A 'Gruesome' introduction to self-producing live theatre

by John Moore | Jul 29, 2015
DCPA Teaching Artists Mackenzie Sherburne and Kevin Lowry in Passage Theatre Company's 'Gruesome Playground Injuries.'
Self-producers and stars Mackenzie Sherburne and Kevin Lowry in 'Gruesome Playground Injuries.' Production photos by Eli Carpenter.

Creating live theatre is hard enough. Creating and self-producing live theatre can be gruesome.

Local theatre lore is filled with horror stories of, say, those married parents who refinanced their home to produce a play – and lost it.

Kevin Lowry (Instructor) Mackenzie Paulsen (Instructor) The Denver metro theatre community has about 35 companies that stage full annual seasons of theatre programming. Twice that many are nomadic troupes that pop up whenever they scrape together the resources to put on another play.

Then there are those naïve and noble creative souls who decide to form a company to stage a specific play from scratch. They have no money, no theatre space, no equipment and, most dauntingly - no audience.

They pool their meager financial resources. They beg, borrow and steal from their artistic brethren. And they put on a show. It’s a romantic and often financially suicidal creative pursuit. They almost always lose their shirts. Along with next month's rent.

And they almost never regret it.

That is just what DCPA Teaching Artists Mackenzie Sherburne and Kevin Lowry are undertaking right now by self-producing Rajiv Joseph’s Pulitzer-nominated play Gruesome Playground Injuries through Aug. 9 in a developing multimedia arts warehouse in LoDo. The play is a series of vignettes that trace the accident-prone relationship between two friends from age 8 through 30.

This whole self-producing thing is going to leave some scars. And they know it.

“We know we are going to lose money,” Sherburne said. “We just hope we don’t lose too much money.”

So why do they do it? Not just Sherburne and Lowry ... but generations of foolhardy artists who have come before them?

“When I found the play, and I showed it to Kevin, we couldn’t not do it,” Sherburne said. “When you get to be a part of something that you wholly believe in with every fiber of your being because it is raw and real and challenging as an actor - you just have to do it.”

Social media sites such as Kickstarter have long emboldened generations of broke artists like Sherburne and Lowry. By starting an online giving campaign, you give your friends and families a chance to buy into your dream.

Sherburne and Lowry initially drew up a budget of $7,000 for Gruesome Playground Injuries. They would share the risk equally. For two actors whose sustenance is teaching summer classes to DCPA student campers, $3,500 may as well have been $1 million. So by the time they took to the Internet, they had cut their expenses to a bare-bones $2,500. When the deadline came, the new Passage Theatre Company had raised exactly $2,520 from 71 backers. And thanks to them … the show has gone on.

It's just that at one performance last weekend, it went on for five people.

The playwright Rajiv Joseph is one of America’s most celebrated – and varied – writers of the moment. He penned the sweeping Iraq war play Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo (which starred Lowry in a recent production at the Edge Theatre) as well as the football film Draft Day. He also wrote for the TV show Nurse Jackie.

Sherburne has appeared in several productions for the DCPA Theatre Company, including one Hamlet and two A Christmas Carols. She has understudied for several more, and performed for off-center @ The Jones productions of Perception and DATE. Their Gruesome director, Josh Hartwell, is also a longtime DCPA teaching artist who recently mentored high-school students participating in DCPA Education's statewide teen playwriting workshops.

Mackenzie Sherburne quote

Here are more excerpts from our conversation with Sherburne about "Gruesome Playground Injuries":

John Moore: Have you essentially created Passage Theatre Company just to put on this play?

Mackenzie Sherburne: Yes, we created the theatre company because we love this play and wanted to work on it.

John Moore: Why the name “Passage”?

Mackenzie Sherburne: We liked the versatility of that word. It not only refers to passages of writing that inspire us, but also to the power that comes with going through transitions in your life. Gruesome Playground Injuries is all about big transitions and how they shape who we are.

John Moore: So what all is involved with creating your own theatre company, as opposed to simply renting space from an existing company like, say, the Aurora Fox?

Mackenzie Sherburne: When you go out on your own, the first thing you have to do is go through the licensing company and obtain the rights to perform the play. Because we were starting from scratch, our next step was creating our Kickstarter campaign. Once you get funded, then you go out and hire a creative team who can work on a shoestring budget. That includes directors, designers and production personnel. Then you have to find a place to rehearse, and an affordable space to perform the play – which is almost never the same place. Then you take press photos for the media coverage you hope you are going to get. Then you partner with local theatres for props, costumes, chairs, set pieces, marketing, press releases, setting up a way to sell tickets and more. Not to mention rehearsing, memorizing lines and getting the show on its feet.

