All Things Must Pass: Orbiter 3 members consider their finale

Four years ago, I got an email from playwright Douglas Williams, telling me about a new project. Williams and six other theatermakers launched Orbiter 3 with the intention to produce six original plays (one by each playwright), then dissolve. Along the way, the collective added a couple members, but this month’s production of A People by L.M. Feldman, will be Orbiter 3′s seventh and final production. When the show closes, the collective will release their plays and documentation of their development as a resource for theatermakers, and dissolve as an organization. Preparing an article for the FringeArts blog, I asked the “Orbiters” a few questions about their project as it comes to a close. Here are their thoughts.

[St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, 19 S. 10th Street] May 16-June 2, 2018,  orbiter3.org/a-people-production

The members of Orbiter 3: Emily Acker, L M Feldman, Sam Henderson, James Ijames, and Mary Tuomanen

The members of Orbiter 3: (back row, l-r) Mary Tuomanen, Douglas Williams, James Ijames, L. M. Feldman; (front row, l-r) Emily Acker, Maura Krause, Emma Goidel, and Sam Henderson.

Christopher Munden: How do you feel about Orbiter 3 coming to a close?

Sam Henderson: Proud, relieved.

LM Feldman: Well, I came in halfway through, so I feel like I could run with it for a little while longer, but the founding Orbiters have been moving toward the finish line for so long that they’re ready now to cross it. They’re exhausted and beaming — and profoundly proud, as am I. Proud of our work, hopeful for our legacy, and grateful to have been part of this collective and this venture.

Doug Williams: It’s really a mix of sadness, pride, and exhaustion. We’ve all basically had a part-time job for four years that we haven’t been paid for, so in one sense I’m really looking forward to having my time freed up for new creative projects. But I’m also just so so proud of the body of work Orbiter has put together and am so thankful I got to do it with this specific group of people. It’s incredibly hard work, but everyone really put themselves into this 100% and I think you can see that in the quality of work we’ve been able to produce over the last three years.

Emma Goidel: Orbiter 3 has defined the last four years of my life. I’m deeply grateful for the breadth of experiences its brought, and the connections I’ve made with artists and others through the company’s work. I’m incredibly proud of our accomplishments, and the productions we made. I’m sad to see this time come to an end, but excited to free up more time for new creative projects.

Christopher Munden: You guys all hate each other now, right?

Sam Henderson: Oh absolutely. Especially my partner, Mary Tuomanen. I hate her because she’s so much more talented than me. I hate her so.

Doug Williams: Yeah, we’re basically the Beatles in Let It Be.

Emma Goidel: We’re a family! We love each other so much, and we maybe hate each other a little bit, and we’re bonded forever. I’m thrilled about that dynamic.

Doug Williams: In all seriousness, we’re a super tight group. You sort of have to be when undertaking a project of this size. It really helps to want to hang out with the other people in the group. If anything, we’re looking forward to being able to hang out with each other as friends. Right now, we can’t help but talk about work, even when we’re at an another theater’s opening or just grabbing drinks. It always circles back to O3.

Lindsay Smiling and Jaylene Clark Owens  in Orbiter 3's MOON MAN WALK, June 2015. Image by Kate Raines, plate3.com

Lindsay Smiling and Jaylene Clark Owens in Orbiter 3′s MOON MAN WALK, June 2015.
Image by Kate Raines, plate3.com

Christopher Munden: Was this project a success?

Doug Williams: I would most certainly consider Orbiter 3 a success, if only because we fulfilled our mission within the timeline we set out. You can judge for yourself if you think each individual production was a success but, in my book, they were each artistically daring and brought a new story to Philly’s stages that audiences would not otherwise have been able to enjoy were it not for Orbiter 3. For instance, Mary’s show had 18 performers. Outside of a theatre like The Wilma, or Walnut Street, you’re not seeing a show like that get produced in Philly, and certainly not a world premiere by a local playwright. I’m just so proud we were able to take those risks and put those stories and performers on a Philly stage.  We were also wildly successful in tapping into a diverse and youthful audience, which for me is one of the achievements I’m most proud of.

Sam Henderson: We did what we said we’d do.

Emma Goidel: We intended to produce six plays in three years and energize Philadelphia around new plays. Since our launch, we’ve produced seven plays in three-and-a-half years, and seen a big uptick in the number of new local playwrights in seasons of theaters around town. The goal was always to inspire local theater leadership, audiences, and artists, to get people excited about plays and writers. I believe we’ve done that.

Christopher Munden:How did your view of that success evolve over the life of the company?

Doug Williams: As a company I would say the most important evolution was just understanding more and more how we functioned as a producing entity. How to efficiently get these plays off the page and onto the stage. It’s an evolution that outside observers can’t really see, but we hit some speed bumps during our first production, just because we were rookies producing theatre on a scale we weren’t used to. It took time and a lot of hard work to understand how work like this gets created. Now we’re all leaving Orbiter with that knowledge, and I’m really excited to see how each Orbiter individually uses that when creating work in the future. It’s almost like this project was our own grad school program on how to run your own theatre company and produce plays.

Anna Zaida Szapiro and Danielle Leneé in Emma Goidel's A KNEE THAT CAN BEND, December 2015.

Anna Zaida Szapiro and Danielle Leneé in Emma Goidel’s A KNEE THAT CAN BEND, December 2015.

Christopher Munden: Do you have a favorite memory from Orbiter 3?

