AD World: Ted Clement of Counter-Productions Theatre Company

tedThis continues a series of interviews where Epic artistic director Kevin Broccoli interviews other ADs in the area to create a more in-depth conversation about theater in Rhode Island. This month’s interview is with Counter-Productions Theatre Company artistic director Ted Clement.

Kevin Broccoli: Can you talk a little bit about how Counter-Productions started?

Ted Clement: Counter-Productions was formed by a group of actors, directors and technicians based in Salem, Massachusetts. Most of us attended Salem State University and had been actively producing theater together for the Theatre Department, the Student Theatre Ensemble and the resident summer stock company, Summer Theatre At Salem. As I’m sure you can imagine, we spent a lot of time discussing what we would do with our own company, and ultimately we made the leap. We staged our first show, Julius Caesar, in May of 2007 at the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown. We moved to The Factory Theatre in Boston for our second show, and we stayed there as residents until 2011.

KB: What inspired a move to Rhode Island?

TC: After several years of operating in Boston, our membership began to branch out, seek new opportunities, even create new companies. During our residency at the Factory Theatre, we were hired to tour several of our shows to the Stadium Theatre in my hometown of Woonsocket. It started to become clear to us that the Rhode Island theater community was starting to blossom, and we decided we wanted to be a part of it. By then I was living in Providence, teaching at CCRI, and commuting to Boston for rehearsals and performances, so it made perfect sense. We decided then to make a permanent transition to Rhode Island.

KB: How have the Providence audiences differed from the Boston audiences?

TC: Actually, our audience in Boston was remarkably similar to our audience in Providence. Our theater was in The Piano Factory, an old mill converted into an art gallery/performance space, very similar to Hope Artiste Village in Pawtucket. It had the same busy, vibrant, creative energy as AS220, which is what makes us feel so at ease in our current home. We generally drew the same numbers as we do now, composed of the same demographic. We have been fortunate here and there to have an amazing relationship with our audience.

KB: I’ve asked other Providence-based ADs this, so I’ll ask you too: What’s the experience of producing work downtown and does that inspire the work you do?

TC: When I was kid in Woonsocket, I imagined myself making theater in this exact location. My first trips to Trinity Rep and PPAC are burned in my memory. The creative energy in Providence is remarkable. As a resident company at AS220, we’re right in the center of the action. We’re surrounded by every kind of art form you could possibly imagine. This excitement that we all feel about producing theater downtown feeds our creativity. It is a literal dream come true.

KB: What are the factors in choosing a season? What’s on your mind when you’re in the middle of that process?

TC: To be honest, we have no specific company mission other than to create plays that we can be proud of. We have no set parameters when we choose a play, other than asking if it moves us or not. We are open to every world in our story telling, every genre, style or period. We try to maintain as organic a selection process as possible, allowing our collaborators, our environment and our interests to guide us. We are always open to suggestions from directors, performers and designers who have a passion for a particular show, as long we’re able to share that passion and we believe we can accomplish the work successfully.

KB: As someone who works in the academic field, what does education in the theater mean to you, and how does it fit into the work CPTC does?

TC: As a first generation college graduate, higher education is a huge priority in my life. It was my salvation from a total lack of professional self-determination. It gave me the knowledge and the credentials I needed to be a theater maker for a living. As a teacher, I’ve been afforded the opportunity to share that life-changing experience with a growing list of aspiring artists. As an artistic director, I’ve been able to further that experience for my students by inviting them to participate in our company’s work, sharing the process with the many excellent professional artists who work with us. This, in turn, introduces them to our peers in the other theater companies, allowing them to broaden their experience and their connections. The success of this endeavor is evident in the presence of many of my current and former students working on multiple productions in companies around the state.

KB: I know you love documenting a process through photos, and your shows always have a very polished and detailed look to them.  What goes into figuring out the look of a show and how it should come across visually?

TC: I love social media, particularly as a tool to document and share the creative process. For me the art begins at the read-through, and continues until strike. Photographs and social media allow us to share our work with our audience throughout the process and give us a detailed account of the journey. If you work on one of our shows, in any capacity, you leave with a detailed record of your experience.

As for achieving a polished look, we make as concerted an effort as possible to create a clearly articulated world on stage. We do everything we can to enable the audience’s suspension of disbelief. We’re committed to truthful storytelling. We are fortunate to have had dozens of amazing collaborators at the table throughout our history to make that happen.

