Friday, May 11, 2012

New Route Broadens Its Horizons

New Route Theatre and Artistic Director Don Shandrow have created a niche for themselves in local theatrical pursuits as "a multi-racial and multi-cultural theater company that produces new as well as established works that explore the nature of the human spirit in the context of ethical, political, and social choices." The multi-racial and multi-cultural aspect has allowed them to use performers we might not otherwise see on area stages, and to produce works, like Lynn Nottage's "Fabulation; or the Re-Education of Undine," which New Route took on last year, that might get overlooked when local theater companies choose their seasons.

As New Route has so far pursued their goals, they've performed "One Shot Deal" performances -- one night only, in other words -- at the Eaton Gallery in downtown Bloomington. That has meant a very intimate space and limited resources in terms of sets and scenery, as well as where and how the audience fits into the picture.

But this year, New Route has expanded its horizons, moving into a new performance space at the Bloomington YWCA on Hershey Road. The first show in the new space began last week, and continues tonight through Sunday. That first production is Irene Taylor's "Suppos'd to," a one-woman show Taylor wrote to reflect on "the emotional toll of caring and care-giving."

Taylor performed the show as a "One Shot Deal" with New Route last year, and that workshopping aspect (going from the gallery to the "main stage," from one performance to six, spread out over two weeks) is part of the growth arc Shandrow is pursuing with his company.

To get a better idea of how this all came about, I posed a few questions to Don Shandrow.

 Hi, Don! Tell me about the space you're using at the YWCA. Have they done theater or performances there before?

The space at the YWCA is an approximately 1100 square foot room, with orange walls and hardwood floor, that was used as a fitness room. This is the first time that it will be used as a theater or performance space. Because it’s an open space with a ceiling grid, it will allow us to use the theater in different configurations. Eventually we'll paint the room and it will become a more neutral space.

The question you might be asking here is “why a partnership with the YWCA?” The answer to that question has to do with the mission statements and purposes of each organization. We mesh perfectly. I initially approached Jane Chamberlain, the CEO of the YWCA, about the possibility of some kind of joint project about a year ago and it was this summer that I presented her with a season for 2012-2013. We appreciate the encouragement we’ve received from Jane and the assistance from the staff. They’ve made us feel like part of the YWCA family.

New Route Theatre all comes down to our mission statement. I present the mission statement before each show, I remind the NRT Artistic Advisory Board (affectionately called the New Routers) at every meeting, and share the mission statement with anyone who’s interested. The mission statement is what makes us unique and compels us to present material by predominately minority and women playwrights.

My concern is to build an audience that reflects the diversity of this community. I’m attempting to do that by; first, bringing together an advisory board for NRT that reflects the community. Second, by bringing together a company of performers that believe in what we want to accomplish. Third, by presenting material that expresses, with a unique voice, the universal human condition and that we are all one.

We have an ambitious season this year and a committed core of people who share the vision of creating Central Illinois' only multi-racial and multi-cultural theater company. We are planning even more surprises for our 2013-2014 season.

Had you been looking for a more permanent space where you could do more than one night? And were you thinking when you did the One Shot Deals that they would function as sort of workshops for more fully staged performances? 

Our goal, from the first meeting I had with the advisory board, was to find a permanent space for multiple performances. I’m convinced that the timing of everything we are doing is right and everything seems to be falling into place.

The “One Shot Deal Series,” in 2011, served a slightly different purpose than it does now. When I met with Herb Eaton and we decided on the one show per month for 12 months…it was to serve four purposes. 1. To introduce people to NRT on a donation only basis. 2. To create talk in the community about the theater company that was doing a show a month (even if was just for them to say that we were crazy). 3. To create a body of work that people could look at and know that we were serious about meeting our mission statement. 4. To bring together a group of people, audience and theater artists, who felt a sense of ownership in NRT. The first year was to launch the company.

An unintended consequence that I saw early on was that it was also a workshop for trying out material, directors and actors. The “One Shot Deal Series” is a place where we could try out material to fully stage and it continues to serve that purpose. The “One Shot Deal Series” will continue to be held at the Eaton Gallery but will be limited to four productions a year.

The YWCA is now our home and the location of our Main Stage full run season. You have the 2012-2013 Season…it’s a set season and all of the rights have been secured.

Purely as an audience member, I'm hoping you'll do Lynn Nottage's "Ruined" or "Meet Vera Stark" sometime in the future. She's won a Guggenheim Fellowship, a MacArthur Genius Grant and a Pulitzer Prize (for "Ruined"), and yet your "Fabulation" was the only time I've seen Nottage performed in Bloomington-Normal.

Lynn Nottage’s works fit the NRT mission statement perfectly. For our 2013-2014 season we are considering “Ruined.” There is a Nigerian IWU theater major who is part of the NRT Company. She has performed in several of our productions in the past and would be a perfect choice to play Sophie. So I do see more Nottage in our future as well as many other playwrights whose works I’m excited about.

A Look at New Route's New Space

New Route's Main Stage season continues with "Suppos'd to" tonight, tomorrow night and Sunday at the YWCA, 1201 North Hershey Road, Bloomington. "Suppos'd to" stars Irene Taylor and is directed by Don Shandrow.

Next up will be "The Ladies: a Musical Love Letter," a musical revue featuring the songs of iconic African-American female vocalists. "The Ladies" was conceived and directed by Phil Shaw and features Jennifer Rusk singing with David Shields at the piano and Myles Singleton on trumpet. "The Ladies" will be performed June 15-17 and 22-24.

"Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Undine" comes back August 31, with performances continuing on September 1-2 and 7-9. "Fabulation," which deals with the downward spiral of a successful, snobby professional woman who has all but erased any memory of where she came from, is the work of award-winning playwright Lynn Nottage; it stars Jamelle Robinson and is directed by Gregory D. Hicks for New Route Theatre.

"Sunset Limited," a play by Cormac McCarthy, is next on the schedule, running October 5-7 and 12-14.  Phil Shaw will direct this story of a black man who saves the life of a white man who tried to end it all by throwing himself in front of a train. Guilt, responsibility, faith and humanity are just some of the issues these two men grapple with in this combination novel/play/rumination.

Ian Mairs' "Our David" fills the last slot in 2012, with performances November 30, December 1-2 and 7-9. Bridgette Richard directs "Our David" for World AIDS Day, as it involves a tense relationship between neighbors, one a widow who has lived in the same Florida home for absolute ever, and the other a gay man from New York who's moved to Florida in the wake of losing everyone he loved to AIDS. The David in the title is the nude statue by Michelangelo, and the object that brings these two bereaved neighbors together.

Opening 2013 for New Route is Katori Hall's "The Mountaintop," which traces the last night in the life of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Don Shandrow directs performances from February 1-3 and 8-10. The 2009 London production of "The Mountaintop" won Katori Hall the Olivier Award for Best New Play, making her the first black female playwright ever to win that award. "The Mountaintop" hit Broadway in September of last year, with Samuel L. Jackson as Reverend King and Angela Bassett as Camae.

Keep on eye on this page for all that's new with New Route.


  1. Congrats to New Route, thanks for this season announcement, and I loved Suppos'd To when I saw the "One Shot Deal" performance. Irene Taylor is such a fine actress!

  2. I saw Irene's show last night, and I agree -- she is a wonderful actress. I haven't had a chance to write about "Suppos'd to" yet, but I think she is very brave to take on such a deeply personal and difficult subject, and to cut right to the heart of it. Quite affecting, both the words and the performance of those words. It illustrates what is so good about Don Shandrow's concept for his theater company, that it features "voices from the gaps" who otherwise might not be heard.