Brian Hagy has been a fixture in the local performing arts community for nearly 30 years. In that time, he has performed with the Celebration Company based at the Station Theater, the C-U Theater Company, Rantoul Theater Group, the Actors' Rural Theater Company in Tuscola and others. He is currently a core player with Zoo Improv, a local comedy improv troupe and the Director of the Developmental Services Center's Prompting Theater who performs their adaptation of Igor Stravinsky's ballet Petrushka at the Station Theater this Saturday at 6 p.m.
Smile Politely: Tell me a little bit about the Prompting Theater. What makes it different from other community theaters?
Brian Hagy: The Prompting Theater is a semi-professional theater company in Champaign-Urbana, with 27 actors currently involved. We differ from most community theaters in a few respects. The first and most obvious respect is that the actors who comprise the Prompting Theater have developmental disabilities. They all have a passion for acting, showing off, or playing around. Our job as an ensemble is to harness the creative musings of each actor into a whole production. Another distinction we have from other community theaters is that Prompting Theater actors get paid for their performances, so they're able to turn their passion and talent into an income.
SP: Why are you called the Prompting Theater?
BH: The name Prompting Theater comes from our exploration of ‘prompting' as a way to aid our actors. We do this so they can be seen as the actors that they want to be rather than the disability that they might be perceived as having. For example, we use walkie-talkies to help cue actors from offstage. We have also started using video projected subtitles and voice-over movies in order to cue the actors while helping the audience follow the scenes. We also use various physical and visual prompts to help actors remember what to do and what to say. Over the years, the troupe has mastered these skills, making prompting less needed in some cases.
SP: What level of input do your actors have in the creative process?
BH: Every actor is required to offer at least one idea in every show. Actors who prefer to express their ideas with words tend to write their own lines, though a DSC staff will help them flesh out their ideas if they get stuck. Some actors prefer to communicate with actions. The plot then arises from the techniques and talents of each actor. Then, depending on the mood of the ensemble, either they attempt to adhere closely to an already written plot, or take the basic story but twist it to make it their own. Sometimes they create an original story based on their discussions with one another.
SP: What is your role in this process?
BH: As the artistic director of the troupe, I want each show that the actors present to correspond with what they are interested in. Sometimes they want to do their own plots, sometimes they want to adapt someone else's scripts. But they are the decision makers. My task is to help them accomplish what they want to do.
SP: How does your work with the Prompting Theater compare to your other experiences in the performing arts?
BH: The biggest difference between the Prompting Theater and my other theatrical endeavors is that, over the years, the troupe has consistently shown an overwhelming passion for what they do. They all want to act in their own form. It's rare to find a troupe that shares this much passion amongst its members. It is especially rare to find this in a troupe this large.
SP: In the performances that I've seen, I've noticed a kind of playful seriousness amongst the actors and the support staff.
BH: The professionalism of the troupe is amazing. The actors always want to be doing their best, and want to be trying out new ideas and techniques. They're fearless in many respects. They're willing to push limits not only of what they can do, but also what their audience can expect of them. They aren't content with doing the same thing over and over again, or sticking with one joke (though they do have some jokes that they like to reframe from show to show, always figuring out a new way to present them in a new light).
SP: So how long have you been doing this for?
BH: The Prompting Theater began in 1995, with their first production being Peter and The Wolf. Since then, they have presented almost 40 shows, including adaptations of Shakespeare, the Phantom of the Opera, original comedy sketches, and even a show that takes place inside the colors of a painting. (The photos on this page are from Colors In Action: Inside the Artist's Studio.)
SP: What is your most recent production about?
BH: Their latest creation is an adaptation of Igor Stravinsky's ballet Petrushka. They took the storyline of the ballet, which is normally presented without words (and thus can be a bit hard to follow) and transformed it into a stage play with music. The actors infused words into the ballet, bringing the narrative to the foreground.
SP: Sounds great. Give us the rundown so we can check it out.
BH: Saturday's show is at 6 p.m., at the Station Theater in Urbana (223 N. Broadway). $10 suggested donation for tickets. The show lasts approximately 50 minutes, with no intermission.