• Lillie Burke

More than just cheap laughs

Bright lights, ornate stages, elaborate sets and over-the-top costumes all come with a pricey entrance fee. This intricate type of production has become synonymous with modern theater and its inaccessibility to the average viewer.

Two Belmont theater professors are looking to change this fine arts cliché with the creation of a new production company, the Five Dollar Recession Theater Company, or the FDR, as the founders affectionately refer to it.

Nettie Kraft and Jim Al-Shamma — two of the founders, directors, producers and also actors —started the group to provide a creative outlet that brings a “touch of reality” to theater students with opportunities to perform outside of the academic realm.

“There are so many wonderfully creative people in this town, but they feel like there are not enough outlets,” Kraft said. “Here’s where we come in.”

Unlike most theater companies, the FDR extends the creative process to performers and outsiders. Any actor, musician, writer or theater enthusiast is welcome to give their input, Kraft said.

“We don’t want to be a closed house at all,” she said. “Even if we don’t know you, we’ll take you seriously, but don’t expect a pay-to-play.”

The Five Dollar Recession Theater is about embracing a lack of budget and design elements to allow a large emphasis to be placed on the actors and the script. These ideals go against many productions, where budget limitations are seen as a hindrance to the vision of the performance.

Currently, the company’s productions are housed in Belmont Little Theater, located in the basement of Hail Hall. The dark space, generously provided by the theater department, has become a test in Kraft’s eyes of how much a student truly loves to act.

“The Belmont Little Theater is the kind of place you can get dirty in but also poses the question of ‘Do you love this enough to work in a basement?’” Kraft said.

Al-Shamma and Kraft wanted to create a company that brought strong scripts that “changed theater but were rarely seen on stage” to life.  A major source of inspiration for the Five Dollar Recession Theater was the Steppenwolf Theater, a company Kraft worked with in Chicago.

“They could perform in a toilet and the audience wouldn’t care because of the talent and the scripts they performed,” Kraft said.

In late June, the company put on its first production, “The Cripple of Inishmaan” by Martin McDonagh, a dark comedy based in Depression-era Ireland.  The cast of seven, most of whom are Belmont graduates, not only acted but also played the traditional Irish music heard throughout the performance.

Future projects include performing Peter Vice’s “Marat/Sade” in late October, adapting a novel for a “reader’s theater” production; and possibly performing a Strindberg play with puppets.

“We want to push some boundaries, not for the sake of being strange but to see what could happen,” Kraft said.

The ticket price for all performances, as the company name suggests, is a mere $5 —  a sum the founders hope will cover royalties.

“Theater is always a gamble. …With the price we are charging, there is not much on the line,” Al-Shamma said.

By charging significantly less than $12 for a movie ticket or $60 for a nosebleed seat at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center, Kraft and Al-Shamma hope the FDR will be accessible to a new generation of theatergoers.

“Frugality doesn’t mean a life without art,” Kraft said.

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