Next level stages

New performing arts theaters and production companies are popping up all over town

The local comedy troupe The Utility Players can be scary funny. Shane Tolomeo and Amanda Alvey are pictured.

The local comedy troupe The Utility Players can be scary funny. Shane Tolomeo and Amanda Alvey are pictured.

I’ve been writing about performing arts in this town for more than a decade, and I’ve gotten to know the local theaters and the people running them pretty well.

So when I was putting together February’s spring theater guide (“Playing Around,” Arts & Culture, Feb. 5), I found it remarkable how often my sources at the usual venues told me they were hosting productions by new companies. Merry War Theatre Company, Vaude Villain, Potentialist Workshop and Homeslice Productions are just a few of the company names recently added to Reno’s increasingly vibrant performing arts scene.

You slice it

“There’s a burgeoning happening in all of Reno arts right now,” said Jessica Levity, a local radio personality who founded Homeslice Productions ( in 2009, calling it the umbrella company under which she plays with her imagination. Under it are The Utility Players comedy and improv troupe; spirituality and inspiration-based Alchemist Theatre; and the adult storytelling project she co-produces with Steve Emmerich titled Cincinnati, NV.

“The Renossance you’ve heard about is very real,” she said. “There’s a can-do energy that extends to the arts. Everybody wants to start their own something.”

But could the increasing number of new companies create an oversaturated marketplace for Reno’s tiny theater-going audience? Perhaps, but Levity is optimistic.

“I once heard a statistic that it’s the same 3,000 people going to local theater, so every show you go to, it’s the same people,” Levity says. “But for me, it’s all about the quality of the product. If the quality blows you away, you’ll come back. A lot of new things are cropping up and people are being blown away, so as long as the quality stays high, it will grow.”

Live up to it

There’s certainly no fear of failure where artists Pan Pantoja and Aric Shapiro are concerned. When they cofounded their performing arts company (“We are not a theater!” they both insist), Potentialist Workshop (, they did so with the intention of bringing brand-new works—no matter the genre or how nuts the ideas may seem—to the stage.

This philosophy is an extension of Pantoja’s artistic style, which he calls Potentialism.

“We Potentialists refuse to pick a genre or even a form,” Pantoja said. “It’s being able to flow in and out of art forms seamlessly.”

Since the Workshop space first opened last year—its current space is on Dickerson Road—they’ve produced some outrageous things.

“We’ve produced stuff that’s been brought to me on napkins,” he said. “I think Reno is brilliant. There’s so much talent here.”

To illustrate, he cites one show that was essentially a one-hour gripe about artists, performed by “workers” hanging paintings on a wall. Productions have included live music, live painting and sculpting, and a comedy called Dementia: The Musical.

There’s an original show each month and performers are all paid. The rest goes back into rent for the space. Though Pantoja, Shapiro and local patron Deb Girard supplement what’s needed, the art, Shapiro says, largely pays for itself.

“There’s clearly a fundamental creative drive, a wave of creativity happening in Reno right now,” Shapiro said. “The reason is that people share resources here, whether it’s social capital, materials, tools. There are lots of spaces and communities here willing to work together to make projects happen.”

Winning the battle

Born and raised in Reno, Chase McKenna’s love for theater began at age 6 and was cultivated through study and work in Los Angeles from high school until her 20s. At age 24, she formed her own theater company, Merry War Theatre Group—a reference to a line from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.

“I’ve found that theater is a merry war,” McKenna said. “It’s so creative, so fun, but there are a lot of battles—with rules and regulations, sites, spaces, directors. You’re constantly fighting this merry war until the battle is won.”

She moved back to Reno in early 2014 and brought Merry War ( with her. McKenna also is committed to paying cast and crew for their time.

Merry War shows are often at nontraditional locales, such as the VFW military bunker or the steps of the Lear Theater.

McKenna says that Reno’s theater renaissance may partly be driven by professionals, like herself, who once left town to follow their passions and now are returning.

“They’re realizing there’s a home here for art and a desire for it, and it’s making people come out of the woodwork, whereas before that wasn’t feasible,” she said.

And she’s convinced there’s an audience for all of them.

“The challenge with more theater companies is an improved audience palate for quality shows. It forces everyone to a higher standard, not just to make art but to make it very well.”

Wild party

“The theater scene has always been around, but it absolutely has grown in quality over the last few years,” said Kate Atack, who, along with John Frederick and Ashley James, owns Vaude Villain Entertainment, a performing arts and entertainment company founded in August 2014.

Frederick, whose longtime position heading up the TMCC Performing Arts company was eliminated, wanted to start his own business that would put his training and passion to work. He and James, who worked together on Brüka’s The Wild Party, cofounded Vaude Villain ( based on their shared interest in Evil Dead: The Musical.

Vaude Villain "was born out of our mutual desire to create theater catered toward the freaks, geeks and misfits,” said James. “Our goal is to expose theater to new audiences who don’t typically see local productions. Evil Dead: The Musical, which ran at Goodluck Macbeth last fall, is a great example of that.”

It’s more than just a theater company, running the gamut from event planning to linking actors with gigs, to commercials and short films.

“We cater to those misfits from odd walks of life,” Frederick says. “We’re working with burlesque groups, comedy groups, everyone. Our biggest goal is to show the world the amazing theater and performing art we have here in Reno.”

Atack, who has worked with nearly every established theater company in Northern Nevada over the last 17 years, recalls a time not long ago when she felt she wasn’t growing or having her artistic needs met in Reno, and wanted to leave.

But then, she said, “This amazing thing happened! It was almost like a complete transformation of the theater scene, and now I am proud to call Reno my home, and proud to be doing the work I’m doing here. And all of us in the theater community feel this way.”

Like Levity, Atack believes that Reno’s theater scene won’t really take off until attendance increases. She cites one statistic saying that while the average city’s theater attendance is 8 percent of the general public, Reno’s is 1 percent.

“[A]nd I can almost guarantee you that it’s mostly the same group of people who attend all shows,” she said, adding that most of them are friends of the actors or fellow artists.

“But there is currently such a sense of collaboration and community amongst the companies that I believe it’s a big part of why we’re seeing so much great work being produced,” she said. “We’re helping each other, instead of competing against each other. We’re sharing resources, and promoting each other’s shows, and volunteering at each other’s companies, and creating art together. It’s truly amazing.”