The Impresario of Vegas
If you’re the artistic type, there’s a certain story you share with other artistic types. And while all the pieces may not be exactly the same, there are enough similarities to recognize a fellow practitioner. It usually involves a university, some grandiose dreams, some collaborative cohorts and a late night coffee shop with a specific table, where you all hang out and where all your dreams and desires and plans are poured out with every bottomless cup of coffee.
For Troy Heard, the coffee shop was in Georgia and the communal sitting spot, Table 8, was right next to the jukebox. Unlike a lot of the people who share the beginnings of this story, Heard left the coffee shop and actually turned the plans into reality. And Table 8 became the name of the nonprofit theater production company he’s been running for the last decade. “First it became a catch-all for ad hoc productions. The LA Premiere of Debbie Does Dallas the Musical back in 07,” he explains. “When I came back to Vegas, it was the beginning of this new trend of immersive and site-specific and interactive theater, that was really spurred on by Sleep No More in New York.”
Heard originally had come to Las Vegas in 2005. He stayed two years before going back to Atlanta to help some friends start a new theater company. But that was the year of the financial collapse and by Christmas 2009, he was back in Vegas, looking for venues for his new ideas. “We wanted to start crossing the boundary of ‘Let’s go sit down and watch a play’ versus ‘How do we become part of the play.’” Their first attempt was Oregon Trail: The Play, based on the ubiquitous ‘80s video game. While the play itself was produced in a regular theater space, it included video game elements: The audience could “shoot” at the cast as if in an arcade gallery.
The immersive idea continued. Table 8 produced shows like A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant, the story of L. Ron Hubbard told entirely by kids; andJonestown, about the 1978 Guyana tragedy in which more than 900 people died in a mass murder-suicide. In Jonestown, all tickets were presold. Ticket holders were emailed the location (from “The Peoples Temple,” which welcomed them as new congregants) only on the day of the show.
Heard, who also writes a number of the company’s productions, took the original transcripts of the tragedy and crafted a two-part script, first having the audience listen to the actual words of leader Jones in the form of a sermon. “It was his highlights, it was his stance on politics, his stance on race relations, his stance on religion. And midway through the sermon was interrupted and you’re swept off to ‘Guyana.’ You were taken outside, under the stars, and we created the final day of Guyana. The audience was taken through the line and you opted to drink the Kool-Aid or not drink the Kool-Aid. It was a way of exploring the tragedy from the congregants’ point of view.”
While Table 8’s primary drive is the immersive and site-specific shows (keep an eye out forThe Cat’s Meow at The Velveteen Rabbit for the company’s latest effort), it does contract out, producing shows for other venues. “Have to do your Christmas Carol or Annie to pay for everything else,” Heard says, laughing. And to that end, they’ve done two shows for Super Summer Theatre out at Spring Mountain Ranch. Last year, they did Bye Bye Birdie, but still “tried to find Table 8 elements” and had the cast, preshow, wander the audience, recruiting new members for the Conrad Birdie Fan Club, inducing them to pledge and sing the club song.
Unfortunately… Table 8 doesn’t always put food on the table. “You’ve got to constantly hustle, you’ve got to constantly pick up gigs,” says Heard. “People make fun of me for doing so much. They say you direct a show a month, why do you do it? That’s because one show is not going to pay a bill, but 12 shows over 12 months eventually will take care of things. … You just can’t rest and you can’t stop. Not until you write Hamilton, then you’re fine.”
With that in mind, though, a more permanent position wouldn’t go amiss. And so it was that in December 2014, five years after he returned to “The biggest small town I’ve ever lived in,” he was asked to come in and take the reigns of the Onyx Theatre. His choice was either accept the position or watch the theater close. Heard had directed a few shows there and agreed, provided the owners gave him carte blanche to do as he wanted: that meant focusing on comedy, producing original work and closing The Rack, the infamous fetish shop that shared theater space that Heard wanted for a studio.
It worked well.
“I stepped in,” he says, his boyish enthusiasm belying his 40 years, “and we’ve just been working really really hard over the past year and a half. We made an announcement last week: We have formed a new board of directors that is establishing a new nonprofit entity called Onyx Theatre Inc., and we are going to purchase the business, take over the lease and continue taking the Onyx in a positive direction.”
That includes (as the theater finishes up its 10th season) taking an original production,Titus Andronicus, Jr., to the Hollywood Fringe Festival and lining up an even more commercial 11th season. “We took a lot of risks this year,” Heard says. “We did four world premieres, which was great, but we’re looking ahead. We’re looking at a five-year plan to grow the facility.”
Part of what he’s fighting, though, is Vegas itself. “It’s the Vegas 72-hour mentality,” Heard explains, “and that trickles down from the Strip. The city reinvents itself every 72 hours, and you have to constantly remind people these things are still here and this is still going.”
Heard is hopeful, though, that things will change soon, and for the better. With companies like Cockroach Theater and Super Summer “upping their game,” and the Smith Center starting to produce its own shows, he thinks we might “start eventually seeing Vegas on the national map for theater, for culture. It just takes the algorithm of consistency and quality.” He also believes we have the ultimate theater farm team in the form of the award-winning children’s theater group, The Rainbow Company. “Rainbow is a cornerstone of theater in Las Vegas and education in Las Vegas. It crosses all the boundaries,” he says. And Heard’s Onyx is the youthful thespians’ steppingstone, taking in volunteers and cast.
Sure. “It started with Scientology Pageant, which was the first time I worked with kids out here in Vegas. The parents were all amazed: ‘You work really well with kids. Maybe you should do Shakespeare.’”
But just doing a Shakespeare play performed by kids isn’t enough. By Heard’s reckoning, you can see that in every high school in America. Still, he was intrigued by the parents’ suggestion. “Somehow I work well with kids, even with the twisted sense of humor,” he says. Taking a cue from the Addams Family, he wondered What if you do Titus with kids? Yes,Titus is a bloody, brutal play, but “that was too much of a gimmick,” Heard says. Finally, he hit upon the right concoction: a play about a teacher directing a student production of Shakespeare, with a “wraparound of the teacher having the meltdown and Titus’s descent somehow (reflecting) the teacher’s descent.”
The show played successfully through May. Now, it’s on to Hollywood for a three-week run at the Fringe festival – kids and all. And you can bet while they’re in Tinseltown, Heard and his cast and crew will sit around a coffee shop table dreaming up a plan for what’s next for Las Vegas theater.