The recently graduated drama majors of Dallas have probably never seen Kicking and Screaming, Noah Baumbach’s coming-of-age downer about life after graduation. Dark, uncertain, post-collegiate days have not cast any shadows on these bright-eyed thespians. Theater companies and artist collectives are increasingly popping up comprised of young, ambitious actors that are making theater themselves, and doing it on their own terms.
House Party Theatre is one such enterprising group with another goal. Its members want to get paid. CEO Chris McCreary (SMU ‘11) worked for a talent agency after graduation and saw many actors come through, from fledglings to old hats. He was frustrated that many of them weren’t getting work. After an evening doing scenes with friends in his living room, he had an idea.
“My friend did one of the best monologues I had ever seen — like, it was incredible acting,” McCreary says. “And it just happened in my living room. No one saw it, we weren’t performing on a stage. It was just good work that happened right there.”
By 2014, House Party Theatre was born. Formed with other SMU alumni, HPT became more than a chance for trained actors to work wherever they could, it became a business model: host events with theater as the backdrop.
HPT is a for-profit “entertainment company,” something that sets it apart from other startup theater groups in North Texas. Creative director Taylor Harris (an MFA candidate at SMU) says HPT’s goal is to entertain with theater. Period.
“We’re not really interested in your final product. We aren’t there to promote your cause,” Harris says. “We’re there to make sure everyone that comes to your event has an amazing time. We want them to know first and foremost that A) they were at an event and B) theater happened. To us that’s more fun than sitting in a chair and waiting for the theater to happen to them.”
House Party Theatre has been fairly successful so far. The company was hired to host a Halloween event in a Trinity Groves warehouse that brought in over 500 guests. It was part haunted house, part performance, with various sketches happening throughout the night. A December show at Community Beer Co., “Frosty: Songs of Redemption,” was a one-night-only musical event that pulled in over 100 guests.
Harris says the hope is to reach people who aren’t regular theatergoers.
“What we’re trying to do is bring people together,” Harris says. “What’s the common ground that we can use to bring people together that otherwise wouldn’t be together? It’s parties. You’re giving them an excuse to talk, to be together, as opposed to: come sit down, in the dark, and turn your phone off and don’t talk for two hours. We also want to capitalize on exclusivity. Because the party only happened on one night.”
McCreary says the challenge is getting those non-theatergoers to the event.
“People are in their homes watching Netflix. They don’t want to see theater in an actual theater. We have to go to them,” McCreary says. “People go out to go to bars and parties. What it boils down to is: who needs to see this? Is it theater people who already know who [award-winning playwright] Sam Shepard is — those people who already go to the theater?”
“If you asked me today if we could do a show about dead presidents and online dating, ready for your party tomorrow, we would show up off-book and ready.”
House Party Theatre can appeal to a broad audience, McCreary says. Everyone likes being entertained, and will spend money on sports and concerts. Why not theater?
“Art is great for bringing people together,” he says. “But you don’t necessarily have to say ‘Hey! You’re watching art!’ You came to a sweet party. Did you have fun?”
The type of performance may vary, McCreary says. House Party Theatre’s Halloween event was a combination of silly sketches and roaming zombies, but a fully-staged production of Sam Shepard’s True West at That That, an art gallery within a Deep Ellum home, had its own vibe. Despite the differences, both events included a party.
“We’re very open to the idea of what a party entails,” Harris says. “We all have the ability to write, act, direct. You don’t know what a client is going to request for a theme so we have to be ready to lean on our group of artists and create whatever the event calls for.”
In the early days of HPT, McCreary and his staff networked through their day jobs, garnering attention organically through friends and coworkers. Their goal now is to partner with more commercial venues.
“We want people to be looking for a party for the weekend and know House Party Theatre is throwing one somewhere,” McCreary says.
Often those events are literally at someone’s house. In 2015, HPT threw 10 parties in clients’ homes.
For HPT, it’s now a balance of creating original events and parties the company itself hosts, and partnering with established businesses. All the while, HPT is stockpiling new content.
“If you asked me today if we could do a show about dead presidents and online dating, ready for your party tomorrow, we would show up off-book and ready,” McCreary says.
House Party Theatre is developing a Valentine’s Day show and can be seen at the Barley House on Feb. 21. A new musical, John Acemen: Secret Agent, is in the works. Visit the company’s website or follow House Party Theatre on Facebook for more info.