Stage West unites with TCU on production

Amber Marie Flores and Seth Womack in First Date. (Photo by Evan Michael Woods)

First dates are often exciting and awkward.

Stage West and Theatre TCU are bringing those elements into the spotlight, along with quite a few laughs, as they collaborate on the production of the Broadway musical First Date Sept. 14-Oct. 13 at the Stage West Playhouse.

The show follows a blind date between tightly-wound Aaron and laid-back Casey, as a night of casual drinks turns in to an uproariously high-stakes dinner. Over the course of the evening, this unlikely pair’s inner critics take on a life of their own.

Other patrons transform into best friends, exes, and parents who sing and dance the couple through ice-breakers, appetizers and dreaded small talk as they get to know each other. It is a gleefully awkward evening as these two opposite romantics try to turn a dating disaster into something special before the check arrives.

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“Co-productions like these are fun for all of us who are involved. The cross-pollination of the DFW professional theatre world and the professional theatre training program at TCU is exciting, healthy, and challenging,” said Harry Parker, the show’s director and the department chair of Theatre TCU.

“The collaboration makes it special for everyone producing the show, and we feel certain it will also make it special for everyone who comes to see the musical,” Parker said.

It’s not a first date for Stage West and TCU.

The most recent large project prior to this was The Heir Apparent in 2015, said Stage West Executive Producer Dana Schultes.

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“We work with their talented faculty quite often as well on other projects such a main stage plays and fundraisers. Several of their directors were mainstays for each of our Acting with the Stars benefits,” Schultes said.

“Both Harry Parker and myself were familiar with the show and wanted to work on it. First Date is fun. It’s delightful. The music is memorable. It has a broad appeal. Everyone has been on a first date and can relate to the awkwardness that is found therein.

“Aside from that, the show affords opportunities to showcase our regional professional and student talents. We each brought the idea back to our respective teams and found a big green light at both houses.”

Theatre TCU has also done co-productions with many other theatres in Fort Worth over the past 15-plus years, Parker said, including Casa Mañana, Amphibian Stage Productions, and Circle Theatre.

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The show features three TCU students, Mary Burchill, Lance Jewett, and Collin Rush. Also, TCU graduate Amber Flores stars as one of the leads.

“Working in a professional show as a college student helps me put into practice what we have been learning in college. From being able to memorize things in one rehearsal to just jumping into the process and having to immediately be making choices, it begins to prepare me for the ‘real world,'” Burchill said.

“Another reason this experience specifically is so beneficial is that I get to learn from professionals. The talent in this show is absolutely off the charts, getting to not only go through the process in general but to also go through it with people who do this successfully for a living is like a master class every night.

“Watching how professionals take notes and change things to make it better is a brilliant learning experience and helps students like me understand what true artists look like when they’re working. It gives young students the chance to really grow and learn in a setting that benefits them in so many incredible ways,” Burchill said.

Jewett agreed there is no better way to learn theatre than to get on stage and work, and working with professionals is the best education there is.

“In a professional process, you’re able to learn from actors who’ve been working much longer than you have, and their stories as to how they got to this point can be so different from yours. The professional process is also usually a lot quicker, as directors and theaters aren’t trying to educate through the rehearsal process,” he said.

“Lastly, it’s a great lesson in what a true professional environment is like. Being able to see how professionals conduct themselves in a rehearsal is hands-on learning that has been invaluable in my training,” Jewett said.

Rush said the chance to do this show is something students might not have gotten without stepping off campus.

“Opportunities like this are important because they allow students like us to perform with professional companies where we may not be available for casting because of our schedule at TCU. The co-pros (college-professionals) also give us an opportunity to be a part of shows that Theatre TCU might not do as a part of their regular season,” he said. “We might not have ever done First Date at school, since it’s a cast of only seven, and the musicals are usually larger productions.”

Also, performing at Stage West is something of a personal dream come true for Rush, he said.

“I’m actually so thrilled to be a part of this co-pro because Stage West was where I saw my first professional show in the DFW area,” he said. “I saw Bootycandy in 2016, less than a month into my freshman year, so to be starting my senior year performing on the same stage is such an amazing full circle moment for me.”

Schultes called the production a win-win for all involved.

“First, we get to tap into their talent during the school-year. TCU is a powerhouse of young musical theatre talent. Their faculty is also comprised of an outstanding group of directors, musical directors, choreographers, designers, and more,” Schultes said.

“Second, all of those individuals spend time working with our own team of regional theatre professionals. Networking is a major part of this industry.

“Third, there is a financial benefit because the full TCU team works without monetary pay. This is one of the factors that makes a musical especially attractive as a co-pro. Musicals easily cost Stage West $25,000-$40,000 more to produce than a standard stage play,” Schultes said.

