Orlando troupe New Generation Theatrical charges into an ambitious 2022-2023 season with ‘Reasons to Be Pretty’

Meghan Mitchell and Gregg Baker Jr. in "Reasons to Be Pretty"
Meghan Mitchell and Gregg Baker Jr. in "Reasons to Be Pretty" photo courtesy New Generation Theatrical

If you want to hear a positive story about pandemic-driven pivots in Central Florida culture, just give theater producer Aaron Safer a phone call.

He first burst onto the Orlando arts scene more than seven years ago with shows like The Flick and Heathers: The Musical, staging some of the first local productions to use the brand-new Dr. Phillips Center. In the following years, Safer's for-profit Gen Y Productions was renamed Generation Productions, gained nonprofit status, and eventually evolved into New Generation Theatrical (newgentheatrical.org). Now Safer's troupe has reinvented itself again as an alternative theatrical company with a bold new mission and brand-new leadership, just in time for the launch of their ambitious 2022-2023 season with this weekend's opening of Neil Labute's Reasons to Be Pretty at the Abbey.

"We went through iterations to find our DNA, which we have found with New Generation Theatrical," Safer tells me in an interview ahead of the show's May 5-8 run. "My passion was actually to make theater more accessible, so the pandemic oddly gave us a way to do that," through a Facebook-based lunchtime virtual performance series called "Cracking Open a Cold One" conceived by writer-director Michael Knight. Safer says the series "was an opportunity to pay actors and writers and create art, but abide by the pandemic world situation, and it was really cool."

As the pandemic died (or dies) down, Safer says he was prompted to "think about how to take New Generation Theatrical to a place that fulfilled the vision of great theater that is accessible and entertaining and unique, while making sure we properly compensate everyone involved." He quickly realized he needed more help achieving that aim and recruited a new board of directors composed of Faith Boles, Michael Knight and Nicole Visco. His relationship with Knight goes back to producing his Zombie Island spoof at the 2017 Orlando Fringe, and he's worked with Visco for most of a decade in both theater and talent management.

As for Boles, Safer says this is the first time they've ever collaborated professionally, despite knowing each other socially for years.

"I sat down with her one day at lunch and I was just like, 'What do you think about working together on this level?' And we started talking about what we really want to see in theater," recalls Safer. "We both want to concentrate on accessibility, and commitment to diversity and inclusion, and supporting artists and actors and creatives, [so] all of these things just kind of fell into place easily and organically."

A major element of New Generation's commitment to supporting artists that caught my attention is their promise to pay their cast and crew as W-2 employees (instead of the usual 1099 contractors), providing a $20 minimum hourly wage with workers' compensation and other benefits.

"If we want this professional theater to feel and look professional, then we need to pay people professionally," says Safer, adding that they plan to engage Actors' Equity members under the special area contract, handling their salaries directly to save the cost of a union paymaster. "We're treating our actors like seasonal or temporary employees just like they do at the theme parks, because we want them to view it as a job."

For audiences, Safer says, New Generation is also "trying to create multiple opportunities for not only actors and production members to be involved, but for people to experience our shows." To that end, ticket prices for all shows start at only $15, thanks to the support of their sponsors and donors. "It's about making sure of the community's support, and continuing to properly fund future productions so that people continue to get paid."

You can experience New Generation Theatrical's new approach in person this weekend at the Orlando Repertory Theatre's black box theater, where Knight will put into practice the company's new emphasis on immersive productions that treat published plays as if they were original scripts. Safer says the intimacy of the Orlando Rep black box allows them to "tell the story" of Reasons to Be Pretty in a way it hasn't been as yet in Orlando, adding that Knight (who helmed the controversial Fringe hit Anne Frankenstein) is "really turning it on its head."

"The show's tagline is 'a love story about the impossibility of love' and Michael has kind of taken that and created a commentary on everything from the common perceptions of love to the memes about beauty that you see all over social media," says Safer. "He's using the story itself as a way of almost creating a unique narrative, but the unique thing that we're doing is making sure that the staging and everything really pulls people in.

"There is a lot of setting, but there's not a lot of set. There's the actors, there's very unique lighting that you'll see, and there's the audience. There's no wall, and we're doing our best to eliminate that completely, so that the audience actually feels like they're sitting next to these characters."

That approach promises to be employed throughout New Generation's 2022-2023 season, both in the small-scale Show Series and the bigger-budget Production Series. Scheduled titles include Sondheim's Sweeney Todd at the Mezz, directed by Kenny Howard; a fundraising concert revival of Heathers; Gothic Manor, an original occult comedy written by Knight; Patrick Marber's Closer; the Kander & Ebb revue And the World Goes 'Round; and Gretchen Suarez-Pena's Wingman.

"It's not just about inclusive casting and production members, which we are concentrating on, but we also want to fully embrace those ideals when it comes to what we're presenting on stage," says Safer, explaining that the season was built with diversity in mind. "And even if it goes against the norm of what the show would be, it doesn't matter to us, because that's not what the norm should be."

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