Rocky Road 

Spontaneous Productions' pioneering theater

Steve Martin is departing the Spontaneous Productions board this month after seven years, having performed in several of the company's plays and serving as the board's chairman the last two years, following the illness and subsequent death of co-founder Scott Stewart in April 2004.

When confessed Boise theater addicts Scott Stewart, M. Lane Thomas and Steven Lanzet met for lunch one day in 1997, they had one major goal: to stage a play that appealed to the Treasure Valley's queer community, a theater-going segment largely overlooked up to that time.

That first play, the delightfully campy Cute Boys in Their Underpants Fight the Evil Trolls, staged at the Neurolux bar, was so well attended in the fall of 1997 that Stewart, Lane and Thomas were encouraged enough to launch an entire season of gay-themed plays the next year--this despite the fact that the company had no permanent venue.

The journey was a bumpy one. Spontaneous Productions spent the better part of the next five years roaming from place to place, sometimes rehearsing plays in board members' homes without knowing if the planned performance venue would be secured by opening night. Once, staging Paul Rudnick's large ensemble comedy Jeffrey in 1998, the cast rehearsed in no less than three spaces, including a cast member's driveway, losing two actors in the lead role along the way.

"What sets Spontaneous apart is that we do plays that other theater companies in the area won't do," summed up Gerry Bryant, a longtime Spontaneous board member, director and performer. "I think doing Jeffrey was certainly one of the highlights. It brought in a lot of new people and created a lot of challenges."

Between 2002 and 2003, Thomas and Lanzet each departed Spontaneous and both have since moved out of the country. Stewart took the reins and decided the company was ready for phase two of its growth: finding a permanent home. A former fire station at Boise and Broadway avenues proved a good fit.

Stewart and the rest of the board soon discovered that with permanence of venue comes change. A theater company producing primarily gay-themed plays all year round cannot survive in Boise. Even now, approaching a new year in the 21st century, audiences still largely squirm at the sight of queer folks having any kind of intimacy on stage or in the movies--or in real life for that matter--making gay-themed dramas a particular challenge to stage.

Spontaneous decided to take its mission statement of envelope-pushing theater to a new level, staging shows that not only tackled gay subject matter, but raised awareness of other social issues as well--something it had done only very occasionally in past years with shows like Peter Shaffer's often-disturbing, but eye-opening Equus.

One of this past season's best examples is The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. The story follows Henry David Thoreau, a man taking a stand against what he considers his government's unjust war against Mexico. The plot easily mirrors how many view the current U.S. administration's acts of aggression against Iraq and Afghanistan.

Thought-provoking plays like Thoreau are what the current Spontaneous board believes lie ahead as its members contemplate moving into a larger venue early next year in the ParkCenter Mall in east Boise. Negotiations with the mall's owners started after Spontaneous vacated its Boise and Broadway space in June.

"Spontaneous Productions, like any venture that strives to succeed, continues to evolve from its founding within the gay and lesbian community of the Treasure Valley," said Mike Silva, a longtime Boise-area theater director and actor who joined the Spontaneous board in 2004 and assumed the role of the company's business manager this past summer.

"It's now a broader mission that states simply that the company wants to do great plays that know no social or sexual boundaries, works that carry messages of hope, understanding and laughter, that showcase the works of contemporary playwrights, as well as the works of authors whose works have become classics," he said.

Playwrights like Don DeLillo, Edward Albee, Lanford Wilson, Sam Shepard, Terrence McNally, Arthur Miller, Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams all have a place at Spontaneous, Silva said, as well as emerging playwrights with works as yet unknown.

Spontaneous hopes to present eight to 10 plays during the coming year, he said, including a staged reading of Miller's Death of a Salesman; and full productions of McNally's Lips Together, Teeth Apart and Albee's Three Tall Women.

"Spontaneous wants to be a venue where artistic and creative freedom and freedom of expression are the most important factors, a community theater that will deal in cutting-edge subjects contained in great contemporary as well as classic plays, plays that shed light on our lives and the world we live in," Silva said. "We'd like our audiences to depart when the curtain goes down with a feeling that what they have seen was worthwhile, a feeling that they have, perhaps, a better understanding."

Ian Taylor, another longtime Spontaneous board member also departing the company this month, echoed Silva's sentiments, noting that his lengthy tenure with the company is due largely to the people he has met in productions.

"I've done 19 shows with Spontaneous," Taylor said. "The allure is the attention to the heart and soul of the people who do shows with us--that sense of fun that was set down by the founders. I've worked at other theaters around town and you want to laugh at how seriously people can take this stuff."

Taylor is directing and co-starring in Spontaneous' sixth outing of Richard O'Brien's The Rocky Horror Show, the classic cult musical that has become the company's signature production. The show continues through Oct. 29 at Spontaneous' temporary venue at the corner of Latah and Cassia streets.

"Whether it's issues of sexuality or other taboo subjects, theater audiences like to be challenged more than people know," Taylor said. "If people leave a Spontaneous show thinking that the world is a bigger and more interesting place, then we have done our jobs."

The presence of Spontaneous' founders, particularly Stewart, is something that the company's longtime board members miss often, but the shared feeling is that the trio would approve of the company's direction as it heads into its ninth season.

"I wish that Scott was still with us," Bryant said. "He was the cornerstone of the company. But I know that he would be proud that we are continuing to do quality theater."

Now showing: Richard O'Brien's The Rocky Horror Show, Spontaneous Productions, 703 S. Latah (corner of Latah and Cassia). Tickets are $20 at the door or in advance at TicketWeb outlets or www.sponprod.com. Shows begin at 8 p.m. each Th. through Sa. through Oct. 29, with additional 11:15 p.m. shows on Oct. 22 and 29.

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