January 27, 2011 at 11:56 am EST | by Patrick Folliard
Breaking the ‘Rules’

Feb. 4-7
No Rules Theatre Company
H Street Playhouse
1365 H Street, N.E.

Director Joshua Morgan watches a rehearsal of 'Touch,' the current production of No Rules Theatre Company. (Photo by C. Stanley Photography, courtesy of No Rules)

Starting a new theater company is daunting. To start up with a dual-city operation is downright loco.

But that’s exactly what the founders of No Rules Theatre Company did, and after almost two years of mounting productions in both Washington and Winston-Salem, N.C., they are off and running. Lead by three 20-something University of North Carolina School of the Arts alums (managing producer Anne Kohn and co-artistic directors Brian Sutow and Joshua Morgan, who is gay), the burgeoning company is striving to fulfill its mission of presenting broad-spectrum, high quality theater and making plans for a third, vastly expanded season.

Initially, actor/director Morgan was uninterested in being part of a new theater company. “There were so many already. I wasn’t so sure that the world really needed yet another one,” he says.

But after Kohn, Morgan and Sutow decided to move their North Carolina production of John Cameron Mitchell’s trans-glam-punk rock musical “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” to Washington for a second run in June of 2009, the trio (who are now all D.C.-based) was so encouraged and embraced by the local theater community that Morgan rather speedily changed his mind.

Soon after, the newly formed group’s dual city model began to take shape.

“At first I thought it was crazy to focus on two markets, but now I see it as a major advantage in building strong projects through longer runs and being able to tap into more than on market for fundraising,” says Jeremy Skidmore talented D.C. director and No Rules board member. “Another advantage is that No Rules was started by a group of people who all spent years in school together. Jumping into a venture with an ensemble of people who actually share the load and know how to work together is huge.”

Morgan says, “Playing in two cities is challenging both logistically and in terms of the plays we present. What flies in Winston Salem isn’t necessarily going to be as well-received in Washington. For instance, earlier this season some D.C. theatergoers turned their noses up to our production of ‘You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.’ Similarly, some audience members in Winston-Salem have had problems with the sex scenes in ‘Touch’ (the company’s current production directed by Morgan and opening next week at H Street Playhouse) which are incredibly tame by D.C. standards.”

At first, the young company shied away from tackling “Touch,” Toni Press-Coffman’s drama about a young astronomer who attempts to rebuild his life with a vulnerable prostitute after his wife is brutally murdered. The 15-member group’s leadership agreed that it was a difficult play that required incredibly special actors; it was something they thought they might want to revisit after a few seasons. But when it came time to select a play to follow their frothy fall musical (“You’re Good Man, Charlie Brown”), they reconsidered.

“Because our mission is truly to present broad programming for a wise audience base that’s experiential and visceral and we are serious about challenging ourselves,” Morgan says. “We decided the time was right.”

Morgan became interested in theater as a high school freshman in Montclair, N.J. Around the same time, he met his first boyfriend. Morgan wasn’t too concerned what his mother would he think. He remembered her telling him when he was a little boy: “If you were gay, I’d be swinging from the rafters.” Today, she regularly calls from home offering to set up her son with prospective boyfriends.

“My work takes me to a lot of different cities and towns, and it seems to me where there are gay people, there is life, culture and understanding,” Morgan says. “I think being gay helps me to be more open and that makes me a better director and actor.”

Next season, No Rules plans to produce four yet-to-be-announced plays (two exclusively for D.C., one for Winston-Salem, and another to play in both cities).

“We’re excited about the future,” Morgan says. “Like Michael Kaiser [Kennedy Center President], NRTC believes in good art, well marketed. We stand by what we do and look forward to more opportunities to take it to the public.”

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