Sam Henderson: Emily Acker returning Theatre Exile’s now-destroyed black box theater to its original black after the closing performance of Emma Goidel’s A Knee That Can Bend. blood sugar presumably low, painting a wall, listening to Beyonce, muttering “Die for her. Die for her.” When Emily’s blood sugar gets low, she’s far and away the most hilarious person in the collective.

Emma Goidel: Dancing together at James’s wedding was a highlight.

Doug Williams: All of our opening night performances were wonderful moments when we could each take a breath, look at the work we helped produce and reflect on that, if only for a night. Our O3 Halloween party was also pretty dope.

Christopher Munden: Any regrets?

Emma Goidel: Not really. There are decisions we made that didn’t work out as we’d hoped, but it was all part of our learning.

Doug Williams: In a perfect world we would have been able to pay each of the Orbiters for their administrative work, but alas, outside of our fees we received as an artist when our sole play was produced, we were working for free.

Christopher Munden: The Fringe Festival sees a lot of artists independently producing their own work. Why do you think we don’t see much of that outside the festival, especially in terms of scripted theater?

Doug Williams: That’s a good question. I think maybe the energy and the audience that surrounds the festival really makes for a supportive environment. It’s a time of the year when really daring audiences come out and will see three or four shows in one day. Being a part of that collective energy and having an eager audience really makes Fringe special. It might be that artists can feel it a bit daunting to draw focus to a single production when it isn’t tied to any larger theatre, festival or existing audience base. It’s an interesting question though. I do love that SoLow Fest has provided a really exciting opportunity for people to create new work outside of the Fringe season.

LM Feldman: It’s hard! It takes so much time, and so much money, and so much energy, and so many skill sets outside of generating the art itself.

Emma Goidel: Because you have to pay everybody. Collectives of actors or makers might agree to rehearse or build a show, then shop it to presenters, and finally split the box office when it goes up somewhere. Scripted theater tends to operate under a whole different set of agreements: everyone is paid for rehearsal and performance, and the producer (and sometimes playwright) takes the box office. You need thousands and thousands of dollars to rehearse, market, and produce a play and fundraising requires lots of time and relationships. Then there’s the matter of building an audience and taking care of all the artists you hire for the show. It’s enormous work.

Sam Henderson: Money. Institutions build lobbies, individual artists must beg, partner, hustle, and innovate.

David Ingram, James Ijames, and Charlotte Northeast in THE BROWNINGS, November 2017. Photo by Plate 3 Photography.

David Ingram, James Ijames, and Charlotte Northeast in THE BROWNINGS, November 2017. Photo by Plate 3 Photography.

Christopher Munden: What recommendation do you have for others interested in launching similar projects?

Sam Henderson: Your project deserves to be funded. No one with money will believe it until your third show.

Emma Goidel: Set an end date for the project and enroll likeminded people who you can love and rely on to do it with you.

Doug Williams: I would suggest choosing the people you work with extremely carefully. As I said earlier, I couldn’t imagine doing this with any other group of people, if we were constantly butting heads or had a member who was just uninterested in our vision of the project, it would have made this so much harder.

Christopher Munden: What do you think you’ll take away from the project, specifically in regard to independent production of original theater?

Doug Williams: I guess just that it’s really possible to make an impact in Philadelphia theater by creating and producing your own work. There are already so many amazing independent companies in Philly who are doing that, but it feels like most of them are focused on devised work. I’m proud of Orbiter 3 because, as playwrights, our MO is usually sending our scripts off to theaters or development conferences and hoping they like it enough to do it. With your play sitting in piles with hundreds and hundreds of other plays, it can be a pretty depressing process to dedicate yourself to. Orbiter proved, to me at least, that there’s another way to do it. Just produce the fucking thing yourself.

Sam Henderson: I feel empowered to ask for enough money to pay the people I want to work with in cash instead of high-fives.

Emma Goidel: Great respect for everyone who can pull it off well, with a gorgeous show and a company of artists who feel well cared for.

Christopher Munden: What makes A PEOPLE a fitting coda for Orbiter 3?

Doug Williams: The scale of this show really makes for a fitting end. It’s a huge sprawling show, both in terms of story and production. It’s also a mosaic about collectivity and unity that parallels Orbiter in a really beautiful way.

Emma Goidel: It’s a structurally ambitious play for a large company of actors. These are qualities producers often shy away from–and ones Orbiter 3 set out to embrace. It’s also lovely to end with a show from director Rebecca Wright, who we’ve worked with on two prior productions.

Christopher Munden: What else are you looking forward to in Philadelphia performing arts?

Doug Williams: I can’t wait for Emily’s Azuka premiere Boycott Esther next year. Also James’ Kill Move Paradise at The Wilma, that’s going to be amazing.

LM Feldman: New plays by local artists. Works by women, trans and nonbinary artists. Works by & about queer women. Works by artists of color. Works that are seen as the impossible plays. It’s one of my favorite values of Oribter 3′s — that they said yes to the impossible plays and found a way to make the impossible possible.

Emma Goidel: I’m looking forward to more new writers slated in season programming at theaters around town. And I’m looking forward to whatever my fellow Orbiters create with the time they’ll have to themselves when the company has ended.

A People runs May 16-June 2, 2018, at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, 19 S. 10th Street. orbiter3.org/a-people-production

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About the author

Christopher Munden

Your faithful correspondent and publisher Christopher Munden has written and edited for many publications, websites, and cultural institutions. He was an editor/publisher of the Philly Fiction book series, collections of short stories written by local writers and set in Philadelphia. He's also a soccer coach and a pretty good skier.