This Sunday, the Black Actors Guild will launch Soul Food Standup at the Savoy — and that's just one of the busy group's projects. Last week Westword profiled the Black Actors Guild, a multi-faceted performance troupe that has been working hard on stages around Denver for the last few years. We spoke with founding member Quinn Marchman about how the theater, dance, music and improv creators came together — and the conversation was too good not to share in its entirety. Below, Marchman explains how the Black Actors Guild grew out of a high school project to become the hard-working company of actors it is today.
Westword: How did the Black Actors Guild begin?
Quinn Marchman: There were several starting points for us, but if we take it all the way back to the root, it began with a group of friends in the Denver School of the Arts class of 2010. In 2009, we decided to take the lead in our school's Black History Month show — every year it is a student-created show. We decided to create a play based around Obama's early days. It wasn't him specifically; it was a character named Barry who was trying to do good in his community, while dealing with the struggles of the '80s.
We were sneaking out of class and staying late after school trying to create the script, direct it and run it. It was a monumental undertaking, especially for second-semester junior year students. While we were getting ready for college, we were busy trying to put together this show. It was the first time we thought, well, we don't know if we can do it, but we're going to see if we can make it happen. Once you are able to do the impossible, it is really hard to say that you can't do it again.
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We learned from that experience, while still in school studying theater and doing shows with the theater department. It was not unusual at DSA to have a twelve-hour day. We were all doing the most, and that is a theme that has run with us for a long time. We directed the senior show with around 65 students from every major in the school and we were really proud of that one — it was a Michael Jackson tribute where we were filming theThriller scenes in the school and led to the girl running into the auditorium as the show was happening. We created variety shows with scripts where we were able to integrate many of the different majors at the school for these student-created shows. It was a diverse cast of people who really wanted to do their own art without it being graded.
I graduated from Denver School of the Arts — in our theater program, there was always a huge push to go to the biggest-name school with the most prestigious acting conservatory. For a lot of people like me, that just freaked us all out because it was definitely that feeling of, "Oh, this is the biggest decision I will make for the rest of my life." For me especially I was thinking okay, either I'm going to become a famous actor and go on Broadway or I'm going to be working at Chipotle for the rest of my life or something. There was really no other option, it seemed.
So a few of us ended up at theater school for a year and even during winter break we came back together to put on a show at the Shadow Theater, which is now known as the Source at Su Teatro. We wrote a show and put it up in one week, which was another one of those moments of "why are we doing this, but damn, I think we can do this so we're going to." It was semi-professional in that we were doing it at a theater that we rented out and, while everyone should have been resting over winter break, we were busy stressing ourselves out about this show.
But it went up, we acted in it and we were like, dang, we did it. The summer after, we left school and decided to just start doing this — I mean, we were in a great program at school and there was a lot of talent there, but we were thinking about the people we had just been in school with at Denver School of the Arts before. College, for me, really felt like I was just learning how to audition again and spending $20,000 a year to do that — that freaked me out. So me and my friends said, let's come back to Denver and put on some shows.
We gathered in a friend's Montebello basement to write scripts and ended up getting a sweet deal from the Crossroads Theatre to put on a one-night show. Though we didn't come close to selling out, when it is your first show and there are people in there laughing at you, it feels like you're at Carnegie Hall. The feeling of being on stage and having the audience react to you is still one of the best highs in the world — and we've been chasing it ever since. We're always trying to create new material and very frequent shows... wow, looking at that long time line — this is the first time I feel old. (Laughs.) I'm not as young as I used to be. But anyway, 2011 was the first professional show that we did at the Crossroads Theatre. It was a sketch comedy, an hour and fifteen minutes long, five dollars a pop.