John Moore: At so at this point, what is your financial risk to self-produce this play?

Mackenzie Sherburne: Worst-case scenario: We will have to pay for anything over the ($2,520) we raised in our Kickstarter campaign. In that case, we will likely not put on another show as the Passage Theatre Company. Best-case scenario: We will be able to break even and pay our designers and those people who have generously donated their time to this project.

John Moore: But realistically, no one is expecting to get paid?

Mackenzie Sherburne: The stage manager is being paid. And we paid to have our set built. But everyone else involved, including our director, Josh Hartwell, is donating their time.

John Moore: You crazy artists.

Mackenzie Sherburne: Right? When does a doctor ever say, “Yeah, I’ll do it for you because it will look good on my resume"? That never happens. This is a labor of love for everyone involved.  

John Moore: So tell us about this non-traditional space where you are staging this play.

Mackenzie Sherburne: The Bakery is an intimate performance space near Coors Field. Please let people know there are no more Colorado Rockies home games on any of our remaining performance nights. There isn't a bad seat in the house and, thanks to The LIDA Project, we have transformed it into a beautiful little black-box theatre.

John Moore: The LIDA Project is the late, lamented experimental theatre company that closed at the end of last year. How did they help?

Mackenzie Sherburne: Brian Freeland donated risers and chairs so the audience could have a place to sit.

John Moore: So what is it about this particular play that makes it worth all your trouble?

Mackenzie Sherburne: I love how it captures the way love and pain co-exist and thrive off one another.  It is not a typical love story by any means, and I love that about it.  

John Moore: And what’s so Gruesome about Gruesome Playground Injuries?

DCPA Teaching Artists Mackenzie Sherburne and Kevin Lowry in Passage Theatre Company's 'Gruesome Playground Injuries.'  Mackenzie Sherburne: You watch two 8-year-olds find an odd commonality - a fascination with pain – that unites them throughout their lives, despite the world spinning out of control around them. And you watch them grow and fall in and out of love for 30 years. Ultimately, you are left wondering at the end of the play what happens to them. It is a real love story, with all of the scars and bruises to prove it.

John Moore: Tell us more about that title.

Mackenzie Sherburne: Each scene begins with some sort of injury. Some are physical, some are psychological - and they get progressively more harmful as the play goes on.

John Moore: What do you think it ultimately has to say about why we hurt ourselves?

Mackenzie Sherburne: That pain can rip us apart - and bring us back together.

John Moore: You and your team have some pretty deep ties to the DCPA. Who else is helping you out?

Mackenzie Sherburne: We were given a great amount of advice and guidance from Director of Education Allison Watrous and Technical Director Stuart Barr. We also got help with our marketing from Brianna Firestone and Hope Grandon. And we have had tremendous help getting the word out from the entire summer-camp faculty.

John Moore: So what have you learned from all of this? 

Mackenzie Sherburne: I was surprised by how many people it took to get it this thing on its feet. So many theatre companies and individual people have stepped up and donated their time, their counsel, their skill or their labor. Most of all, this whole thing has made me appreciate any theatre that has any butts in its seats … ever.

Gruesome Playground Injuries: Ticket information
Presented by Passage Theatre Company
Written by Rajiv Joseph
Plays through Aug. 9
Where: At The Bakery, 2132 Market St. Denver, 80202
Times: 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays through Aug. 9
Cost: Tickets are $20
Purchase online at www.passagetheatre.com or 720-979-8486

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  1. Chris Faith | Dec 29, 2015
    Loved this article. I have written a play titled "Who's Gonna Save the World". It's about an inventor named "Bitwiddel Sidestep Quadrilateral". I have been "signed" by two producers that couldn't raise any money. I'm beginning to think the only way to get it produced is to fund it myself, which I can afford. The main problem is that I don't have the contacts to make it happen. Good luck with all your projects

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    John Moore
    John Moore
    Award-winning arts journalist John Moore has recently taken a groundbreaking new position as the DCPA’s Senior Arts Journalist. With The Denver Post, he was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the US by American Theatre Magazine. He is the founder of the Denver Actors Fund, a nonprofit that raises money for local artists in medical need. John is a native of Arvada and attended Regis Jesuit High School and the University of Colorado at Boulder. Follow him on Twitter @moorejohn.

    DCPA is the nation’s largest not-for-profit theatre organization dedicated to creating unforgettable shared experiences through beloved Broadway musicals, world-class plays, educational programs and inspired events. We think of theatre as a spark of life — a special occasion that’s exciting, powerful and fun. Join us today and we promise an experience you won't soon forget.