The man behind the curtain

The founder of Black Curtains Theatrical Productions wants to challenge convention

Christopher Chen, the founder, artistic director and playwright behind Black Curtains Theatrical Productions, isn’t afraid to push the envelope.

Christopher Chen, the founder, artistic director and playwright behind Black Curtains Theatrical Productions, isn’t afraid to push the envelope.

One might expect the founder of an upstart local theater company to be a bold and ballsy character, replete with flash and panache. But like the infamous man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz, the head honcho behind Black Curtains Theatrical Productions is more of the mild-mannered intellectual type.

Christopher Chen, 22, professes high aspirations for his new theater company, and he delivers these proclamations in a deep, quiet voice that rings with sincerity. Unlike the Great and Powerful Oz, Chen is determined to deliver on his promises.

A skeptical theater-goer may already have doubts about Black Curtains’ future, as the group has had to reschedule two performances so far this season and has yet to make its stage debut. But Chen says he’s confident that the start-up kinks will be worked out soon.

“We’re not going away,” Chen says. “We don’t plan to fold in the next few months. If it weren’t worth doing it, we wouldn’t be doing it.”

For Chen, it is worth the current struggle to eventually produce plays that will challenge audience’s conventions and expand their perceptions.

“We’re not afraid to push the envelope as far as the subject matter,” he says. “A lot of theater in Reno is very safe. It stays away from things that are challenging. Basically, we just don’t want to be conventional. We aim to push it that much further.”

But will local audiences be receptive to this challenge? Chen, a Reno native, is willing to take the chance.

“I do feel that the Truckee Meadows is worth it,” he says. “It deserves an art form that will expand their perspective. Even if Black Curtains doesn’t do it, even if I don’t accomplish it, someone else must.”

Chen’s role in the success of Black Curtains will be key, as roughly half of the plays slated for production this season will be his own work, including Sarasponda and Alyssa, or the Absence of Insanity. As inspiration for his plays, Chen cites movies such as American Beauty and Shakespeare in Love because of the way these films convey feeling. The much-discussed “dancing plastic bag” scene in American Beauty prompts Chen to remark: “I lose it every time.”

But oddly, for a playwright and aspiring screenwriter, it’s not film that sparks Chen’s imagination the most.

“What inspires me is mostly music,” he says. “Music tends to put me in a certain state of mind … I like anything that makes me think about the world differently. The best music is a unified work of art.”

For this reason, Chen relies more on Peter Gabriel and Miles Davis than Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier. Of course, as a writer and a history/comparative literature major at the University of Nevada, Reno, Chen also cites authors such as William Faulkner and Umberto Eco as influences.

But of all his influences, the Chen says two people very close to home have affected him the most: Launie Gardner and Tom Meschery, his English teachers at Reno High School. (Gardner now teaches at Truckee Meadows Community College High School.)

“They’re responsible for me writing in the first place,” Chen says.

His experience with the nuts and bolts of theater came later, with the Nevada Shakespeare Festival and as a theater minor at UNR. As his experience with theater deepened and broadened, the idea of starting his own company grew as well.

“It’s an idea I’ve had for a few years," Chen says. "Until now, I didn’t have the information or the maturity to even think about it. But the time is right. There’s a need for it. And why not?"