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Red Thread: A New Theater Company

Clockwise from top left: Tina Rausa, Eileen Dugan, Kelli Bobcock-Natale, Josephine Hogan

The arrival of a new theater company is a fairly regular event on the Buffalo theater landscape. New theaters come; some linger; some go.

What makes the arrival of Red Thread Theatre interesting is the names of the personalities involved. This is not a crew of newly graduated theater students from a local university. This is not a ragtag collection of theater hopefuls, producing a vanity production because every other theater is a closed shop. The founding members of Red Thread are among the most prominent and frequently employed theater practitioners in Buffalo: Eileen Dugan, Colleen Gaughan, Josephine Hogan, Kelli Bocock-Natale, and Christina Rausa.

Dugan is one of Buffalo’s most highly regarded leading ladies, and frequently appears at the Kavinoky and at Shakespeare in Delaware Park.

Known for solid realistic performances and for not flinching in the face of onstage emotional intensity, Gaughan is often seen at the Irish Classical Theatre Company.

Hogan is Irish Classical’s artist in residence, and has appeared in a huge range of classical and contemporary plays on that stage.

Bocock-Natale has a dual career as first-rate character actor and director—having enjoyed numerous opportunities in both pursuits—from Irish Classical, to Buffalo United Artists, to MusicalFare—and has won Artie Awards for both acting and directing, for musicals and dramas. (All of these ladies have been nominated for and/or have won Arties.)

Rausa is Buffalo’s mistress of the one-woman show, and has appeared prominently with Jewish Repertory Theatre of Western New York in recent years.

The stated mission of Red Thread is “to present productions of the highest quality aspiring to expand the horizons of audiences and artists alike, thus enriching our community and our world through the art of theatre.” One might also suspect that an underlying mission of the company is to gain the ability to choose their own roles and directing assignments.

For while these women work often, the most prominent theaters here tend to be veritable boys clubs, and even the Dugans and Hogans among us must wait to see what roles are being doled out each season. Not only are they obliged to select from what is offered, they always run the risk that there will be nothing for them—or nothing especially interesting.

There is a great history of female actor producers in this country for precisely this reason. Laura Keene was the first—it was her company that played Ford’s Theatre the night Lincoln was shot. Katharine Cornell became the First Lady of the American theater by producing her own vehicles as well.

“Red Thread,” I am told, refers to the Asian myth of the red thread of fate that invisibly connects those destined to meet—usually in a romantic context. In Buffalo, a city with only two degrees of separation, we would seem to exist in a tangle of red thread. This particular tie has destined these prominent theater professionals to work together on this venture.

The first show up at Red Thread, which will perform at the New Phoenix Theatre, was obviously chosen for its plumb acting opportunities. In Catherine Hayes’ Skirmishes, a senile old woman lies on her deathbed, attended by two married middle-aged daughters who have never liked each other. With their mother dying, the two women, one the constant caregiver, the other who escaped long ago, ruminate over their bitter memories and grudges. Dugan and Hogan will play the daughters, while another prominent Buffalo actor, Kathleen Betsko-Yale, will play the mother. Bocock-Natale is directing the production.

Skirmishes was first performed in England in 1981, where it received high praise for a script that seemed to be headed in predictable directions, but catches its audience off-guard with the insight and skill of the writing. The play made its New York debut at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1983, with a production that was celebrated for the outstanding performances of the actors, who reportedly carried Hayes’ witty and haunting script with remarkable dexterity. Frank Rich of the New York Times wrote, “If this 90-minute, intermissionless play occasionally repeats itself, not a line of it is false or lacking in compassion. The sisters’ arguments are not manufactured histrionics; they rise and fall out of a natural continuing conversation. Miss Hayes uses little forced exposition and springs few surprise revelations. She makes us feel that we have been transported directly into the heart of the play’s family, even to the point where we feel we know the two offstage husbands.”

Despite this glowing attention, Skirmishes (and Catherine Hayes) fell off the radar. The women of Red Thread are providing the play with a local resurrection.

Skirmishes will run February 4-27. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm. (The first three Thursday performances are pay-what-you-can.) For ticket reservations and further information call 716-853-1334.

A Theater Clsoes

With the closure of Studio Arena still a painful memory in Buffalo, nobody needs to be told that theater can be a brutal business. The startling closure of one of America’s most prominent and historic resident regional theaters this week, the Pasadena Playhouse in California, comes as a sad reminder—and many details of the story will sound familiar here.

The official state theater of California, the Pasadena Playhouse is more than $2 million in debt, with about $500,000 due immediately. Unable to make accounts payable, the theater will cease operations on February 7, after the final performance of its current offering, Camelot. Thirty-seven employees will be laid off, and the board is exploring the possibility of filing for bankruptcy.

The theater had carried some of this debt for years, but the economic recession made fundraising more difficult and exacerbated inconsistencies in the balancing of revenue and spending. The theater’s 7,000 subscribers may never be reimbursed.

With an annual operating budget of around $8 million, the Pasadena Playhouse’s recent offerings include Sister Act the Musical, which is currently playing on the West End, and Looped, which will soon open on Broadway with Valerie Harper as Tallulah Bankhead.

The Pasadena Playhouse was established in 1917. Its widely admired actor-training program brought the institution to prominence during the 1920s, and there is an impressive roster of Hollywood stars who were either trained there or have played on its stage. Previous financial problems closed the theater in the 1970s, but it reopened in 1986. It is likely, given its Hollywood connections, that the Pasadena Playhouse will eventually rise again, but for now, it has gone the way of Studio Arena Theatre.