Ogden • Imagine walking into your favorite coffee shop or bar. That’s how Camille and Alicia Washington want you to feel when you come through the doors at Good Company Theatre.
“It’s not pretentious. It’s approachable,” Camille said, and “feels like you.”
The arts world hasn’t always been “accommodating” or “welcoming” to Alicia or her sister, “being a woman of color,” she said.
But they want their theater — the only Black-owned theater in Utah — to be a safe place for audiences and artists “to hone their craft and to take risks that maybe they have been disempowered to take other places,” they said.
Now entering their tenth year of running Good Company Theatre, Alicia, 37, and Camille, 38, are excited to welcome back audiences this spring, after months of unconventional productions during the coronavirus pandemic.
They began the year with Tennessee Williams’ “The Two-Character Play” which delves into a brother and sister’s struggles with mental illness.
“Tennessee Williams says it’s his most autobiographical play,” said Teresa Sanderson, 61, of Layton, who directed Good Company’s version and who’s known Alicia since she was a teenager.
The way Alicia and Camille see it, the arts “should always be adapting” and growing. Their current season runs through May, with Siena Marilyn Ledger’s “Man and Moon” and Charly Evon Simpson’s “it’s not a trip it’s a journey,” exploring issues of race, friendship and identity.
“It’s always been important to us,” Camille said, with the shows we do, “to be responsive to the times, our experiences, our location.”
A dream in a coffee shop
The idea for Good Company lived in Alicia’s mind for years before becoming reality in 2012. When she used to work at Grounds for Coffee, Alicia said she told everyone who came in that she was an actor who would one day run her own theater company.
Later, Alicia called Camille, asking if she thought this dream was possible. With Camille’s support, they started taking steps.
Coming from a performance background, Alicia knew how to find people and put on a show, while Camille, who had worked more on the arts administration side, focused on applying for grants and developing a mission statement.
The sisters, who are 18 months apart, have “almost like an onstage/backstage kind of dynamic,” Camille said. The older they’ve become, the more they realized how ”we complement each other,” she said.
“We annoy each other at times, for sure. That’s never going to go away,” Alicia said. “But we’ve always deeply respected and supported each other immensely.”
Good Company’s first home was in a 1,200-square-foot space on 25th Street, above an adult novelty shop. It had a “crumbling infrastructure,” Camille said, and “our swamp cooler leaked on the audience.” The sisters had to figure out “how to block actors during their breaks,” Alicia said, so they could get to their one bathroom, located on the opposite end of their small dressing room.
The two put on 25 productions in that first space before moving five years ago to their current – and much bigger – two-story location on Wall Avenue. Together, they transformed the former screen print shop into a theater, installing speakers and a lighting grid, painting the stage and cutting through a concrete wall downstairs to make a pass for actors.
“I definitely painted these floors,” Camille laughed, pointing down at the blue-gray ground.
“I come in one day and she has a hammer and chisel, and she’s chiseling out the tile,” Alicia added. “I’m like, ‘What are you doing?’ She’s like, ‘I hate the tile.’”
“There’s a lot of us in” Good Company, Camille said. “Our handprints are all over this place.”
Camille took all the photos hanging on the walls in the lobby from their past plays – except for the image of a woman behind the concessions stand. That’s Veronica Washington, Camille and Alicia’s aunt, who left her nieces money after she died that helped get the theater off the ground.
“She’s our patron saint here,” Colleen Washington, Alicia and Camille’s mother, said, smiling.
Washington, 73, of Ogden, is regularly in the lobby with her daughters during their shows, and she watched as they got ready for the Feb. 4 production of “The Two-Character Play.”
“I think every parent wants to see their kids doing what they love to do,” she said. “And they love doing this.”
‘What theater could be’
It wasn’t until probably the last few months that Alicia said she recognized, while talking with Camille, how “my first big step into theater” was marred by “racist undertones, to be quite frank.”
