Playwright Danielle Dresden and actor Alex Roller in "Work the Act."
Can artists make a living creating art? Why is the idea of the starving artist so ingrained in our culture? Are artists who succeed financially selling out? These types of questions are explored in TAPIT/new works Ensemble Theater’s production of Work the Act, opening Thursday, May 28.
Work the Act is the humorous tale of a traveling theater company that gets fired from a Holiday Inn in Beaver Falls, Pa. Struggling to earn a living, the actors reinvent themselves as performance artists. They are surprised to find the new idea is a huge success. “It’s performance art filtered through their Catskills attitude,” says Danielle Dresden, writer and TAPIT co-artistic director. “It’s very Marx brothers, but it’s also about the working life of artists today.”
The play commemorates TAPIT’s 30th anniversary. Dresden and Donna Peckett, who were both performers at Broom Street Theater, co-founded the company in 1985. They began writing and performing in different venues, including the old Civic Center. But it soon became necessary to find a permanent space. TAPIT combines original theater with tap dance, which Peckett calls a controversial and generally misunderstood form. It’s also tough on floors.
“People don’t want you [to tap dance] because it wrecks the floor,” says Peckett, a dancer, choreographer and dance instructor. “I thought, maybe I should buy a place, and then no one could ask us to leave.” She purchased a small storefront on Winnebago Street in the Schenk’s Corners district. She says the area was a “derelict” neighborhood when they took a chance on the space. Thirty years later, the district has completely transformed, and TAPIT’s original plays, 35 to date, are still exploring social issues. Dresden has written all the plays, and past topics have included the AIDS epidemic (Without Pity), the Patriot Act and discrimination (One Wall Missing), gay rights (Questionable Origins) and the Great Recession (Help Wanted).
Work the Act continues in this socially engaged tradition, and even includes some tap dance.
“What shows get seen and where art is hung in which galleries is shaped by economic and political forces and cultural myths,” says Dresden. “We wanted to start a conversation about what’s going on around the real life work of the artist.”
Peckett says she can’t promise another 30 years but says as long as TAPIT exists, she and Dresden will continue to explore social and political topics most theater avoids. The two are currently collaborating with St. Mary’s Care Center and special needs students from Verona High School to write a play about combatting loneliness through creativity.
Performances of Work the Act will take place May 28-June 6 and there will be a special anniversary performance and reception Sunday, June 7, at 3 p.m.