Pooling their experience and the desire to deliver a deep, wide theatrical experience, Ashley Farnham and Marvin Byas IV are lifting the curtain on a new Columbia playhouse.
In process since July, The Farnham and Byas Playhouse celebrates its grand opening this weekend with a mixture of virtual and in-person events.
Relative newcomers to Columbia, Farnham and Byas met within the local theater community. She arrived with experiences and lessons learned from nearly every aspect of the New York theater scene. He brought acting, directing and choreography chops gained in Kansas City.
Performing in and staffing various local shows, Farnham and Byas envisioned something new that could radiate to the rest of the community. Their playhouse holds two priorities highly: offering a place to gain wide-ranging skills, and staging shows that might not match other companies' aesthetic or mission, Byas said.
Open both to children and adults, the playhouse offers classes in various dance styles and voice as well as private instruction in audition technique. The format resembles a dance-studio model, though it offers "flexible registration," allowing students to literally change course after a month, Byas said.
Community theater, almost by necessity, tends to be niche-driven. Aspiring performers lacking experience in a certain genre or mode might be left on the outside looking in, Byas said. The playhouse intends to offer a highly collaborative environment which teaches actors to "decode the play," he said.
Offering a wide range of courses will allow performers to maintain momentum, and prevent falling into a "museum" mindset that often hampers the theater, Byas said.
“We curate this work of art, we sell the tickets for it and then we tear it down and we curate another work of art," he said. "It’s not living and breathing — and that’s what the theater’s meant to be.”
Farnham and Byas are also collaborating with Jabberwocky Studios to offer theater opportunities to "underserved" populations, Byas said. And the playhouse will eventually host The Georg Handel Society, an ensemble dedicated to the composer's work, conducted by Byas and accompanied by Columbia mainstay Rochelle Parker.
That group is in its very earliest stages, and springs from Byas' adoration of Handel's music, he said.
Despite the confines imposed by COVID-19, Byas sees this as "good a time as any" to begin a new creative venture. Theater always comes with challenges and the need to develop new skills in a short amount of time. Artists can test and grow their resilience at moments like this, Byas said.
“If you can be flexible, and if you can learn these things at such a difficult time, you do have the skills to adapt over time and not get in a rut," he said.
To learn more about this weekend's grand opening events, visit the playhouse's Facebook page.
This article originally appeared on Columbia Daily Tribune: New Columbia playhouse offers wide range of educational, on-stage experiences
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