After an early morning spent sketching outlines for an original production that will have audiences following military personnel, prostitutes and preachers through different rooms at a Downtown motel, Troy Heard has just enough time to grab a cup of coffee before heading to the dark theater to paint sets for his holiday show, A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant. But right now, he’s not thinking about edgy, new-form theatricalism. He’s talking about the old chestnut Harvey, with its invisible 6-foot-tall rabbit.
“It’s beautiful. It’s so good,” Heard gushes. “First of all, it’s funny as hell. It’s totally screwball and has these great characters that are completely over the top. But the message—it’s a salute to the happiness in insanity and the blissful ignorance of a cynical, grasping world.” We pick up our coffees and head outside so he can enjoy the crystal-blue sky for a minute. Heard squints into the sun, and it’s as if his glare turns to the play. “But it’s dark, too. I mean, Christ, there’s Jimmy Stewart, about to receive shock treatments! If you’re starting out and trying to be all artistic in theater, the idea of Harvey leaves a bad taste in your mouth—it’s not edgy enough. But if you read it!”
He shakes his head and dismisses the idea of producing it any time soon. “It’s a well-made play, but it’s not what audiences want right now. Audiences—especially younger, millennial audiences—want experiences. They don’t want to just plop their money down to be entertained. They want to be involved, they want to be a part of the story and feel it that way, not just by watching it. How do you take them to that point? Not everything can do that. Not everything lends itself to that. But whatever can is worth trying.”
If Heard is about anything, he’s about trying. His company, Table 8 Productions, is one of the most prolific in town. Through it he produced four shows last year, in addition to his freelance directing for Off-Strip Productions and Super Summer Theatre, not to mention directing Pawn Shop Live! at the Golden Nugget and later at the Riviera. The man generates material at a ferocious rate, and seems fearless when it comes to experimenting with old and new. Right now, that means trying fresh ways of engaging audiences.
“There needs to be an element of movement. How do you get the audience up out of their seats and going to different places? ... I don’t know, but I want to figure it out.”
Heard’s last attempt to figure it out came around Halloween, with Jonestown, an eerie, original work based on historical documents collected from Jonestown members, along with some reporting on the cult. It introduced audiences to cult members, moved them through a Jim Jones sermon and finally enacted the last afternoon of the camp in Guyana. Set around the grounds of a local ranch, the play was more like a haunted house tour. Even for someone with a penchant for the horror genre—projects he’s directed include Blood Orgy of the Chainsaw Chorus Line and Anton Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard of the Living Dead—asking audiences to take part in ritual mass-suicide seems like a lot to ask. But Heard dug in.
He had faith that re-creating the morbidity of his childhood obsession with Jim Jones would resonate today, especially if he could capture the snakelike indifference of the man pushing his followers to take one final plunge. So rehearsals were spent orienting cast members with the cultural tenor of the ’70s, discussing the gas crisis, the post-Vietnam malaise and the after-effects of the civil rights movement—and finding all these threads in primary historical documents collected by the Jonestown Institute at San Diego State University.
Finding the threads and weaving them into a larger tapestry took Heard in a new direction, forcing him to ask how he could create something based on this multitude of stories, how he could stay true to these voices while building the conflict and structure of a traditional theatrical narrative. In the end, he sided more with the voices.
“They were promised the world by Jim Jones—all they had to do was sign their life over,” he says, shaking his head. “And that’s something, the immensity of it was something we wanted you to experience. So no, you didn’t necessarily get a strong narrative throughline. It was more of an emotional throughline.”
A powerful emotional throughline, exactly what is so captivating about Harvey—but in a form as unlike it as you can get.
Jim Jones isn’t the only megalomaniac Heard has presented lately. His holiday show, A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant, chronicled the life of L. Ron Hubbard in the form of an elementary-school pageant, complete with a cast consisting solely of kids. After one Friday night performance they swarmed around the stage and the seats in Art Square Theatre, teaching their younger siblings the songs and choreography, burning off the energy of the show. Heard stood at the door, a Santa Claus hat perched on his head, soliciting donations with a large Christmas stocking and smiling at the chaos. A delightful skewering of Scientology, the musical was written by Kyle Jarrow, but it was originally directed by New Yorker Alex Timbers, an artist for whom Heard has tremendous respect.
