The way Todd Cunningham sees it, Tulsa Project Theatre and the University of Tulsa's Musical Theater Department are going steady. In fact, he says, they're pretty much engaged.
And if they still feel this way about each other in the middle of April, when their collaborative production of Rent has finished its three-day run at The Joint at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tulsa, he expects they'll go ahead and get married.
"We have a written agreement for one production," Cunningham said in the wake of the production's announcement. "If all goes as we think it will, we'll plan to do more productions in the future."
Cunningham, the spokesman for Tulsa Project Theatre, said this joint project between the fledgling nonprofit professional theater group and the university is an important milestone in the evolution of theatrical productions in Tulsa.
"This is a unique collaboration," he said. "Nothing like this has ever been done in Tulsa. The University of Tulsa has never done anything like this, but it ended up being attractive to them because their students get to work on the big stage at the Hard Rock."
Indeed, the stages don't come much bigger in Tulsa than The Joint's 2,700 seats and 45,000 square feet of space, at least for theater productions. But this project won't represent the first time the two entities have combined their efforts.
Machele Miller Dill, director of TU's musical theater program, directed Tulsa Project Theatre's wildly successful production of The Rocky Horror Show at The Joint last fall. Cunningham -- who personally tapped Dill to direct that project -- said talks began immediately afterward with the university in regard to the two groups officially collaborating on a production. Since both already had obtained the rights to produce a version of the rock opera Rent, it only made sense for that to be their first project together.
"It started with a lot of discussions, a lot of what-ifs, what's possible and what's not," Cunningham said. "Ultimately, we were able to draw up an agreement between Tulsa Project Theatre and TU that everybody was happy with. Every element of it is really unique."
The door to the collaboration was opened when Dill agreed to direct Rocky Horror last fall, Cunningham said -- not that she had much choice. Dill was in New York at the time working on other projects when Cunningham called her and asked her to take the reins of the show.
"I told her I wouldn't take no for an answer," he said.
And Dill didn't disappoint.
"Her vision was amazing," Cunningham said. "What she brought to Rocky was beyond belief. She is the most amazing teacher I have ever encountered."
The partnership will be good for both entities, he believes.
"It helps us because it allows us to be something more than just another theater company," he said. "It's changed our mission."
Enhancing the TU Musical Theater Department is now one of the goals of Tulsa Project Theatre, he said.
"It'll help with recruiting. It'll help grow that program," he said. "That department doesn't get anywhere near the publicity they deserve. I went to their last show, and I thought, 'This has got to be seen by a wider audience.'
"So we're expanding our mission to something in addition to producing great theater. This is going to have a lasting effect."
Cunningham said he's eager to witness the dynamic that is created when the professional actors who already have been signed to perform in Rent -- including Wendy Lynette Fox, who performed the role of Joanne in the national touring production -- share the stage with TU students.
"I can tell you I've talked to both sides, and they're both so excited -- the professionals from the perspective of they get to teach, and the students from the fact that they get to work with professionals on stage," he said.
Rent, which opened on Broadway in 1996 and won a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for Best Musical, is perhaps the ideal vehicle for this first collaboration, Cunningham said, explaining that it's a perfect fit for a venue like The Joint.
More than that, he said, it's an important play that stems from a defining era in theater history. The story follows the lives of a group of impoverished young artists and musicians who are trying to make ends meet while living in New York's Lower East Side. The play is set against the backdrop of the HIV/AIDS epidemic that ravaged that community.
That's not a history many young theater students are likely to know much about, Cunningham said.
"Machele has done an amazing job of not only teaching the script and score but introducing (students) to the things Rent represents," he said. "It's not about how you're going to pay your rent, it's how are you going to survive. These students have never been exposed to that."
Rent will be presented at 8pm April 14-16 at The Joint. Tickets, which are priced at $35 and $55, go on sale Thursday, March 3 at The Joint box office. They also can be purchased by phone at 918-384-ROCK or online at hardrockcasinotulsa.com/thejoint.
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