Evolution: Cockroach Theatre advances with Vegas Theatre Company

Cockroach Theatre Company launches its 2019/20 season as Vegas Theatre Company.

After seventeen years, Cockroach Theatre Company is launching a new season and path forward as Vegas Theatre Company while dedicating it's former brand to a separate, experimental incubator with a second artistic staff.

Cockroach Theatre began with a midnight performance of LINE by Israel Horovitz in December of 2002, produced by students in the theater department at University of Nevada Las Vegas. Directed by the late local critic Tony DelValle, LINE was a surprising success. Another midnight production, Cowboy Mouth by Sam Shepherd, followed as an outdoor show in the back-lot of an antique store. The plays continued, culminating in 501(c)3 non-profit status and a world premiere at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2003.

Performing in found spaces, junkyards, parks, warehouses, and showrooms taught the company members led by Will Adamson and Levi Fackrell to be resourceful. "Cockroach" was a metaphor for resilience, and turning challenges into opportunities. In 2012, the company built out the Art Square Theatre space with their bare hands and the help of a successful crowdfunding campaign.

Cockroach Theatre Company circa 2012.

Darren “Daz” Weller joined Executive Director Levi Fackrell as the company's Artistic Director in the 2017/2018 season and established the vision for the Vegas institution's future. In a May 2018 interview with the Las Vegas Weekly's Leslie Ventura he shared, "I really want to start to build a community here, so [artists] don’t have to look outside of Vegas if they want a sustainable career in the arts.” He sees the move to re-brand Cockroach Theatre Company as Vegas Theatre Company as an important step in that direction.

We asked Weller about the organization's transformation and his plans for both Cockroach Theatre and Vegas Theatre Company:

EMAV: What brought about the transition?

DW: The transition from the name Cockroach Theatre Company (CTC) to Vegas Theatre Company (VTC) was precipitated by a couple of factors. I have been with the company in an artistic leadership position for the past three years and am very proud to have continued the work of Cockroach Theatre Company and bring some of the most compelling and timely plays to Vegas audiences. However, I find that as I reach out to new and established audiences and creatives alike, I am constantly asked “why are you called what you are called?”, when, in my mind the question should be, “why do you do what you do?” It struck me that there was an incongruity there. When you are talking about your name more than your work, there is a problem. Our theatrical work is consistently strong but doesn’t match with the name Cockroach and when long time audience members and donors continue to point out that our name doesn’t match the work, we need to listen.

We are looking to grow and reach out to a much wider audience and as that work moves forward it becomes clear that we need to remove any hurdles that prevent new audiences from engaging with us. Vegas Theatre Company is a name that not only reflects our love for the city we have made theatre in for the past 17 years but also expresses our commitment to continue telling great stories by and for Vegas for decades to come. In addition, the new name sets us up to move forward with our goal to grow the company and continue to elevate the caliber of theatre in Vegas. Which leads to the second factor for the transition.

DW: Vegas does not have a professional, regional theatre company which is unique in the US for a city of our population (and here I am referencing the population of the Vegas metropolitan area.) Admittedly, it is a market unlike any other in the country given the multitude of live entertainment options available commercially on the strip and that creates specific challenges but also brings unique benefits. In making the transition to Vegas Theatre Company it is our goal to put concrete plans in place to build a fully profession regional theatre company in Las Vegas which will include the addition of a new theatre building. I have worked regularly at UNLV as a guest director since 2016 and have been impressed by the talent that is being cultivated in their theatre program. As the students look to take the next step in their theatre making careers, the vast majority of them are looking to take their talents to other cities in the US that can support their goals and provide opportunities for work that Vegas simply cannot offer at the moment. Building VTC as a professional company is one step we can take to change that outcome as we provide meaningful paid opportunities for theatre makers. Alongside this, Vegas is in the middle of a population boom. Every week, I meet someone recently moved to town who is looking to bring their skills and talents to our Arts community. Looking around the city - from the expansion of Neon Museum to the growth of The Black Mountain Institute, as well as the success of The Smith Center and arrival of Meow Wolf - not to mention the continued growth of other Vegas theatre companies, it seems we are in the middle of an arts boom also. We are ready as a city to have a regional theatre and our new name is a key factor that will help set us on a path to achieve this.