Growing up in Layton, Alicia auditioned for the spring musical “Oklahoma” when she was in seventh grade. To prepare, she studied “Saturday Night Live” skits of Gilda Radner performing Roseanne Roseannadanna with her mom and sister, before settling on The Queen Of Hearts’s “Who’s Been Painting My Roses Red?” from “Alice in Wonderland” for her audition monologue.
When Alicia was cast as Aunt Eller, there was almost immediate pushback from parents, who used a derogatory term for a person of mixed race to argue that the character should be played by someone who is white, she said, “clearly making race an issue.” The director stood by Alicia, telling the parents that “she cast me in a role that she saw me in.”
“That was my first taste of the ‘the great white way,’” Alicia said.
And of “what was to come,” added Camille, who was on the stage crew for that school musical.
At Good Company, Camille and Alicia wanted “to have a range of productions that were more contemporary” and allowed for more “diverse casting,” they said.
On the company’s website, the Washingtons state their casting philosophy: “We seek to honor the intentions of the playwright as provided in the script. If the playwright only offers general character traits, or does not list anything at all for a specific role, Good Company Theatre will not assume the neutrality of a certain person or type over others when casting. …
“We welcome all to audition, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, age, ability, or any other physical attribute.”
Alicia said, “We faced our own barriers being in visual arts and then theater along the years, of people putting upon me how they want to experience or see theater, versus unlocking what theater could be.”
She remembers going to a casting call in New York when she was older for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical “In the Heights.” Looking around the room, there were eight other women, “and we all kind of looked the same,” she said.
“That was really affirming, going back to the “Oklahoma moment”, where I was Aunt Eller, and I stood out,” Alicia said, “whereas ... everything about me was being embraced in this particular moment.”
In a play together
There is very little that separates the audience from the actors at Good Company Theatre. It’s a black box theater, with rows of black chairs wrapping closely around the stage in a U-shape.
At the Feb. 4 production of “The Two-Character Play,” audience members sat so close that they could see the tears roll down actor Jesse Nepivoda’s cheeks in an emotional scene.
At one of their first shows on Wall Avenue, “we had an audience member come out,” Alicia said, “and be like, ‘I can’t really get into it.’” The man felt “really put off” seeing the audience members sitting across from him and said, “I find myself watching their reactions.”
Alicia recalled that she told the man, “instead of feeling like you’re on display, I encourage you to think of yourself as ... the collective,” experiencing the play together. Maybe that would make him more comfortable during the second act, she said.
“He came out,” Alicia said, “and he was like, ‘I did that. I love the show. I didn’t realize that it was OK that they were watching me, or I was watching them, because we were in these moments together with the actors.’”
Alicia then caught herself, adding, “I’m sure he didn’t use moments. That’s such a theater thing to say,” she laughed. But that situation captures how people can try new things and be vulnerable at Good Company, she said.
Alicia and Camille had to get creative and try new things themselves when the coronavirus pandemic began in 2020. They started the Window Seat Sessions, where performers could stay safe inside while putting on a short show through big windows for an audience seated outside, with the sound piped out onto the sidewalk.
Then they moved fully outside, putting on ”Catharsis Two”, a musical political satire, from their parking lot, still with distanced seating. And last fall, they moved productions back inside, with “Fremont Junior High Is NOT Doing Oklahoma!,” requiring audience members to wear masks and show proof of vaccination.
The uncertainty and stress of running a theater during a pandemic has only made it “clearer how much this is ... our identity,” Alicia said, and how the sisters show up for their community.
“Man and Moon” runs March 24 through April 10, and “it’s not a trip it’s a journey” runs May 5 to 22 at Good Company Theatre, 2404 Wall Ave. in Ogden.
Tickets are $25 for general admission and $17 with a valid student ID at the door. Visit www.goodcotheatre.com.
Face masks and proof of COVID-19 vaccination are required to attend. More information is available at goodcotheatre.com/covid-19-policy
Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.