KB: CPTC is based at 95 Empire, a space with a lot of great history. It’s also a very intimate space. Do you ever find yourself challenged by the size of the space you’re working in?

TC: The Callan Studio Theatre at Salem State is where I became a director. It’s a tiny black room in the basement of an old building. It’s a very simple space with complicated sightlines and limited capacity, but to me it was the perfect canvas to paint with. The intimacy of such a small room causes you to be immersed in the play. The closeness you feel to the actors, because of your actual proximity to them, is profound. The AS220 Blackbox is a great room for theatre. It has a great spirit. We’ve only begun to explore the ways that it can be configured for performance.

KB: For years 95 Empire was the home of Perishable Theater, which was always known as a place to find edgy and innovative work. I would describe your work the same way. Do you make an effort to produce shows that are edgy, or are you just drawn to that naturally?

TC: We have no agenda in our choices other than creating a season of excellent storytelling. We choose the plays that appeal most to us and our collaborators, and we hope they appeal to our audience. We enjoy the freedom that our “small theater” status affords us. This independence allows us to express ourselves openly through challenging or “edgy” material and engage the audience in sometimes uncomfortable subjects and situations.

KB: You’re lucky enough to have a great executive director, who also happens to be your wife.  Oftentimes, the business people are the unsung heroes of theater.  Can you talk a little bit about what she’s brought to the company?

TC: Dr. Christine Fox is my hero. She’s a full professor, a program coordinator, our executive director, and producer of each of our shows. Christine has been involved in the theater since her days at Bay View Academy as a performer in the Bay View Players. She worked on production crews with Professor Pat Sankus as a student at Stonehill College. She has a life-long relationship with the theater as a viewer and a creator.

Christine joined the company in December 2011. In 2012, she produced our first show following our move to Rhode Island, Cabaret: The Musical, at the Stadium Theatre. As producer, she brings a supportive hand to each play that allows all collaborators to feel safe in the process.

As executive director, Christine brought order to the chaos that was Counter-Productions Theatre Company. She has created a remarkably organized business structure.  She negotiated and secured our residence at AS220, and maintains our institutional relationships perfectly. In plain terms, she’s the brains behind this operation.

On a personal note, making art with my one true love is the most amazing part of my life.
She’s everything.

KB: What other artists or works of art inspire you?

TC: My favorite painter is Diego Rivera. His murals are incredible. His images are so emotional. My favorite writer is Neil Gaiman. I love his irreverent deconstruction of gods and mythology. He’s brilliant and funny and sad in equal measure. I read everything he writes. My favorite musician/singer/performer/poet is Amanda Fucking Palmer.

KB: Can you talk to me a little bit about the final show of your season—Kill the Virgin?

TC: You wrote a badass absurdist play about horror cinema. Essentially a self-aware heroine trapped in a teenage hacker/slasher film. It’s a deconstruction of a film genre that I have always loved and feared in equal measure. It’s fast and dynamic, with great characters, and a very clever plotline. 
We will be staging the world premiere of this bloodbath in May. We plan to be as bloody and gory as the genre it explores. This show is not for the faint of heart.
We open on Friday the 13th.

KB: What brought about the creation of your X Minus One series?  It’s a very unique recurring project.

TC: X Minus One is a radio-era science fiction program in the style of “The Twilight Zone” or “The Outer Limits” that exists in the public domain. It was introduced to us by one of our founding members, Brian McCarthy. His father, who grew up listening to them on the radio, had most of the episodes on tape. Brian spent years listening to them with his dad. We produced our first fully staged installment of an evening of three episodes during our second season, titled X Minus One. The stories are full of alien invasions, death rays and evil geniuses. Also known as everything awesome. We enjoyed the experience so much that we’ve revisited the program every other year since. We’ve done Journey To The Heart Of X Minus One, Return To Planet X Minus One, and most recently, Atomic Bride Of X Minus One.

KB: What are your goals for the company in the future?

TC: Continued growth in our artistic process. New opportunities to work with other artists. A more aggressive effort to develop new plays by local artists through a stage reading workshop process, ultimately leading to full production. Increased collaboration with our peers in the ever-growing Rhode Island theater community.