Over three January days in his unheated Dayton apartment, 2013 Ohio University theater graduate Anthony Kochensparger forced himself to his desk (in all the layers he could manage) to write Milkwhite — a one-act play about a ballerina who goes to college, becomes involved with a girl and then cheats on her girlfriend with her dance instructor.
The recent playwriting graduate was writing it for himself and for two young actors — one of whom had recently wandered into his workplace. Glenna Brucken, another recent OU theater grad, had ordered breakfast at the Waffle House where Kochensparger was working and asked him why he and the rest of their college friends weren’t making art. Her question set in motion a story of redemption.
“That’s the moment where Marty McFly’s mom kissed Marty McFly’s dad,” says Nick Philpott, another former classmate. “I built up a staggering amount of debt, moved back to Cincinnati, worked at a car dealership and then one day in November, I got a Facebook message from Glenna that was to the effect of ‘Um, why aren’t we making theater?’ ”
In addition to Kochensparger and Philpott, two others got the message: Amanda Stanton, a theater technician, and Jessica Link, an actor. All five artists by nature and by training, yet none were working in his or her chosen field. They decided to make something.
“You leave school and you sort of have that expectation,” Philpott says. “ ‘I have a degree in playwriting,’ or ‘I have a degree in theater production,’ or ‘I have a degree in acting.’ That means I have to produce a full-length play, get a big name, make a full, huge prosthetic [makeup effects] or else I totally failed. That’s not the case. There have to be those building blocks that you sort of work your way toward whatever you can do.”
This meant regular meetings, bringing Milkwhite to life and booking a night at a small bar so the group could host a reading of its play.
“I was applying to a lot of places in Cincinnati,” Stanton says.
“Theater jobs, because I felt like since I had just come off of this really impressive internship from California that it would be easy for me to get a job at the Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati or Playhouse in the Park. I found that that wasn’t the case and felt like a failure, then ended up kind of realizing that I could still make my own opportunities that would still be legitimate.”
So over Indian food, the five decided on their own mission: “to bring original theatre to all people in order to inspire _______ to question the world and produce their own art.” They say the mid-line blank isn’t a mistake and formed The Right Questions Theatre Ensemble, a type of theatrical take-back that helped save them and the inclusiveness of performing art. The Right Qs are making accessible theater how and when they want, for themselves as much as for anyone else who wants to enjoy it.
“We’re inviting people to experience the world with us instead of setting up an expectation for the way people should behave when they attend theater,” Kochensparger says. “Part of it is just about being as inviting as we can.”
Inviting enough to let audiences experience their work as it evolves organically (“We’re not afraid to show the sausage being made, as it were”), bring the performance to the people (“Not uber professional, not uber high class”) and bond over shared hardships as one unit (“If we come together and talk about XYZ, it helps us build an authentic voice”).
Their weekly meetings quickly turned into a source of artistic encouragement where some of their time was spent drinking beer and steaming about the struggles that come with unconventional career hopes. Most of it was spent working — free writing, reading, blocking and crying together.
“We had a really good initial reaction to Milkwhite,” Stanton says. “We all got into a cuddle puddle on the floor, reading it collectively for the first time and once we got to the end of it, we were all crying. Tony had just Blue Valentine-ed us. He put us through this beautiful, emotionally scarring story.”
Brucken and Link, with another OU actor, Max Monnig, made Milkwhite real at Rake’s End, a Brighton bar and performance venue, in mid-May to an audience of 30. Those invited to the event — and others who just stopped by for drinks — sat in lawn chairs, drank whiskey lemonades and watched two adolescent lives fall apart.
“People are assholes and they do asshole things and they get away with it,” Kochensparger says, “and I don’t see the need to make that better onstage because that’s what life is.”
While these renegades are trying not to try too hard, they are trying to get better, to get people excited and then to learn from the opinions of their audience members.
“We legitimately want to hear what people think,” Kochensparger says. “I got to watch two people fight about the ending of my play, and it was my favorite thing that’s happened in weeks. It was just getting to see people pissed off and doing it in my face. I like that.”
Playwrights Kochensparger and Philpott were perhaps the most grateful for feedback as a starting point to launch their next show, a Halloween comedy (said to be a sort of Scooby-Doo for adults) now in the works and set for production in October. The group is ready to consider new venues, build upon their reading for a produced show and have a good time all the while.
“We’re just friends trying to do what we love to do — in a professional way but also in a way that’s enjoyable for us,” Stanton says. “Because why do it if it’s not enjoyable?” ©
For more information on THE RIGHT QUESTIONS THEATRE ENSEMBLE, visit facebook.com/therightqs.