“The co-production opportunity made it possible for us to produce First Date this season. It would have been cost-prohibitive otherwise.

“Finally, the cross-pollination between groups is a great benefit to the community in general. Anytime we, the public, get out of our everyday bubbles and find new groups and organizations to explore and socialize within is a win-win. We need more of that today in our polarized nation,” Schultes said.

Parker said the production allows for a broadening of experiences and perspectives for all of those putting together the show, along with the audiences. He said there is also a practical standpoint for Stage West as musicals are usually more expensive than plays.

“Stage West gets some budget relief on the costs of producing a musical. The three student actors, as well as the director, music director and choreographer (who are all professionals on the Theatre TCU faculty), are working on this project without drawing a salary,” he said.

“TCU theatre students get exposure to a much larger audience, and also get to collaborate and network with a company that includes some of the best professional actors and production artists in DFW,” he said.

Burchill said she learned more about herself and her abilities in the first week working with professionals than she had learned in all of her previous career opportunities.

“Experiences like this are the greatest piece of education you can possibly receive in college. Being able to get professional credits and learn with such talented artists as a young student holds an immense amount of value,” she said. “I, also, haven’t ever played so many different characters in a show, and so this particular role is stretching me and teaching me so much it’s the best learning experience ever.

“It’s also just so fun. It’s the best opportunity ever and I am just so thankful to get to be a part of it,” Burchill said.

Alan Shorter, a music professor at TCU and the show’s music director, said the show would have been difficult to do without the vast array of talent in the Metroplex.

“While the musical focuses on Aaron and Casey on a blind date, First Date also allows the ensemble to play multiple roles and become an integral part of the storytelling. This production allows the actors to showcase the wide array of skill and talent,” he said. “They are far from members of a generic chorus in this show. I’m terribly proud of this cast and what they bring to the stage. I think audiences will love this production.”

Stage West has also done full co-pro productions with Texas Wesleyan, though it has been a while, Schultes said. However, the organization regularly works with staff and students from Texas Wesleyan, along with the University of Texas-Arlington, Baylor, and SMU.

There also is a long history of working with each of the campuses of Tarrant County College, including spending a full summer working from TCC Northwest when the Stage West facility was under construction in 2007.

“Settling on a show for a co-production is usually one of the hardest steps in creating a successful co-production. The show has to be right for the professional theatre’s overall season (in tone, scale, content, etc.), but also provide a few strong roles for college-age actors,” Schultes said.

First Date is a highly appealing musical, filled with comedy and heart, and one which we predict will be very popular with audiences. It’s challenging to produce well, but very accessible and entertaining. So, it provides great training for students, and wonderful showcases for all seven actors in the show,” she said.

Shorter said not only does a co-production show greatly help students on their way to fulfilling their goal of acting professionally, it also give theatre groups access to new talent.

“The relationships also allow theaters like Stage West access to a pool of highly skilled young actors, as well as TCU faculty directors, choreographers, and music directors. TCU student actors take these opportunities very seriously and realize that the entire experience is one that will help prepare them for a challenging and competitive career,” he said.

“Additionally, having a credit from a nationally recognized professional theatre such as Stage West sets our students apart from many other young actors,” Shorter said.

As for the faculty such as himself, Shorter said working on professional productions helps give them more credibility in the classroom with students.

“These opportunities keep us current in terms of professional trends and expectations. Our professional work has a direct impact on how we teach in the classroom,” he said. “We have to ‘walk the walk’ as well as ‘talk the talk,’ “ Shorter said.

Schultes said producing more musicals is one of the focuses for the current Set the Stage for the Future campaign at Stage West.

It’s a $3.25 million, three-year comprehensive campaign which, in addition to many renovations, will result in the finishing of a second space as a flexible theatre that can seat up to 200.

“A theatre of that size would make it easier for us to produce more musicals in the future because we can sell more seats over a shorter period of time,” Schultes said. “For now, we are thrilled to be producing First Date, and hope to see many people in attendance on their first, second, third, or 30,000th date.”

First Date

Book by Austin Winsberg, Music and Lyrics by Alan Zachary & Michael Weiner

Sept. 14-Oct. 13

Directed by TCU Theatre Chair Harry Parker, who last directed at Stage West on An Act of God. TCU’s Alan Shorter, who served as Musical Director for Stage West’s 1981 production of Company, handled the musical direction.

The cast features Seth Womack, and Amber Marie Flores. Others in the cast include Randy Pearlman, Brett Warner, Collins Rush, Mary Burchill, and Lance Jewett.

Set design is by Michelle Harvey, with lighting design by Amanda West, costume design by Aaron Patrick DeClerk, sound design by Mark Howard, movement choreography by Penny Ayn Maas, and props and set décor by Lynn Lovett.

Stage West

821 W. Vickery Blvd.

Fort Worth 76104