After Manbites Dog Theater announced its impending closure last fall, it didn't take long for strong mixed emotions to arise among the artists and technicians who'd found a theatrical home there. Dramaturge and actor Akiva Fox doesn't think he was alone in his first reaction—extreme gratitude to cofounders Ed Hunt and Jeff Storer for their thirty years of labor—or his second.
"[It was] panic," Fox says, "because that home was going away."
As these lost souls exchanged thoughts at shows and over coffee during the subsequent months, a group coalesced that was determined to keep producing the kind of work that placed Manbites at the forefront of the region's independent theaters. At present, they number more than twenty: a who's-who of notable designers, directors, playwrights, technicians, and actors, all intent on filling what Fox calls "the Manbites Dog-shaped hole in the community." Their name, Bulldog Ensemble Theater, reflects their focus on extending that legacy. Their first show is planned to open in September at The Fruit.
Bulldog is not an official successor to Manbites, which will transition into a support and granting agency for Triangle theater artists in 2019.
"We want to be able to strike out on our own," Fox says, "and not only do some of the things they did well, but things they didn't get a chance to do."
Bulldog also plans to offer classes in acting and playwriting in conjunction with the Durham Arts Council this fall. The goal, says playwright Howard Craft, is to "help bring up the next group of creatives in the community."
Still, in its approach to programming and organizing principles, Bulldog is clearly patterning itself after its predecessor. Even the company's projected first-season budget, $100,000 for four productions, is based on a model from the senior company.
Bulldog's first choice for its inaugural production, the 2015 off-Broadway comedy The Legend of Georgia McBride, had a number of qualities the company is interested in, according to Fox and dramaturge Marshall Botvinick. It would have been the North Carolina premiere of a recent American work with an edgy but bridge-building approach to gender issues, as a seasoned gay performer teaches a desperate, failing, straight Elvis impersonator how to become a drag queen.
But when Bulldog learned that Raleigh's Honest Pint Theatre had already chosen the script for its 2019 season opener, they didn't have an immediate substitute. At press time, after weeks of deliberation, the company still hadn't chosen its replacement or announced any first-season shows. But it has chosen three directors: JaMeeka Holloway-Burrell, artistic director of Black Ops Theatre Company; Process Series founder Joseph Megel; and Jules Odendahl-James, who was associate artistic director at Manbites Dog.
"It takes a lot of reading to select a season," says Botvinick, who estimates that Bulldog's literary-management committee has read fifty to seventy plays. "We're interested in works with the potential to speak to us on a local level and as a part of a larger conversation in our national and historical moment."
Odendahl-James believes that people went to Manbites Dog plays in part to see how characters in a recognizable world survive when that world doesn't do what it's supposed to.
"I go to the theater to learn how to live in a constantly changing universe, not a perfect one, or one I have all the answers to," she says.
Odendahl-James is excited about "the conversations we're going to be a part of that were unavailable twenty years ago. What can you say and how can you say it now in ways that weren't even possible back then?" One way is through gender parity; the company plans to achieve it with an equal number of male and female playwrights and directors in its first season.
No company could attempt to follow Manbites Dog's legacy without focusing on community. On its website, bulldogdurham.org, Bulldog unambiguously states its locally sourced ambitions: Of Durham, By Durham, For Durham.
"We're all longtime artists in Durham, and our vision for Durham is still evolving," Odendahl-James says. The company aims to reflect Durham's diversity—in race, gender, and age—which Craft says was "organic" at Manbites Dog because the people involved were living and active in the community. For Craft, the lesson is obvious: If you want to create diverse audiences, stage diverse work with diverse casts.
"If you don't feel like theater belongs to you, we're going to do shows that reflect as many of the different communities in Durham as possible," Fox says. "We don't mind being the first place someone comes to see a play."