Don’t get it twisted: Akron is a creative place. And any town with enough artistic juju in the ether to produce Chrissie Hynde, Devo and The Black Keys has got to be incubating the next generation of brash, up-and-coming artists right this very moment. Enter Heads Up Productions and its plucky managing artistic director, Benjamin Rexroad, stage right.
Rexroad, 24, who co-founded Heads Up with fellow artistic director, T.J. Jozsa, in 2009, thinks Akron is an awesome place for theater. A fledgling theater company doesn’t always have — OK, never has — access to expansive theater complexes with flashing marquees, glitzy sets or big-name stars. It has to tap into that primal, human need to invent fantastical stories and share them with an audience eager to be transported to another time and place. You know, that Dionysian urge that drove the ancient Greeks to dress up like drunken satyrs and put on a show — or, what Rexroad calls, “the essence of theater.” Heads Up exists to explore that essence in the way actor and audience relate.
“You only need the actors and the audience to create theater,” says Rexroad. “When everything else is superfluous, you use what you have at your disposal at any given moment. We have Akron.”
And get the most out of Akron they do.
Before actors and audience can meet, the thespians have to commune with the gods of theater in a process known as rehearsal. This requires a place where they can be free to experiment with blood-curdling screams, raucous laughter and choice dialogue they might not want the neighbors to hear. In cities like New York and Chicago, a young theater company could go broke just trying to find the funds to rent rehearsal space at $30 an hour. In Akron, Heads Up has had the good fortune of not only finding affordable places to rehearse in but, on occasion, copping the space for free.
“This helps us keep our ticket prices low so that anybody can afford to attend,” says Rexroad. “And it means we have more resources to help the community.”
Help the community as in doing really cool and altruistic things in and around Akron, like discounting tickets for audience members who bring canned goods to a food drive before a show or donating a portion of the proceeds from the sold-out run of “A Woman Called Truth” to an Akron-area women’s shelter. Last season, when Heads Up produced “Corpus Christi,” a contemporary retelling of the Gospels set in modern-day Texas, Rexroad and his cast teamed with community groups to facilitate dialogue between gay and religious organizations. They held story circles and gave free tickets to anyone who participated.
Tackling tough, topical issues that affect Akron and the world is not exactly dinner theater, and Rexroad is OK with that. “We want people to walk away from each show questioning something — a little shaken,” he says. “Most people are afraid to be vulnerable by asking the ‘dumb’ question. Our shows help people articulate those questions; we ask so they can ask.”
Heads Up has also welcomed a steady stream of talented artists from the University of Akron, like company members and UA grads Kimberly Woodworth and India Burton. Rexroad, who won the 2011 Akron Area Arts Alive! Award for Rising Young Star/Arts Leadership, looked at the conundrum of students graduating from the university who would “either have to move or work unpaid in community theaters” and decided Heads Up could be the solution to their problem. Rather than contribute to the brain drain that’s been plaguing the region and leave Northeast Ohio for the bright lights of the big city, local theater professionals can hone their craft at Heads Up. For money.
Ever since the theater company opened its doors, Heads Up has minimized costs, maximized creativity and paid all of its actors.
India Burton, Heads Up’s resident playwright, thinks that’s exactly the way a theater should be. “How can an artist quench his or her thirst without money to pay for the water?” Burton says. “Although I love to express my creativity, even for free, it’s simply great to be able to do what you love to do and get paid at the same time.”
“There’s no company like ours in the area,” says Rexroad. “Because of where we’re at, we’re able to take more risks in our material and with our talent.”
For instance, Heads Up gives its actors homework. “One of the requirements of an actor working on a Heads Up show is that they must write an essay for our website based on the themes of the work or about their work on the show. Our website is another connective tissue between our audiences and ourselves. We think it helps when audiences get an inside look at the process. Many times, the audience members who keep up with our website have a deeper understanding of the work and connect on a level above everyone else.”
Rexroad also encourages audience participation. “We’ve held open rehearsals, allowing the audience members to experience firsthand our methodology. Each of these is accompanied by a discussion with the spectators to decompress what they witnessed. Sometimes they’ve even given us feedback that we’ve incorporated into the piece.”
With Akron so tightly woven into the fabric of his theater company, you’d think Rexroad would never leave. But he does, bringing home the inspiration he gathers from far-flung places and putting it into action. For example, Rexroad studied with legendary theater director Anne Bogart and her SITI Company, a theater ensemble dedicated to redefining and revitalizing contemporary theater in the United States.
“When I went to work with Anne Bogart and the SITI Company, I felt like I was a pre-pubescent girl meeting Justin Bieber,” jokes Rexroad. “Anne is quite a powerful presence in a room. She’s brilliant. Conversing with her I felt, ‘I need to learn. A lot.’ I didn’t feel inadequate, just that I had so much more to learn.”
Once he got over his nervousness, he immersed himself in the emotionally and physically grueling training and crystallized his vision of what theater should be. “The summer I studied with SITI was life–changing,” he says. “I’ve tried to bring back much of what I’ve learned to Heads Up.”
And then, last August, Rexroad and Jozsa went muse-chasing on a cross-country trip that serendipitously led them along the same path as the dog-eared copy of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” they were reading. The journey opened Rexroad’s eyes.
“Each day brought something new,” he says. “Things you don’t get to experience every day.”
Things like bouldering in Colorado, hanging out at Burning Man and cruising down the Pacific Coast Highway. The adventure inspired Heads Up’s head men.
“We’ve become better storytellers and better listeners. Learning to think on your feet and be creative has been an important part of this trip. ‘Where are we going to sleep tonight?’ came up almost every day. Trying to meet your basic everyday needs made life exciting in a way I never thought possible. And now that we’ve returned, we’ve got a few surprises up our sleeve for the Akron community.”
One of those surprises was a trip north on I-77. Earlier this year, Rexroad and company were busy rehearsing a new play, “1000 Hills,” written by Burton. The play was chosen to be part of Cleveland Public Theater’s 2012 Big Box Series and premiered in CPT’s Levin Theater in January. Set in Rwanda in 1994, “1000 Hills” follows three tourists who find themselves in the African nation just as genocidal violence breaks out. As tensions mount, the tourists, who bond with the locals, have their morals and emotions put to the test.
Burton says this was great opportunity for the Akron-based theater to represent. Being part of CPT’s Big Box is another venue for people to see the provocative work that Heads Up does. “We have the power to say something,” notes Burton, “so why not say something relevant? CPT gives us a chance to speak.”
Heads Up has an unofficial motto that graces the upper right corner of their website: “Finding our way into the questions.” Rexroad’s curiosity keeps leading him and his theater groups deeper into the heady, existential questions of what unites us, what divides us and everything in between. And Rexroad isn’t one to shy away from the challenge; he and Heads Up are all about using theater to find the answers.
“One of the things I say to my actors in rehearsal is, ‘I don’t know. Figure it out.’ The world has been saying that to us in a big way.”
The first leg of their figure-it-out journey has been co-founding Heads Up and making a home in Akron for cutting-edge regional premieres, thought-provoking original plays and dedicated artists who are committed to improving and enlightening their community. With a start like that, Rexroad, Jozsa and the crew will find themselves in the Akron pantheon of the really cool and very creative in no time.