“I think the guy’s a genius,” Heard says, and it’s not hard to see the influence. One of Timbers’ breakthrough moments came in 2006, when he staged an unironic Hell House in a Brooklyn theater, letting audiences walk through all the punishments that come from the wages of sin. Timbers also developed and directed the musical Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson (which Heard directed here in 2013) and is blazing a trail of shows adapted from historical figures and staged in unconventional ways that Heard is trying to replicate. He mentions his spring project, Motel, a reworking of a classic play called La Ronde, which presents 10 sexual encounters across all strata of 19th-century Viennese society, whores to counts. He’ll be working with actors to update the characters and situations, and presenting the scenes in different rooms of a motel Downtown.
“It’s smart; it’s savvy; it’s theater for a new audience,” Heard says. If they’re willing to buy tickets to a play produced at an unknown location, if they’re invested enough to take that leap into interaction, why not more? He’s toying with the idea of bringing audiences into developing works earlier, letting them watch rehearsals and talk to the actors afterwards, and using viewers’ experiences and comments to build his shows.
Jonestown sold well, but its audiences were, by necessity, small. And Scientology, despite glowing reviews, never turned into the hit Heard felt it should have been. So while he’s excited to create the next wave of theater here, he’s nearing the limits of being fiscally able to do it, a point he underlines by holding up the Christmas stocking to show the donations he received.
“There’s a reason I direct seven to 10 shows a year. You have to have the quantity, because you make a few dollars off of each show,” Heard says, before turning to say goodbye to the last few parents and their kids. When he comes back the Santa hat is off. “It’s also another reason I’m trying to get Table 8 some really strong legs and build some partnerships for some long-standing work. It’s stressful as hell. But the cost of living here is low enough that it’s worth the try. And like every stupid optimist, the next show is going to be the good one, the one we’re going to take out of here. The next one will make the rent. The next one will float you for a while. It’s extremely stressful, but right now it’s all I know.”
The next time we talk, it’s a cold, gray day in December a couple weeks later. Rumors have been circling that the Onyx Theatre will be closing. And then there are the rumors that it won’t close, that Heard will be buying it, or running it. He denied and denied via text—until I suddenly got a call from him saying he’d just picked up the Onyx’s keys and was stepping in to run it as producing director. “I love a challenge,” he laughs, his voice echoing in the empty theater. “It’s been home to a lot of companies, and I think it has a great amount of untapped potential.”
He should know about both. Since Table 8 produced Theodora, She-Bitch of Byzantium there in 2011, Heard has been one of the Onyx’s most frequent tenants, whether producing his own work or directing for others. He starts laying out his vision for the space—cheap beer, good laughs—and how he’s going to reconcile that with core Onyx patrons who’ve come to expect musical theater and a significant gay presence. “While the Rack [BDSM boutique next to the theater] may be going away, it is definitely my mission to keep gay-friendly material, with Jamie Morris returning to the stage this summer,” he says. “And why would I not keep musicals? I have a soft spot in my heart for them. You may not see Songs for a New World, but you will see Bat Boy the Musical. You may not see Merrily We Roll Along, but you will see Heathers: The Musical.”
You get the sense that it’s not so much a departure from his mission as another experiment in finding an audience—in a more traditional venue, if not form. Maybe this will be the perfect place to unveil his modern take on light-opera classic The Pirates of Penzance.
“Gilbert and Sullivan are the Shakespeare of musical theater,” he says. “Shakespeare did the same thing. He took the popular stories of his time, ripped them apart and restructured them to find how they spoke to his audience. I want to do the same thing—bring it back, explore what it means and what it’s got to say to us. I want to do edgier stuff like Jonestown, like Motel—projects that aren’t The Odd Couple or Harvey. But you have to, you have to approach it with the same amount of entertainment value that those have,” he says, his voice rising.
“That’s what makes it worthwhile—doing new things and trying to engage the audience on a brand new level. What’s going to become the next part of the canon? What’s going to become the next Odd Couple, or Harvey, or fill-in-the-blank?”
That’s Heard’s self-appointed task right now. To fill in the blanks at the theater, and find new ways of engaging audiences with stories that demand to be seen, wherever they happen.