Every year brings a crop of new theater companies opening in North Texas, but it’s rare for one to have the experience behind it that comes with Orchard Theatre of Texas, thanks to co-founders Jim Covault and Richard Allen. The group launches this weekend with an original revue called “Spirit of the Trail.”
For about 35 years, Covault was a major player at Stage West, serving as artistic director in more recent years, and is known as a director, actor and designer. Screenwriter and playwright Allen was head writer for “Days of Our Lives,” won two Emmys for his writing on “As the World Turns,” and is on the faculty at Texas Christian University’s Bob Schieffer College of Communication. Allen has also written plays performed at Stage West, has directed there, and has served on its board of directors.
Orchard took root when, as they were both working at Stage West, Allen approached Covault, who had recently announced his retirement from Stage West.
“He asked me if I was retiring because I’m tired of running theater or tired of running [Stage West],” says Covault. “I said ‘probably the latter.’”
It’s not that Covault is done with his association with Stage West — he’s directing the play “Sex With Strangers” there this summer, and he lives in the Magnolia Lofts just two buildings down from Stage West on West Vickery Blvd.
“It was just time to move on,” Covault says, adding that he’s thrilled about the direction that current executive producer Dana Schultes is taking the theater, investing in newer, challenging work.
Turns out, moving on means starting a theater from scratch — something he had not planned on.
Blazing a new ‘Trail’
Orchard Theatre opens this weekend with its first “pop-up” show. “Spirit of the Trail” celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Chisholm Trail, and was conceived and written by Allen, with songs ranging from tunes by Cole Porter and Irving Berlin to Toby Keith. Also heard are Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” and “The Farmer and the Cowman” from “Oklahoma!” as well as new songs, bridged by monologues about life on the trail.
Performances for the first weekend are in the Rotunda at the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame and Museum in the Cultural District, followed by four weeks in a banquet hall at the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame in the Fort Worth Stockyards.
“When I was on the board at Stage West,” Allen says, “we were always dealing with problems of the building. I thought ‘Wouldn’t it be great not to have to deal with the responsibilities of having a building?’”
Thus the idea for Orchard. During the run of “Spirit,” Covault and Allen plan to announce a four-show season that will begin this fall, with shows “in myriad exciting settings,” the news release states.
Covault and Allen are still pinning those shows down, but say that the season’s template will have a new piece, a classic work, a work with a Texas and/or local connection (by Texans or about Texas), and a work examining cultural identity.
“Spirit of the Trail” is a sampler of those things. It’s a new work with classic songs and themes, it’s about Texas history and it explores the identity of westward settlers and ranchers.
The cast includes actors familiar to Fort Worth theatergoers: Gigi Cervantes, Amber Flores, Michael Isaac, Jim Johnson and Kristal Seid; both Isaac and Johnson are members of Actors’ Equity Association, meaning Orchard is already starting out paying its artists. Not to mention that starting with a musical means live musicians and more pay.
The two theater veterans are not starting on the easiest path.
“I’ve been doing some fundraising,” Allen says as they both smile, hinting that something noteworthy is in the pipeline.
As for the idea of pop-up theater, Covault says that after his time at Stage West, which had a number of homes over the years with fixed stages, he’s eager to produce work in unconventional theater spaces — as has been a national theater trend in recent years.
“The whole idea of rearranging the audience in a different performer/audience relationship is exciting,” Covault says, noting that spaces in warehouses, galleries, museums and outdoor areas are intriguing. It’s involving many skill sets he says he hasn’t used in a while.
“This was not something I was planning on doing,” he says. “I’m having to do things I didn’t do before, because it was something that [late co-founder] Jerry [Russell] or Dana [Schultes] or someone else did.
“And that’s a good thing.”
Spirit of the Trail