When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. When life gives you a pandemic, start a theater troupe. That's how the Dingbat Theatre Project was born.
Dingbat. When Archie Bunker says it, it’s an insult. If a typesetter says it, it means a font with a bunch of wacky shapes. When the cohorts of the Dingbat Theatre Project say it, they’re talking about getting seriously silly.
The troupe is the brainchild of Luke McFatrich, an improv teacher and fundraiser at Venice Theatre. He founded the company in late 2020 during the shadow of the pandemic. It seems counterintuitive … if not crazy. What was he thinking?
“The pandemic was lasting longer than most of us originally expected,” he says. “I’d made a mental note to launch a fun theater project if Covid was still lingering by late fall. It was—so I did.”
COVID-19 was the context for the project. Talent was the fuel. McFatrich didn’t want to put on a one-man show. He immediately reached out to Brian Finnerty. This multitalented director and choreographer seemed like an ideal collaborator. McFatrich had worked with him before, and they shared the same skewed worldview.
Finnerty agreed to get on board. Before long, the project was rolling.
“We got together, and got to work creating our own shows,” McFatrich recalls. “As luck would have it, Brian and his friends had just produced a Halloween cabaret at the Bazaar on Apricot & Lime. We had a venue before we had a name.”
All the elements were coming together. McFatrich describes it as “a perfect storm”— in a good way.
“We had an outdoor stage, we had the talent and there were only two other live theater productions in town at the Asolo and The Players Centre. Those shows weren’t aimed at younger people with families. So, Brian and I created a show that hit the sweet spot for them. They loved us, and it all came together.”
The project started out as a nameless duo, just McFatrich and Finnerty doing 21st century, punk-rock, post-modern vaudeville at the Bazaar’s outdoor stage. By the second performance, McFatrich’s brainchild had a name: “The Dingbat Theatre Project.” The troupe had now quadrupled. The company staged its first production on May 7: an eight-person, theater-in-a-trunk version of “Shrek: The Musical.” How’d they do it? Good question.
The nascent company had energy, heart, talent and vision. And almost no resources whatsoever.
“We had next to nothing to work with,” says McFatrich. “We had to get very, very creative to pull it off.”
“We had next to nothing to work with. We had to get very, very creative to pull it off.” — Luke McFatrich
The company’s actors all played multiple roles. When the company ran out of actors, it pulled out the puppets.
“Not articulated or sophisticated,” says McFatrich. “These were more like toys and stuffed dolls.”
The low-tech puppet cast included: Gingy the Gingerbread Man, a cardboard cutout with candy taped to it. Humpty Dumpty, a volleyball with googly eyes. An “Elf on the Shelf.” Three stuffed panda dolls filled in for the bears who bothered Goldilocks.
Sound and lighting? The Players Centre for Performing Arts loaned out its equipment, along with the people who knew how to use it: lighting designer Matt Neywer and sound designer Joshua Linderman.
Stage manager? Lisa Million stepped up to the plate — on loan from Venice Theatre.
Costumes? David Walker and McFatrich’s mother came up with those.
Sets? Tim Wisgerhof made the scene. He’s Venice Theatre’s resident scenic designer and an expert at creating beautiful somethings out of nothing.
“Tim built us this huge, wooden, foldable backdrop in a day,” McFatrich recalls. “He went to Lowe’s at 6 a.m. and bought the lumber. He carved it with a circular saw while the paint was still wet. I didn’t see him do it, but he somehow magically finished it by 6 p.m. — just in time for our first rehearsal.”
According to Finnerty, the resulting performance was refreshingly different for audience and actors alike.
“For ‘Shrek,’ an actor’s cube was a drum set; a fly swatter was a sword; fog cans created a lake of boiling lava; and a volleyball with button eyes starred as Humpty Dumpty. We focused our energy on details that most theatrical companies stray away from. We didn’t want to recreate a low-budget replica of Broadway; we wanted to tell the story in our own way. While staying committed to the story and its themes, Dingbat forced the audience to think and use their imagination like children. We focused on the words on the page and allowed our brains and hearts to do the rest.”
The young actors all looked good on Dingbat Theatre’s maiden voyage. The musical’s sets, costumes and props also looked great. But they didn’t look slick. The production was deliberately low-tech.
“We were going for a funky, garage-sale look,” McFatrich says. “'Shrek' is such a deeply silly musical, and a whimsical approach works perfectly.”
The whimsy worked, thanks to collaborative creativity from across our area’s theater community. As McFatrich relates the story, it's reminiscient of an old children’s book — “Stone Soup.” Everyone added a little something to the mix, and that’s why the magic happened.
“Theater at its best is a collaborative art form,” says McFatrich. “That’s what happened with ‘Shrek.’ We staged our first musical thanks to some of the best artists in the area. We got by with a little help from our friends.”
McFatrich adds that the Dingbat Theatre Project isn’t planning on duplicating the efforts of their friends across the theater community.
“We’re not The Urbanite, we’re not The Players, we’re not the Asolo,” he says. “We call ourselves ‘the quirky contemporary theater on the Suncoast’ because that’s who we are — ‘contemporary’ and ‘edgy’ doesn’t really fit us. We like to look at shows and figure out new and surprising ways to do them. We’re actor-driven — and our rehearsals are very collaborative on a creative level. Nobody’s passive; everyone participates in shaping the show. From an actor’s standpoint, it really pushes your craft. It’s also really, really fun.”
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