You Get What You Pay For
The Fusion Theatre Company sticks five candles in its cake
By Steven Robert Allen
Whatever you do, please don't refer to the Fusion Theatre Company as “edgy.” They don't like being called “alternative” either—or “cutting-edge.” “Those are such tired terms,” says Jacqueline Reid, one of Fusion's founders. “They don't say anything.”
She's right, of course. But even to the extent that these words still retain some sliver of meaning after years of abuse at the hands of hack critics, the terms don't come close to describing Fusion's artistic vision. During its short but impressive five-year lifespan, the company has focused on quality rather than trendiness, and the results, quite frankly, have almost always been spectacular.
Laurie Thomas is another Fusion founder. “We often delve into what I would call classic dramatic literature,” she says, “and we look for what can connect a contemporary audience with the play. ... We certainly don't exclude new or more contemporary work, but the classics are at the core.”
The company works and plays inside the Cell Theatre, a beautifully renovated warehouse located Downtown next to the railroad tracks. “I can't tell you how many people have left the theater and, instead of commenting on the show, tell us how much they love our bathrooms,” laughs Dennis Gromelski, Reid's husband and the executive director of the nonprofit.
The Cell is certainly the ideal venue for presenting Fusion's ambitious artistic vision. It's intimate, classy and smart—very much like the company itself.
There are other, more substantial factors, though, which distinguish Fusion from the rest of Albuquerque's lively and ever-growing theater scene. Perhaps the biggest is that Fusion is the only Equity company in the state. From the beginning, the group has maintained a contract with Actors' Equity, the national labor union founded in 1913 to represent actors and stage personnel. This means that, unlike other theater organizations in town, Fusion actually pays its performers. We're talking real, honest-to-god professional theater, right in the heart of Downtown. It's an important distinction.
“Cutting that check,” says Gromelski, “tells actors that what they're doing for humanity is important. It means that we expect them to work to their highest potential, and that they deserve to be paid for that.”
Reid adds that their Equity contract has allowed them to bring quite a few talented local performers into the professional theater world. “This is truly an amazing thing,” she says. “It means that if they want to go audition on Broadway, they can, because they have their card and some real experience. It's a way to start.”
Fred Franklin has been involved with professional theater for decades and has been associated with Fusion from the very beginning, directing some of their finest productions. He’ll be at the helm for the company's upcoming staging of Tennessee Williams' Suddenly Last Summer (see “Williams' World”).
Franklin is quick to point out that Fusion, as the lone outpost for professional theater in Albuquerque, offers several advantages you rarely get in community theater. “There's an attention to detail,” he says, “a work ethic and experience level that you just don't find in community theater. The actors here have the right experience. They know how to take on a part.”
By way of example, Reid points out that while community theater productions often have rehearsal periods ranging anywhere from six to eight weeks, Fusion's rehearsals are typically a tidy and intense three weeks. Due to the experience of the professionals involved, shorter rehearsals don't lead to sloppier productions. Actually, just the opposite is true. Reid says the company knows how to buckle down and get more done in a very short time frame.
Personally, having seen almost all of Fusion's major shows over the last five years, I can attest that their productions—from the sets to the choreography to the music to the actual performances—do possess a polish and precision rarely seen in the Albuquerque theater scene. Tickets to a Fusion show cost a little bit more, certainly, but you can rest assured that you'll get what you pay for.
“From the beginning,” says Reid, “our goal has been to focus on presenting the highest possible quality of storytelling. We put almost nothing into marketing. Most of our resources go into putting the best work we possibly can on stage for our audience.”
A real city requires real professional theater, so we're lucky to have Fusion as a major creative presence in our midst. Fusion members all believe Albuquerque has matured dramatically over the last few years, and this maturity, they hope, will bring more professional theater companies to the city.
“It’s been invigorating to be a part of Downtown's Renaissance,” says Thomas, “and see life come back to the heart of Albuquerque. You can now go Downtown for a full and enjoyable evening as you eat a great meal ... grab a glass a wine and see a show.”
We’ve all seen it happen. Every year, slowly but surely, Albuquerque has become more and more like a big city—in the best sense of that term. Fusion deserves our gratitude for playing a lead role in that ongoing transformation.
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