slapstick and audience participation. They’ve got one of those happy-happy Stephen Haley shows. No, not Beckett, but almost as upbeat: “The Flies,” Jean Paul Sartre’s take on Elektra, the Greek tragedy. They’ll also, in classic TITO form, dive into those creepy fairy tales we like to torture our kids with — this one an original adaptation of Grimm Brothers stories written by Port playwright, and TITO alumn, Gregory S. Moss, who has been bouncing around from one production of his works to the next. All of this, and more, for free. Which, of course, just begs the question: Edward F. Speck, Are you out of your mind?

“Potentially out of my mind, I guess,” says Speck, artistic director of Theater in the Open. “You certainly don’t want to discount that possibility in this business.”

He’s joking, of course. Or is he? Because, at first blush, it seems just plain crazy, having a perpetually cash-strapped arts organization — again, is there any other kind? — scraping by in a tanking economy, deciding to forgo ticket sales, its one guaranteed source of income. Granted, Theater in the Open’s situation is a little different because it doesn’t have to pay for its actual performance space, the park, although the state does expect the organization to kick in $21,000 worth of work into on-site properties. And, over the years, TITO has turned the art of putting on a show in, er, a Yankee fashion, as cheaply as possible, into something of a science. “It’s not like ticket sales are paying the bills, for us or for any arts organization,” says Speck. “What we do is not possible without grants and money coming from people who believe in us and what we’re doing.”

But the decision, says Speck, is as much philosophical as it is economic, the idea being that art is not a luxury, but “a fundamental human need,” and by taking the hit at the box office, the company hopes to scratch that cultural itch for as wide an audience as possible. “We’ve always believed strongly in, if not always doing it for free, than doing it for as little as possible,” says Speck. “We want to share what we do with as many as possible. That’s what we do. We want to encourage people to see what we do. We want to encourage people to come to the park — not just to see us, although we certainly want that, too, but also to see the park."

Which is a lovely sentiment, of course, but what about the bottom line? Somebody’s gotta be paying the bills. Where will the cash come from? Well, from the usual begging and money-grubbing — grants, private donations and sponsorships. They’ll also rely to a greater extent on its two major fundraisers, “Maudslay is Haunted,” the Halloween show, and the “Spring Thaw,” a showcase of local talent, as well as the annual holiday show at the Firehouse  — this year a reprise of “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play.”

But the key component here is to grow their audience by getting more people into the Howda chairs, luring them “into the open” of Maudslay for free shows, reaching more folks in the community, not only as consumers of art, but also as students, volunteers and sponsors. The company will also pump up its public profile by taking the show, the company, on the road, like last year, when the company packed up its Cinderella panto, which had already completed its run in the park, to another “open” location — in the Millyard during Amesbury Days — and boost its presence in the schools, expanding the reach of its educational programming, which can incorporate lesson plans, talk-backs, and workshops.

“We’re going to make this work,” says Speck. “The question is how.”

Anyone who wants to help can find information on the troupe’s web or email 

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