With regret and perhaps a trace of foreboding, Shawn LaCount and Summer L. Williams tick off the names of vibrant theater companies that have exited the Boston stage in the 15 years since they and a half-dozen other Clark University graduates founded Company One.
But Company One has somehow managed not just to beat the steep odds against survival that face any small troupe but also to establish itself as a home for must-see theater.
As its new season gets underway Friday with the world premiere of Kirsten Greenidge’s “Splendor,’’ the question is: Can Company One sustain the momentum that has led to a fervent local following, a raft of awards, and even a measure of national recognition?
It’s no easy task. Despite the acclaim, budgetary margins remain so narrow that neither LaCount nor Williams draws any salary. “If I draw a penny I know it’s a penny that I could put somewhere else and make the project better,’’ explains LaCount, 37, the artistic director, who estimates he works 60 hours a week at the theater.
Williams, 34, the head of public relations who is also a talented director of productions at Company One and elsewhere, puts it this way: “The positive part of not making a living is that we can do whatever we want to do. Everything we program, we are dying to do.’’ She gives a small laugh, then adds: “Sometimes it literally feels like we’re dying to do it.’’
Of course, their labor of love is mirrored at numerous other theater companies in the Boston area. Nobody goes into theater for the money, and those who work at small and fringe companies usually have day jobs. (LaCount operates a bed-and-breakfast with his wife, while Williams teaches drama at Brookline High School.)
If the Company One gang is pushing themselves to near-exhaustion, that isn’t evident on opening nights at the Plaza Theatre inside the Boston Center for the Arts. To attend one of their performances is often to feel yourself immersed in exuberance, with waves of energy pouring from the stage, usually reciprocated by an avidly enthusiastic audience that is far younger and more diverse than the Boston theater norm. A survey last season found that more than half of Company One’s patrons were under 35, more than a third were people of color, and 40 percent lived in the city.
Company One has drawn that audience, in part, by choosing plays that carry messages of social change and that contain the potential to be theatrically dynamic — then delivering on those messages and that potential.
The recent Williams-directed production of Idris Goodwin’s “How We Got On,’’ infused with infectious hip-hop performances, told the story of three African-American youths expressing themselves through music as they try to forge independent identities. Last year’s LaCount-directed “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity,’’ set in the world of professional wrestling and replete with body-slamming brawls, also landed stinging blows against ethnic stereotyping and corporate/political machinations. The Boston Theater Critics Association (of which this writer is a voting member) gave Company One several Elliot Norton Awards for “Chad Deity,’’ including outstanding production, director, and actor.
In 2011, Company One devoted a chunk of its season to the New England premieres of “The Brother/Sister Plays,’’ Tarell Alvin McCraney’s stylistically innovative trilogy about love and death among African-American residents of a bayou community. Last year, Company One presented “Green Eyes,’’ an erotically charged one-act play by Tennessee Williams that was staged in a hotel room in downtown Boston.
The company has provided an early showcase for playwrights like Greenidge, Lydia R. Diamond, and Gina Gionfriddo, and for actors like Miranda Craigwell, Nael Nacer, Jonny Orsini, and Michael Tow. Its new season will be devoted entirely to female playwrights, including four African-American writers and one Asian-American writer.
Company One’s bold aesthetic has attracted notice beyond Boston. Three years ago, the American Theatre Wing, the organization that hands out the Tony Awards, designated Company One as one of the 10 “most inspiring and innovative theater companies on our national landscape.’’ Kristoffer Diaz, the New York-based author of “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity,’’ says in a telephone interview that he has already been in touch with Company One about collaborating on another project.
“They pick young people, diverse people, writers who are out to mess it up a little and take risks in form and content,’’ says Diaz. “There’s something visceral about what they try to do.’’
Darren Evans has a dual perspective on Company One: as the director of programs at the Boston Center for the Arts, where Company One is a resident theater, and as the artistic director of Theatre on Fire, a fringe company. He has been struck by the close relationship Company One has forged with its audience.
“When you go to a Company One show, there is a survey with a pen on your chair, ready to go,’’ says Evans. “They make a point of asking their audiences what their experience was like.’’ Inexpensive, is one answer. The staff economies at Company One help keeps ticket prices low: $20 for the first two weeks of every production, then $28 for the next week, before rising to $38 for the rest of the run.
“I absolutely consider them a model of success for taking a small theater and growing it in a smart and inclusive way,’’ says Evans. “They’ve got this core group that has been together so long and works so well together. It’s a testament to their vision that they’ve been able to hold it together for so long.’’
That core group first got to know one another at Clark University in the mid-1990s, where they were involved in theater. Six of the eight founders remain with Company One in some capacity. In addition to LaCount and Williams, they include Sarah Shampnois, the managing director (who works full time and draws a salary that is a fraction of what that position would normally pay); Mark Abby VanDerzee, who juggles the roles of educational director and technical director (and is not paid for either). Two other cofounders, Mason Sand and Sasha Abby VanDerzee, serve on the board. (Sand, an actor, delivered a memorable portrayal of Uday Hussein, son of Saddam, in last year’s LaCount-directed “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.’’)
“We didn’t start as friends, but we ended up as family,’’ says LaCount.
LaCount had grown up in and around Boston, and he was none too impressed by local theater. In 1998, he and his cofounders saw the Boston theater community as far too inclined to play it safe and unconscionably short on diversity. “The theater in Boston, the way it looked to us, didn’t seem worth doing,’’ says LaCount. “It didn’t make us proud. But we figured we could change that.’’
They have, and they show few signs of letting up. In addition to Greenidge’s “Splendor,’’ Company One’s new seasons will include “We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, from the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915,” by Jackie Sibblies Drury; “The Flick,’’ by Annie Baker (which will be presented with Suffolk University at the Modern Theatre); “Astro Boy and the God of Comics,’’ by Natsu Onoda Power; “Shelter,’’ by Miranda Craigwell; and “Fufu and Oreos,’’ by Obehi Janice.
Underscoring Company One’s growing footprint, ambitions, and interest in collaboration, ArtsEmerson will open the doors of the Paramount Center’s Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre for a Williams-directed production this winter of “We Are Proud to Present a Presentation . . .’’
“I admire the adventure of their work, and I deeply admire the sincerity of their connecting their work to the community,’’ says Robert J. Orchard, who heads ArtsEmerson as Emerson College’s executive director for the arts. “I feel that Company One is really about doing work for and in Boston, and giving voices and opportunities to a very diverse group of artists, and connecting with a range of cultures, that I think is remarkable. That is something I want to support.’’
The fate of even the most highly lauded small theater is to live perpetually on the edge. Yet LaCount, Williams, and their colleagues have lived at that address for so long that by now it almost feels like home. “What we’re doing should be impossible,’’ says Williams. “And we sort of love that feel.’’
It’s clear that an insurgent spirit still drives them. When the duo is asked whether Company One’s expanding presence on the local theater landscape means it should now be considered part of the “establishment,’’ they recoil as if the questioner was brandishing a hot poker.
Still, there’s little doubt that for small theaters in Boston — a community that, paradoxically, seems to grow larger all the time — Company One now stands as something of a role model. In fact, says LaCount, “Half of my week is spent having coffee with young people starting theater companies.’’