MadLab XX: A Look Back and Forward
Anything that lasts 20 years is going to attract its share of passionate adherents and passionate detractors. There will be a refocusing: interests and passions are subject to change, and in the way of things, it’s inevitable that the once-anarchic and freewheeling will become solidified. MadLab Theatre, since producing their first show in 1995, is proof that this maturation process doesn’t need to mean stagnancy or complacency. It has been a guiding light for other companies producing original theatre art in Columbus.
MadLab was founded by Eric Myers and Dan O’Reilly, and their first production was a collection of shorts under the banner Grand Guignol, performed in the basement of salon Waldo’s on High (755 N. High St.). It billed itself as Mad Lab Theatre Project and named its producing arm NAIVE: New Artistic Incidents, Visions, and Experimentation. Within a few years, the NAIVE moniker disappeared and MadLab shortened its name. Grand Guignol had more staying power, being extended and going on for seven iterations through 2005 and establishing the template of quick hits, irreverence, and breakneck pacing in themed shorts that MadLab is known for. It established running series and imprints which carry on at MadLab to this day, including the FFN (Full Frontal Nudity) banner for improv and sketch comedy which first appeared in 1999 (19 runs, still going on to this day); Theatre Roulette (established in 2000 and still continuing); Comrades Christmas Carol (first performed in 1998 and again in 2000, 2001, and 2004); and Too Much Christmas (2005-2007).
Their early work was frequently site-specific, as in a 1997 adaptation of Euripides’ Bacchae titled Bakkee using the Wasserstrom Warehouse. Bakkee won a Critics Circle Award, was named among the best shows of the year by the Dispatch, Innerart, and The Other Paper, and is still spoken of very highly. Free Interrogation Seminar was staged in a conference room at the downtown Courtyard by Marriott and structured as an actual seminar going awry.
In 1999, they took over the building at 105 N. Grant Ave., in the shadow of CCAD, and this permanent home enabled MadLab to produce full seasons – they’ve never done fewer than four shows of their own material in a season since. This stability also enabled MadLab to begin using its space to host fledgling theatre companies who needed space – the first record of this I found was Total Theatre’s production of Theodora. This has been an immeasurable boon to the theatrical scene in Columbus, giving early and ongoing space to companies as acclaimed as Available Light, Red Herring, and too many others to count. Beyond their own work, it’s not an exaggeration to say having a flexible, affordable downtown venue has helped theatre troupes present more work in a season and provided a stable launching pad for work that might not have been staged otherwise.
2000 brought the introduction of MadLab’s signature series Theatre Roulette, the first time the company had performed plays written by members other than co-founder Eric Myers. Theatre Roulette, founded as an invitation-only festival for the work of company members and invited guests, grew into a showcase for local and regional talent and progressed to an open call garnering more than 1000 submissions each year for Central Ohio’s longest-running festival of shorts. As this evolves, the nights are organized into themes that recently included nights of all Ohio playwrights, nights of a single playwright, Roulette Rookies having their first play produced under the Roulette Banner, and Roulette Veterans.
Between 1999 and 2009, MadLab racked up accolades including year’s best lists in all major media outlets that cover Columbus theatre including The Other Paper, Columbus Alive, and the Dispatch. Award-winning productions included multiple years of Theatre Roulette and Grand Guignol, Split by Ira Gemerman, A Shadow in the Dark by Jared Latore, Age of Bees by Tira Palmquist, and numerous citations for being among the best theatre companies in town.
In 2009, MadLab took a gamble on a move that would give them a more assured future and an even bigger, more visible imprint on Columbus’s theatre community – purchasing and renovating their current home at 227 N. 3rd St. The last show in their Grant Ave. space was in February 2010, and they were in 3rd St. within months. As someone who has seen many shows in both venues, the new location is nicer and more flexible in addition to being more centrally located, while still keeping a focus on affordability for other theatre companies.
One of the most exciting things MadLab has done over its history has been its work nurturing the next generation of theatre artists. Since its inception, through the leadership of co-founder Eric Myers, MadLab worked with children in conjunction with the Columbus Arts Festival, running the Wexner Center’s Summer Youth Program, and more. In 2011, current Artistic Director Andy Batt decided, in keeping with MadLab’s focus as a playwright’s theatre, to work with young writers, a balance to the plethora of performance-based youth workshops in town. Sifting through submissions from local high schools and pairing aspiring young playwrights with experienced, produced writers within the company and without, they staged their first Young Writers Short Play Festival in 2012. In three short years, and under the direct guidance of Michelle Batt, it’s been a runaway success, selling out every available seat in 2014.
In its refocusing on core values and competencies around producing great theatre, there are once-integral parts of the perceived work of MadLab that are not as prominent as they once were. For people of a certain age and inclination, your correspondent among them, MadLab was a very respected music venue. They booked fascinating, non-commercial music that didn’t quite fit in the bar community and wasn’t quite big enough for the Wexner Center or CAPA, including touring bands who went on to wide acclaim and large fan bases like gypsy punks Gogol Bordello and country-collagist Jim White; international acts like Tuvan throat singers Yat-Kha; and cutting edge improvised music like nmperign and Burning Star Core. One of my most moving musical moments in almost 20 years of going to shows was seeing Japanese psych band Acid Mothers Temple play MadLab the week after 9/11. As well, MadLab’s fundraiser the Volatility Festival ran for 10 years, providing a DIY downtown festival well before Independents’ Day and bringing many bands together who may not have shared a stage otherwise. Music booking stopped around 2003 because they found there were so many people interested in making theatre in their space, as well as a proliferation of other music venues in Columbus, but they were magical shows that are still remembered fondly.
The gallery space in MadLab has also seen changes – originally run by one company member (Chris Beaty, then Margaret Evans) and later a committee, MadLab hosted gallery shows by invitation or submission that provided a different angle on visual art in Columbus not precisely in line with the full time galleries. Recently they’ve partnered with Ohio Art League, which is also dealing with some changes. Expectations are the gallery will again become a vital stop on the visual art circuit in town.
2015 brings the 16th Theatre Roulette, the fourth Young Writers Short Play Festival, two long-form improv shows, and three new full-length original plays. MadLab remains focused on their commitment to being the only 100% original works company in central Ohio. This history – and future – will be celebrated with a 20th anniversary party in their 3rd Ave. space on Saturday, April 18th.
The MadLab 20th Anniversary Party begins at 8:00pm on April 18, 2015. Suggested donation is $20.
For more information, visit www.madlab.net.