Dark Horse Theatre Company establishes itself as a professional troupe for the community
“Come through the clock tower,” were my directions given upon arriving at Grace Episcopal Church in The Plains, also the home of Dark Horse Theatre Company. The large, stone church in its idyllic setting does indeed have a clock tower, and the atmosphere is appropriately classical for a house of worship as well as a mysteriously-named theatre troupe. I followed the rest of my directions down a hallway into a small music room to find Natasha Parnian, Managing Artistic Director, and her troupe for my scheduled mainstage rehearsal observation. The room is tight, but warmly lit, and has good acoustics to boot. It’s a perfect spot for the relatively small cast – three women, two men – to rehearse.
The play they are working on, The Value of Moscow, is due to open in a matter of days after this rehearsal, but if there’s any stress about that approaching date, it’s difficult to spot. As I enter, Parnian is surrounded by her cast and leading crew members, giving direction and blocking. She leads the group efficiently, but also confidently. Her professionalism is evident. Parnian’s tone is that of an experienced director: authoritative, but flexible and calm. Then she turns around, spots me, and smiles broadly. “Thank you for coming, I’m so excited to get a chance to show you our work!” She shakes my hand firmly, shows me in to introduce the rest of her cast and crew members. There’s a twinge of excitement in her voice beneath the professional veil, an excitement to display her craft.
That enthusiasm was not unfounded, either; Parnian’s directorial take on The Value of Moscow is a fascinating interpretation. Just finishing its debut in Los Angeles, the show is now making its regional debut with Dark Horse, back in the home state of its creator: the playwright of the show, Amy Dellagiarino, is originally a Reston native. Parnian was quick to jump on the show after its completed run in L.A., for the sake of running a professional show from a Virginia playwright. Walking the line between bitter depression and ironic humor, Moscow is a comedy, but at times can be a very bleak one. Its main characters, a trio of sisters played by Jessie Burns, Sarah Akers, and Cat Gilbert, are each dealing with their own type of personal trauma, ranging from loneliness to attempted suicide. However, throughout the play, a mix of the sisters’ witty, not-so-friendly banter and emotional honesty keeps the audience attached and hopeful. The three sisters and their actresses’ portrayals are almost reminiscent of a smashed, glued together family portrait: the frame and glass have been broken so badly that the damage will always be there, but there’s a semi-visible effort that somehow holds them all together, albeit barely. This article’s publishing date will come after Moscow’s final curtain call, but if their other mainstage shows are anything like this one, they’ll be shows that shouldn’t be missed.
Changing moods entirely, Calamity Improv’s rehearsal was exactly the level of fun needed to balance out the afternoon. Named for Calamity Jane, the show’s actors recreate a tongue-in-cheek wild west show with an improvisational twist. The group is indeed fun and games, but they have three sets of rules for their actors: no swearin’, no breakin’ character by laughin’ at the scene, and no bad jokes. Any rule breaking is met with a yell of “Woah!”, “Scallywag!”, or “Skedaddle!” and the offending cowboy or cowgirl is handcuffed for the rest of the show. As you can imagine, this only makes the chaos of every scene funnier to watch. I was even invited to contribute to a scene or two myself during observation, as a way to help the cast prepare. This involved supplying starting words as well as being a human prop for their warm-up games, filling in gaps in conversation with the first word that comes to mind. This in turn led to a scene involving giving used underwear as a birthday present, and a rather awkward — but hilarious — conversation about a restaurant trying to pass off earthworms as food. The topics shift to any subject, and at a mile-a-minute speed, but each actor does an impressive job at holding things together. The performance’s chaotic nature may live up to its calamitous name, but in this instance, I can very easily say that’s a good thing.
Above: Calamity Improv, The Wild West of Improv Shows.
