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INTERVIEW: Sarah Nargang and Leading a Wayward Theatre Company

A production photo from Wayward Theatre Company’s 2017 performance of Moliere’s Tartuffe at the James J Hill House in St. Paul, MN. Photo by Lauren B Photography.

If you moved to the Twin Cities and asked some theatregoers for companies to follow, one of the names that would come up again and again is the Wayward Theatre Company. Small wonder: this company has been producing eyecatching and unique presentations of theatre for almost a decade. Attending one of Wayward’s shows is not just an engrossing experience, but also a conversation piece to tell your friends about.

Case in point: Wayward Theatre Company’s end-of-year show is a twist on Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol. This time, however, the action does not unfold on an expansive set or in a small room, but across the breadth of the James J Hill House in Saint Paul – one of the area’s most lavish mansions from a bygone age of railroad barons and grain magnates. It’s a space whose rooms leap from the austerity of the servants’ quarters to the lavish entertaining rooms – perfect for the emotional and extravagantial ricochets of Dickens’ tale.

The Arts Reader’s Basil Considine spoke with Wayward Theatre Company artistic director Sarah Nargang about leading a company that styles itself as having been “formed from the ashes of 3 Augsburg University graduates”.

You’re the artistic director of Wayward Theatre Company. How long has the company been in existence, and how long have you been involved? 

Sarah Nargang is the Artistic Director of Wayward Theatre Company.

The company has been around since 2013 in its current form and I am one of the co-founders along with Michael Kelley and Tim McVean. We graduated from the same theatre program together in 2004 and have been working together ever since in one form or another. Wayward solidified and landed with our first show Criminal Genius, which is set in a hotel room. We were broke and wanting to produce a season around one box set to cut costs. So many shows take place in a hotel room, we could reuse it three times!

As we went down this rabbit hole, we had the idea that we could do it in an actual hotel room, the set it mostly built in and honestly, that’s how Wayward was born. We rented a room at the old Thunderbird Hotel (which used to be in Mall of America’s parking lot). The management was amazing at the time or possibly just incredibly absent, but – either way – we rented that room for a month and were able to sit an audience of 15-20.

Since there were two entrances into the room, one from outside the hotel and one from inside the hotel, actors were running through the halls covered in blood to make their next entrance. We couldn’t do that today, but it was a blast at the time. I remember a quick change where one of my favorite people, Karen Wiese-Thompson and I had about 1.5 minutes to run down the hall, through the pool area and out the lobby and be around the back to enter again, fully covered in blood and ash. It made a bit of a buzz at the hotel, and we found that folks who were staying at the hotel for the night would come and be mixed in with die-hard theatre folks that made the drive from the cities.

We sold out a ton of those tiny performances. That’s when it dawned on us that bringing shows to the public was more than putting up theatre in a traditional space and trying to convince the general public to share their time with us.  Lots of people don’t feel at home in a theatre for a variety of different reasons but would watch a performance at a space that they are more familiar with or that is interesting/unusual. Our audiences are not your traditional theatre audiences and we absolutely love that.

Sarah Nargang in costume. Photo by Black Hand Photography.

What is your next show coming up, and what are its highlights? 

For the first time in forever (three years), Wayward Theatre Company is gratefully doing a main stage production and we could not be more excited. I have been spending the last year creating a new adaptation of a classic and this winter, it’s coming your way.

In partnership with the MN Historical Society, Wayward is bringing Charles Dickens’ horror classic, Christmas Carol – A Ghost Story, to the historic James J Hill House.

One part haunted house and one part Christmas magic, brave audiences will be huddled in small groups, shoulder to shoulder with Ebenezer himself as he struggles to survive the evening in St Paul’s own haunted mansion.

A unique piece of this immersive production includes three rotations of the play staggered throughout the night each performance date. The audience will be small groups following their own Scrooge throughout the house. It’s a huge undertaking and I am so very excited to direct it. Shannon Twohy is assistant directing with an incredible team of designers and talent assembled, I think we are going to have a ton of fun (and hopefully some terror!)

WTC has done a lot of performances in non-traditional spaces. What are some of the things that make a space attractive to the company?

Accessibility is a big one. We want everyone to be able to enjoy our shows so the space has to be accessible for everyone. That’s a non-negotiable. After that, it all comes down to the feel of the space and do we have a show that compliments the room. In choosing a space, sometimes we have a script that we really want to do and actively seek out an interesting space and organization to partner with that would honor the show and create community for and in the space.

Factors that we look at within those spaces are if we want the show to be stationary or moving, how many audience members can be comfortably sat, sitelines, can we leave our equipment in the space or does it need to be set up each night etc. In later years, we have had the grateful opportunity to be asked by museums and unique buildings and organizations to come take a look at their spaces to see if a show would work. We love this, of course. Typically these organizations are looking for ways to build community for their patrons or neighborhoods and there is nothing that brings folks closer than a good story shared with a stranger. With the right set of circumstances, you become family at the end.

Wayward Theatre Company in rehearsal.

Over the years, we’ve gained audience members who join the Wayward family this way. Our audience isn’t your typical Twin Cities theatre audience. Last time we polled, most of our audience didn’t go to see other plays on the regular. But they will come out and join us in a partnership for the evening, experiencing a space or a story in a new way. We are incredibly grateful to our brave patrons!

We also have an ongoing storytelling series, Mixtape, which we typically perform at Urban Growler Brewery. This consists of five storytellers, accompanied by live painting by Chris Gorecki and a live band performing music in between the stories. These nights really feel like we come into a space with the audience and we all go through something together. Urban Grower is wonderful for this since they are such an open and welcoming business to begin with, we get to come and be part of that community and it feels really special.

Besides company-level leadership, what role(s) – creative, administrative, production, etc. – do you take in a given season?

The company is made up of three of us: myself, Michael Kelley, and Tim McVean. Depending on the year, the show or the timing, we each are able to rotate and swap roles pretty seamlessly. I typically do the marketing for all of our shows, sometimes act, often I am the social media manager and PR. But depending on the extent of the workload for any show, we swap those roles around.

Since the three of us are so close and have been working together for over twenty years, it’s been a great partnership and an easy work life.

A production photo from Wayward Theatre Company’s 2018 production of Hamlet. Photo by Lauren B Photography.

What are two recent shows by other companies that caught your attention?

I couldn’t wait to see Theatre Mu’s production of Lauren Lee’s Cambodian Rock Band. And I was very excited to finally see Walking Shadow’s Cabal!

Tickets for Wayward Theatre’s 2022-2023 season are now available for sale at: Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story will run November 30, 2022-January 1, 2023 at the James J Hill House in St. Paul, MN.

Basil Considine