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Stage presence

Tulsa Project Theatre’s “La Cage Aux Folles” was almost not at all

A Tulsa Project Theatre performer awaits a cue backstage at the group’s presentation of “La Cage Aux Folles” // Photo by Evan Taylor

Tulsa has been home to an abundance of community theater almost since statehood. Community theater here continues to evolve, producing some incredible productions and honing some amazing, talented performers and backstage staff.

Only recently has Tulsa achieved an Actor’s Equity Association-affiliated organization. Tulsa Project Theatre is the first equity theater group in Tulsa and only the third in the state.

The Actor’s Equity Association is a union based, professional organization. Anyone who wants to become a professional actor strives for equity status. As an equity member, you get first crack at auditions, and more benefits come after you’re cast. Without equity status an actor may never get an audition with a professional theater.

Professional theater is imperative if Tulsa is ever going to be known as an arts community. 

An actor cannot get equity status until he or she has earned the required number of points. These points come from working in an equity theater company.

As equity theater, a certain percentage of TPT’s actors have to be equity actors, follow myriad strict guidelines, and pay their performers. TPT can merit a performer ‘equity points’ that go toward Equity membership. It’s so attractive to those who want to become professional actors that they travel to Tulsa to be in TPT productions.

Tulsa becomes a destination for aspiring thespians, especially students, who want to make acting their profession.

Professional theater is imperative if Tulsa is ever going to be known as an arts community. Plus, it goes a long way toward helping to bring film projects to Oklahoma if producers know that professional actors are available where the film will be produced.

Any new theater company has certain hurdles to overcome in order to survive.

Ticket sales can’t cover all the costs. Grants become more likely after a theater company is established and can show a few years of success. TPT is struggling with these hurdles now, especially with its current production, “La Cage Aux Folles,” opening March 28 at the Cox Business Center.

Having recently completed a successful Kickstarter program, TPT was able to raise $15,000 in two weeks. An anonymous donor matched this fundraising effort 3:1.

Had that money not come in, TPT might have died.

“La Cage Aux Folles” garnished six Tony awards when it opened on Broadway in 1983, including Best Musical, Best Score, and Best Book. In 2004 and 2010, it won the Tony for Best Revival. It was the only Broadway show to ever win Best Revival twice.

Described as the musical version of the movie “The Birdcage,” “La Cage Aux Folles” is the story of a gay couple who own and operate a drag show night club. When their straight son brings his fiancée and her conservative, straight-laced parents home to dinner, mayhem ensues.

“La Cage” has never been produced in Tulsa. It was a risky decision for TPT. A production about a gay couple and musical numbers featuring men in drag is not the norm here in Oklahoma.

I have been acting and singing in Tulsa since 1986. I’ve worked with almost all of the theater companies in town and I’ve been amazed several times over by the amount of talent here. I served as board president for TPT for the past two years. I became an equity member last year, having performed in such TPT productions as “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” the original “Guess Who’s Coming to Seder,” and “The Rocky Horror Show.”

When an opening occurred in the cast of “La Cage,” I jumped in. I took the role of “Deputy Dindon,” the staunch, conservative politician caught in the middle of his daughter’s love and a drag-show nightclub in which he becomes trapped as he tries to avoid scandal at any cost.

As a cast member, I’ve been able to see talent like I hadn’t imagined before. I’ve always wanted to be able to tap dance, but I lack that gene. In rehearsal I’ve seen men tapping in high heels like they were Ginger Rogers reborn. They couldn’t possibly be comfortable, and yet they look as polished and professional as any performer anywhere.

The acting, especially among leads Patrick Hobbs and Chris Middlebrook, are from the heart. When you watch, you realize that this is not a story about a gay romance trying to endure, but just a romance. How simple is that? Not at all, actually. They just make it look that way.

Backstage it’s perennial director and choreographer Heather Hall Newman, pulling one rabbit after another out of her hat. Kent Dennis returns as music director and will conduct Tulsa Symphony Orchestra members who accompany the production.

Even with a show like this, ticket sales are not enough to keep TPT afloat. Corporate sponsorships are slowly coming in. Grants for arts programs are rare. Youth acting camps are in the works for the summer. The next production, “The Music Man,” is a chestnut that always brings in great crowds.

The future is not yet written, but hopes are high. The success of the Kickstarter program was due in large part to the “La Cage” cast. These actors know how important it is to keep equity theater alive in Tulsa. They spent hours pushing the production on friends and relatives to raise the necessary money. Meanwhile, the TPT board is busily beating the bushes, looking for funding outlets. The members also help backstage, volunteering their time to spread the word, sell tickets, move set pieces, and help with costume changes.