Left: Judi Laganga, Jessie Burns, Star Bobatoon, Scott Pafumi, Natasha Parnian. Center: Star Bobatoon and Judi Laganga. Right: Scott Pafumi, Audience member, Star Bobatoon, Judi Laganga, David Sturdevant. Photos by Brittani Hall
While the improv section went on, I had the opportunity to speak with several of the improv cast members. They come from all different walks of life and experience levels. Some are students in college, others are accredited theatre teachers in the local area. The group invites all to come and watch however, regardless of experience watching or joining in improv. One of the members, Star Bobatoon, who onstage goes by the name ‘Sundance,’ said, “We’ve got a little bit of everything here. It’s fun to see so many different people come in to participate.” Another member, ‘Janglin’ Jessica Cannon commented, “Some of the people here have been on professional stage and television, and I’m just a college student, but I love to get up there. It’s a blast, we all have fun here!”
Dark Horse’s mission statement is “Approachable, professional theatre in Virginia: to produce bold, imaginative theatre in an accessible way.” Parnian explains, “I can remember even from a young age, being in love with theatre and with the arts, but I can also remember how expensive they have always been. Going out to see a show is something that most people do only on a special occasion today. My hope is to fight that a little bit, and get theatre back into the hands of people who want to see it, but might not otherwise be able to.” The actors carry that selfsame professional spirit, even while warming up for an act that is entirely on the spot: improv is for laughs, but during rehearsal, there is work to be done. Everything is a contribution to that original mission statement.
Jay Tilley and Arianne’ Warner in Craving for Travel (Photo courtesy of Dark Horse Theatre Company). Center: Jessie Burns, Sarah Akers, Catherine Gilbert, Ricardo Padilla in The Value of Moscow (Photo by Arianne Warner). Right: Catherine Gilbert, Sarah Akers, and Jessie Burns in The Value of Moscow (Photo by Arianne Warner).
The origins of both the theatre troupe and its enigmatic name are both intriguingly appropriate. Parnian and her close business partner and friend, Arianne Warner, established the group together back in 2009. When asked about the name choice, Parnian said “I’m big into etymology. The definition of dark horse is a candidate or entrant judged unlikely to succeed. The odds are stacked so tremendously high against artists in today’s world. It takes strong will, courage, and a little bit of luck to ‘make it.’ To me, artists are dark horses. Our company supports all artists. I also really liked the image that came to mind when I considered the name ‘Dark Horse.’ It’s very visceral. It feels ready and raring. That’s why we selected the name.”
If the company is to be thought of like a horse, then Parnian considers her four main branches of Dark Horse to be the legs – providing support while moving the company onward towards its goals. Those four branches are mainstage performances, improv performances, children’s theatre, and theatre education. The current season of mainstage performances will include No Exit, a play by John Paul Sartre, in August and September, and the ensemble anthology The Laramie Project in January. Dark Horse’s improv section, known as Calamity Improv, performs comedy skits in a wild west fashion. Dark Horse’s children’s section, to be titled “Rocking Horse Theatre,” will feature summer shows for parents to watch over a community lunch, as well as open playtime for younger children. Last, but definitely not least, Dark Horse’s upcoming branch of education will debut in 2020, allowing for actors of all ages to come and train in workshops and classes designed to hone theatrical skills.
Before we finished, I asked Parnian why it was so important to make theatre, or the arts in general for that matter, accessible like she references in her group’s mission statement. Her response: “Humanity dies without the arts.” The fuel for keeping Dark Horse running seems to stem entirely from Parnian’s – and by extension, her cast and crew’s – desire to make professional-grade shows that don’t cost an audience member hundreds of dollars to see. The future of Dark Horse is one that is rooted deeply in its community; Parnian’s plans include family theatre days titled “Stories, Soup, and Songs,” theatre education, and more. By putting the arts back in the hands of the people, Parnian is helping to keep the creative spark she has alive in others around her. With some strong will, courage, and a little bit of luck, it’s almost certain that this community horse’s journey will be seen by a lot of people, for many years to come.
Information about Dark Horse Theatre Company’s upcoming plays and events can be found at www.darkhorseva.com.