“We are Akron’s off-broadway”
by Steve Van Auken
So when they tell you that they are going to bring shows by none too fragile theatre to New York and Chicago, you want to hear the plan.
The Devil Strip sat down with Sean and Alanna as they were wrapping-up NTF’s performances of “Bloomsday” and preparing for the opening of “FreakStorm,” scheduled for Sept. 28.
TDS: What is none too fragile theatre?
Sean: We take the pretension out of theater. We tell stories that stay with you long after you leave.
Alanna: We are Akron’s off-Broadway theater company.
Sean: People come who are not theater people. And they want to come back. We have people who are talking about a show we put on in 2006. To us, that’s the ultimate success.
NTF’s predecessor was “Bang and Clatter.” Founded by Sean Derry and Sean McConaha, it opened in Akron in 2005 and in Cleveland in 2007. It closed in 2009.
TDS: Why did you decide to build NTF in Akron?
Sean: I noticed that when I was in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Manhattan: Everybody was from the Midwest…. There’s this belief that if you’re good, you have to stay on the coast. That’s changing now.
Theater in Chicago, New York and London is congested. New playwrights struggle to find room to breathe. Then, Sean says, “They start to look at the smaller markets. That’s how we got ‘Possum Dreams’.” Writer Ed Falco chose NTF for the world premier of his play in 2014.
Then NTF invaded the big city.
“‘Possum Dreams’ had a New York premier, produced by this company in Akron,” Sean says. “Other playwrights will take note: ‘I can have my work premiered in Akron.’” His goal is for the theater world to “recognize the name, the brand, of NTF.”
Most recently, in August 2018, NTF staged Steven Dietz’s “Bloomsday.” “When we got it, it was in manuscript form. It hadn’t even been published yet,” Sean says.
TDS: Who is the audience for NTF?
Sean: Everybody. We have probably a wider demographic, especially age and men, than most theaters. I’d say our audience is very active. People who seek. They evangelize and get the rest of the community involved. That’s our means to success. People take away what they saw in the past. It still challenges them, moves them… When people come to NTF, they have no idea what to expect. They trust our choices. We want people who don’t know that you shouldn’t have a verbal reaction. They’re fully engaged. It’s interesting how [audience reaction] changes from night to night. A single audience member can totally change the house. You don’t have to check your personality at the door.”
Alanna and Sean have been building sets together for more than a decade. They married in 2015 and have a nine-month-old daughter, Faolán.
Alanna: Sean is definitely the best director I’ve worked with. I think it has made our relationship stronger. He is the ultimate feminist. He always assumed I could do everything better than anyone else.
Sean: I have expectations! (They laugh.) Her anticipating me was the best thing. We’ve been building sets together since 2007.
Alanna: He expects as much or more of me as an actor, as a business partner. Knowing I could do it. There’s no mansplaining.”
Alanna and Sean won a $75,000 matching grant from the Knight Arts Challenge in 2018. The money will enable them to stage “Boogieban,” a play by D.C. Fidler that recounts conversations between a psychiatrist and a traumatized Gulf War veteran. It will have its world premier at NTF on November 16.
“The first time I read it I couldn’t see through the tears,” Sean says. “Anyone who has ever experienced PTSD can benefit from this show.”
After its run in Akron, “Boogieban” will follow the path of “Possum Dreams” to the big cities. NTF will produce “Boogieban” in Chicago in August 2019 and then in New York in September.
As they expand their mission, Alanna and Sean say they have no plans to change the core of NTF. They do not want to sacrifice intimacy by moving to a larger theater, so they have added more performances as word of NTF has spread. They dedicate a performance of each play to people with disabilities and their caregivers. “Seá’s Night” is named for Seá Derry, Sean’s eighteen-year-old daughter who also lives with a disability.
“NTF can be an agent to help stem the imagination drain,” Sean says, to prevent local artists from believing “they have to seek appreciation in these larger markets.” NTF’s mission remains to “create a theater destination in Akron, Ohio. As much talent as there is here, we need more. To stay here. You can do your art here, create a great culture for the arts, here in Akron.”
As for where they want to be in five years, Sean said: “Right here. Right here. To continue to tell moving stories.”
As none too fragile reaches out to take its place in America’s great theater districts, its founders say there is one thing that will not be packed and shipped. Its soul stays in Akron.
none too fragile theatre is located within Pub Bricco, at 1835 Merriman Road, in Akron’s Valley district.
Steve Van Auken has now lived in Akron long enough to give directions according to where things used to be.