A handful of actors anxious to be cast in Theatre XP's fourth summer season congregated recently outside the Red Barn Theatre. Each one sweated over a tattered piece of script in the 90-degree heat before strolling into the air-conditioned theater, taking the stage and (hopefully) knocking Bob Bowersox off his feet.
Bowersox, who built a long and successful career in film and television before retiring to Key West, has discovered a newfound passion for theater in recent years.
"In film, you can shoot the take 35 times before you get it right," he said. "In theater, you've got that one shot. There's an immediacy, an electricity to it."
In 2011, the passion drove Bowersox to found Theatre XP. And it's the electricity of the theater experience that keeps Bowersox, the founders of Fringe Theater Key West (aka, The Fringe), and On The Rock Productions coming back for more, despite shelling out thousands of dollars of their own money on rent (none of these outfits has its own fixed performance space) and production costs.
Theatre XP fills the Red Barn Theatre space during the offseason, mounting its summer stage and offering productions of original works in the fall.
Bowersox recently cast the three summer stage productions -- "'Night, Mother" (July 1-6), "Waiting for Godot" (July 15-20) and "The Whale" (July 29-Aug. 3) -- and is putting the finishing touches on "The Signature of Fear," the original work scheduled to follow.
"We want to do theater that packs a punch, things that are more hard-hitting and edgier," Bowersox said. "People here are hungry for this type of theater, and there's a large enough audience here for us to do that."
Although Bowersox has a grander vision for Theatre XP and Key West, he'd like to establish a performing arts festival that includes theater, dance, comedy and panel discussions at larger venues around town. But he's careful about keeping Theatre XP small for now.
"There's always got to be that little theater company on the side that's doing superior and quality work that doesn't expand too fast," he said.
Theatre XP is funded primarily through sponsorships, ticket sales, ad sales in playbills, and money that Bowersox earned in the past through film and television projects.
With the help of good friend Rebecca Tomlinson, Bowersox is learning more about the business side of things, and opportunities to tap grants and other funding sources.
"We've basically broken even the past three years," he said. "If at the end of the season everyone has been paid and there's nothing left, that's a success."
Bowersox would also like to develop a professional outfit in Key West similar to Steppenwolf, the world-renowned theater company in Chicago that has turned out such talents as John Malkovich and Gary Sinise.
"I like the idea of people having a sense of ownership, a sense of belonging," he said. "I've never been in a theater town like this. If you have an idea and are willing to work, you can literally do anything in this town. It's creative, it's supportive, there's a huge wealth of talent."
For Monnie King, it took more than just an idea and a willingness to work to transform the now-defunct People's Theater of Key West into The Fringe three years ago.
"At the start, all we had were lights and a chair," she said. "We could perform anywhere there was an electrical outlet."
King has used the absence of a fixed theater space for The Fringe to her advantage, offering audiences that attend main stage productions unforgettable "immersion theater" experiences.
She partnered with The Gardens Hotel to stage "Suddenly, Last Summer," the Tennessee Williams classic with scenes set in a jungle-like garden. She also partnered with The Woman's Club to present "Dinner," Moira Buffini's play about a dinner party, in various rooms of the club's giant house on Duval Street.
"With immersion theater, the venue essentially becomes the set," she said. "The theater experience is intensified for audience members when they realize that they are actually standing in the set."
In addition to main stage productions, The Fringe produces original works about some of the more colorful personalities of Key West lore. The Key West Characters project was launched last year with three works -- "Weeds," a play by Tony Konrath and Vanessa McCaffrey about the infamous Joseph "Bum" Farto; "Marion Alert," a play by Toby Armour about local gallery owner and cause célèbre Marion Stevens; and "Conch Republic: The Musical!," a comedy by King and Gayla D. Morgan about the founding of the Conch Republic.
The Fringe also takes Shakespeare into the schools and runs Fringe Benefits, a short program of plays in which audiences can focus on the language without the potential distraction of props or costumes.
The Fringe's next production is a Shakespeare-inspired project scheduled for June 13 at The Bottle Cap.
Although The Fringe receives funding through grants, fundraisers, donor appeals and the Monroe County Tourist Development Council, King knows the importance of the theater company living within its means. The company's only expenses include pay for actors and directors and production costs. King and her husband, Peter, who also serves as president of The Fringe board, do not collect salaries, and are always looking for volunteers to help support the company.
"We have truly come out of the passion for theater," she said, "and want to be of the community."
On The Rock Productions
The co-founders of On The Rock Productions (OTRP) also have an interest in bonding creatively with the local community, posting on their Facebook page: "We are dedicated to the creation, development and professional production of new works by Florida Keys writers and to support the growth of local artists."
Just three months after Mike Marrero, Landon Bradbary and Juliet Gray founded OTRP, the trio staged the company's first stage production.
"By Popular Demand," an original comedy starring Bradbary and some of Key West's most notable comedic and musical talents, ran April 16-May 3 at the Eaton Street Theater.
Professional photographer Marrero, bartender Bradbary and performing artist Gray paid for the entire production out of their own pockets.
Proceeds from "By Popular Demand" will be used to send a student from the Florida Keys to a prestigious performing arts program this summer.
Marrero and Bradbary want to make audiences laugh, describing their senses of humor as similar to the writers of such television shows as "South Park," "The Daily Show" and "Key and Peele."
"We'll push the envelope of comedy a lot further than other theaters," Marrero said.
"My goal has always been to get people into a theater who would not normally go to a theater," Bradbary said. "We want the entertainment to be good. This brand of humor will draw people in."
Marrero and Bradbary plan to take the summer off and mount the next OTRP production late in the year. In the meantime, they're thinking of ways to target audiences outside of the Keys with future theater and film projects.
"A lot of art in Key West remains in Key West," Marrero said. "Part of the challenge of Key West is that it gets to be like a bubble and it's hard to push art out. The goal is to try and get art outside of Key West."
They're also thinking about who they might approach locally to help out with the next production.
"There is so much talent here," Bradbary said. "As far as developing a set troupe, there's definitely people who I really enjoy working with."
"You have to have a core group of people who share the same vision of wanting to get something going from the ground up," Marrero said. "We're always happy to listen to ideas and develop new projects."