Ever since then, we've tried to frequently do shows — I don't think, since the summer of 2011, there has been a span longer than a month where we haven't done some type of performance. We've tried to keep that consistency. I mean, the fact that it is so fun and there's never a time when we're tired of what we get to do — the motto has always been "doin' the most." We even titled our last project, Doin' the Most, to remind ourselves of where we began. I mean, I think it's the motto of a lot of artists living in this vibrant and cool city — that's the lifestyle they have to live to be able to showcase their creations and have the time and resources to create art. You have to work five days a week, go all the way across the city to one rehearsal and then to another, then go to an art show, thinking, wow, I'm doin' the most and damn, this feels fun. I guess that's the background on the impetus of why we are here now, in 2015.
Are the majority of the players involved in the company right now from the original DSA student-base that you created it out of?
It's really close to about fifty-fifty. I've known many people in the company for close to a decade. DSA is a small school — it only graduates about a hundred people every year. But a lot of faces have come in and out of the company over the years — we still have friends who are off in New York and Chicago and London who come back frequently and might do one show one night with us. But it started off with four of us — our first show was four people on stage and we are still together, very much still at the forefront of things, creating. But now we have a company of about fifteen people who you can see on a pretty regular basis.
One of our really close collaborators we met at a party just through conversation — like, "Oh you do improv? We do improv! Come check us out" kind of thing. And I don't think there has been a day that I haven't seen him since that moment. So, it's a mix of friends who have known each other for a long time and some friends who have been acquaintances for a long time who have now come into the fold. Then there are some people who just saw the vision and wanted to hop on and do the most with us. It's been cool meeting people. You can meet twenty to thirty people in a weekend just going to shows and schmoozing and what-not. But it is really cool when you start to see people again and again. But the student base has always been strong — Denver School of the Arts, East High and a couple of friends I met on the Auraria Campus — all young people who are still studying their craft but are really interested and driven to start creating it, even while they are still in the learning process.
So there's no audition process — it's kind of like whoever shows up and wants to work hard.
Absolutely. We're not quite bourgie enough for an audition process. If you're about it, we're about it. Those who want to be there and put in work, they do and it is really cool. We are running a business, but it still really feels like a holistic process. Of course, some of us have titles — like I am officially/unofficially the artistic director. Then we have a stage manager and a production manager and we all know those roles, especially when we are putting on a show. It's like all right, I am in charge of this, that and the other. But on the whole, if you have an idea, you can pretty come off the street and say, "Hey, I have an idea and I wanna check you guys out and see if you guys like what I'm trying to do." And a lot of cool opportunities have come from being open to that.
You do improv shows as well as longer productions — how does the Black Actors Guild work on creating material together?
That's interesting because it has changed over the years, especially since we are now kind of adults with busier schedules. (Laughs.) We'll all be sitting around just BS-ing with each other, coming up with hypothetical scenarios and finding them straight-up hilarious. Then we'll say, "Hey, we should write that into a script or turn it into a sketch or something!" Way back in the day in 2011, we would get together and start thinking of stuff, write it down, go home and then start expanding on them. From there, we would create a script and present it — the full performance would be the result of however many sketches we had come up with for that week.
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Nowadays it's a little more independent — if you have an idea or a script already written, we trust you and we know that you trust yourself that it is good material. So we'll start working on a script that's presented — we'll go over it a couple of times and then put it up on its feet. We're working on more recorded material now, which is interesting because we're all from a theater background; a theater script is a lot different than what a film script would be, or nowadays, what a YouTube or even Vine script looks like. But we want to get back to the roots of creating more scripts — a lot of our push has been toward production, making sure to get multimedia involved with dancers or singers. (Pieces) that don't focus so much on a single script — in 2015, with all of the complex issues with our mission being to create leaders who are independent creators as well, we want to tell more stories from unique perspectives. Starting that is just through meeting people and seeing what lives they live and gleaning information and inspiration from that.
Catch the Black Actors Guild "Show Ya Teef" improv performance at 8 p.m. any Tuesday at the Atlas Theatre, 1400 Williams Street; there’s also a Free First Friday Music Showcase every month. And starting March 1, the group will host Soul Food Stand Up every Sunday at the Savoy at Curtis Park, 2700 Arapahoe Street. For more information, find the Black Actors Guild on Facebook.
Be my voyeur (or better yet, let me stalk you) on Twitter: @cocodavies