EMAV: What happens to Cockroach in the transition?

DW: I’m not alone in stating that I love Cockroach. It started in 2003 as a company of ambitious peers freshly graduated from the UNLV Theatre department, and created theatre with a tenacity and drive that has seen it produce some of the most thrilling theatrical moments in Vegas. Its survival as a company is a testament not only to the tenacity of its founders but also to the multitude of artists, theatre makers and audience that have engaged with it over the past 17 years. It does not escape me that the success of Cockroach has been mostly underwritten by the commitment of precious time from its many hundreds of volunteers and supporters. There is huge love and support for Cockroach and as such, we don’t want it or its legacy to go anywhere. Quite the opposite.

Cockroach will return to it’s roots as an intrepid, independent force of theatrical discovery and exploration. Cockroach will become what is essentially the development/innovation arm of VTC and will be helmed by independent leadership but supported by VTC. Making theatre is expensive and by offering VTC resources to fund the creative ideas of Cockroach, we can unburden theatre makers from some of the cost of producing work and by doing so, free up the creative trajectory of Cockroach to make space for it to take big risks - cultivating and giving a platform to work that otherwise may never see the light of day. It’s an exciting prospect. By giving Cockroach agency to explore and develop new ideas, we not only unearth potent new work but also support and cultivate a new generation of theatre makers- actors, playwrights, technicians. I firmly believe that as you move onward you must look back and lend a hand to those people coming up behind you. Cockroach is a crucial component of Vegas Theatre Company as we build a place that is an engine of ideas that have to potential to span far beyond the reach of Vegas.

EMAV: How will the two differ in mission and focus?

DW: Vegas Theatre Company picks up right where Cockroach Theatre Company left-off.

Our mission: Vegas Theatre Company is Nevada’s home for compelling theatrical productions that illuminate our shared human experience, awaken our sensibilities about our world, and develop our art form and artists. We tell stories that bring us together.

Cockroach will engage with this mission but with a particular focus on cultivating new theatrical voices.

EMAV: Will there be a different team leading Cockroach as an incubator or is it the same team with different programs and projects?

DW: Cockroach will have separate artistic leadership which will have the autonomy and agency to produce work which nurtures and elevates the next generation of theatrical voices. Cockroach will have a season of work which runs alongside the Vegas Theatre Company season. In the next few months we will begin a search for the new artistic leaders of Cockroach and begin to build it as an engine for new ideas. Watch this space.

EMAV: What is your overview of the season ahead? Are there separate VTC and Cockroach series or seasons to subscribe to?

DW: This year is a huge year of transition as we continue to produce a season of plays of a quality that our audiences have come to expect and also build and fund VTC to financially back not only the work that happens onstage, but the work that happens off. VTC’s season of plays will run until May 2020 and in that time, we will also establish Cockroach under new artistic leadership and it will begin to produce with its new focus on emerging theatre makers.

Ironically, this year will probably see us talking about our name more than we ever have in the past as we engage our audience in the changes. However, as we grow and define our new model through the work we produce, that conversation will give way to one about ideas, about stories and about our connection to the world we live in. I’m so excited to be at a place where we are making opportunities for more theatrical storytelling in Vegas. I love theatre and have committed my life to it because it’s a point of connection. It’s proof that although we might possess fundamentally different views about the world, we can sit in a room together and share ideas, laughter, tears, breath, and form an undeniable touchstone of truth with our community, our neighbors, strangers. It’s a balm as we are reminded of all the things we share as we make our way with joy, agony, anger, indecision and success through this brief life. A moment of recognition that your joys are my joys and your pain is my pain, your story is my story. It’s a place to find peace, a place to be challenged and a place to spark change. An ancient act, we have been telling stories to entertain, to educate, to illuminate, long before we could ever write them down. It’s our way to explain the inexplicable. At Vegas Theatre Company, we tell stories that bring us together.

For all the news and information about Vegas Theatre Company's 2019/2020 season, visit vegastheatrecompany.com.

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