What’s in a Name? (or, Shakespeare Was Simplifying)

Naming a theatre group is a singularly frustrating task.

Way back in the dusty wilds of 2008, when this whole shindig was just an idea swimming around in my head, I was stuck. I had just come off years of working with other theatres, and had shortly before finished a brief experiment in helping to create a summer theatre from the ground up back in my hometown of Ipswich, MA. Fantastic experiences, both. But they were at an end. As such, I found myself company-less.

These were dark times. I was bursting with creative energy and had no outlet! The lack of theatre in my then-present situation and that small taste of freedom provided by the summer theatre tag-teamed to create a big idea: a plan to create a theatre company of my very own.

It was crazy, I know. Who would put me in charge of a theatre group? Well, I would, for one. So I started from there.

“What if…?”

Every one of us has had the “Well, if I ran this theatre…” thought when working for another company. Feel no shame! It’s not a malicious thought at all. It’s simply your artistic instincts begging to go wild. Peculiarly, at that time, when I had the occasional “what I would do” moment, there was no framework to hang those thoughts on. No limitation. No preexisting mission or hierarchy or agenda to dovetail into. It’s a very strange place to find yourself as a theatre artist, let me tell you. Eventually, all these thoughts snowballed into a cohesive structure of what I wanted from a theatre. A pipe dream, sure. But. The stars happened to align just right at that time, and low and behold, a door opened. I called a few friends, and stepped through.

I knew what I wanted with this endeavor. I wanted a group that wouldn’t be tied down by the kinds of theatre we did. I wanted to dive headfirst into new work while still being able to explore the classics. I had big aspirations to do tiny, intimate café pieces. I had small hopes of doing a huge, bombastic show. Anecdote: I was once in a play that was set on a park bench. One day, we packed up to go and rehearse on a real-life actual park bench tucked away in the Boston Common. It was strange and exhilarating impromptu live theater. We—quite literally—captured the audience as they walked by. People rubbernecking at our “argument” stopped to see it out. Surprise! You’re watching theatre. The play ended with my character addressing an invisible (now actual) crowd that was watching the bench. It was thrilling. Anyway, I wanted to do that, too.

The Problem

But the name? What to call it? I had no idea. Not a solid one, anyway. Funny thing, how there’s a lot of pressure to come up with a creative name that expresses how your creative company is creative. It vexed me.

The name needed to reflect our output perfectly. It needed to strike a chord and not just be catchy, kitschy, or memorable. I needed to love it. Over time, a laundry list of names and titles piled up, ranging from the embarrassing to the just-not-close-enough. There were names that would be great for other, theoretical theatres whose shows I’d be intrigued to go see. But none of those names seemed to fit into the plan, which by this time was so clear in my head.

Then, one day – as most of my good (and bad) ideas do—it just popped into my head:

Vagabond Theatre Group

I was surprised at how much I liked it. I mulled it over. Don’t want to be tied down? “Vagabond” works for that. Does it sound good? It starts with a nice, emphatic “vuh”, has a pleasant cadence, and the acronym was sturdy, too (say it with me: “Vee Tee Gee”. That was nice, everyone. Good work). And—what really won me over—was how it reflected on me, personally.

And Thus We Had A Name

I knew that in order to get this whole endeavor off of the ground, it would be a lot of work. I was living outside of Boston at the time, commuting in. I knew we’d have to borrow, scrape, scavenge, and crash on a lot of couches to keep all the parts form falling out of the air. I’d have to take advantage of the hospitality of a lot of friends. When figuring out logistics, I begrudgingly came face-to-face with the hard facts that we had no home theatre, no build space, and nowhere to rehearse. “Vagabond” was really starting to ring true.

To digress a little, I’d like to clear something up.  Sometimes, when people hear the name “Vagabond” they think “Vagrant” or “Tramp”. Oh, no no. There’s a subtle difference, my fair people. A quote I’ve come to love is one by Arthur Compton-Rickett. He described a vagabond as someone “with a vagrant strain in the blood, a natural inquisitiveness about the world beyond their doors.” And I love that. It’s not that we have no home, or no place to be, or no place to call our own. It’s just that we love to keep moving, to keep seeing new things and doing new dos, and not letting ourselves get complacent with doing the same thing over and over.

“If you build it…”

The whole ordeal of actually getting off the ground is a story for another blog post—it’s the typical tale of tired stressing out over something they love at all hours. And as far as I’m concerned, it’s not a complete story, so we’ll wait on writing that. But one part of that first push into life really warms my heart:

We met our now-Literary Associate Zach Winston during open auditions for that first show. He hit his reading out of the park, and he hopped right on the VTG train. He told me later, after he found how rough-and-tumble and bare bones we were, that the reason he decided to answer the casting call was something along the lines of “the name sounded like a solid company.”  So I guess it was the right choice. He’s been with us ever since.

Vagabond Theatre…Group?

It was also during that first year that not only did “Vagabond” ring true, but we started really sidling up to the “Group”. Our Technical Director, Josh Friedensohn, whom I’ve known for years, built that first show, and has steadfastly stuck by us ever since. Zach joined us. Our lighting designer, Lucas Garrity, has lit every one of our productions so far.

I really do prefer “group” over “company,” for the record, even if other people get it wrong every once in a while.

“Vee Tee Cee” is just as catchy an acronym, so that doesn’t play into it at all. But “company” to me denotes a business structure—a solid, rigid set of rules by which to do something and accomplish a goal. “Group” hits me in the exact opposite way. It hints that we are a bunch of people coming together to do what we love. That’s something I can get behind.

And so, apparently, can others. Our now-Marketing Director, Allison McDonough, joined us for our second show and immediately grabbed the bull by the horns, bringing much needed class and knowhow to our matchstick house. The lovely actor Rachel Katherine Alexander joined us then as well, and has continually graced us with her presence.  Along the way we pulled in and kept some great people: Production Manager, Erica Magelky; Development Manager, Gabrielle Krumins; all-around handy man David Max Gibbons; actor Ryan Edlinger; makeup artist Katie Richmond, and more! The list of people who make this Group what it is keeps growing. “Company” just doesn’t seem to cut it.

Where We Stand Today

We’ve been Vagabond Theatre Group for three years now. Slowly but surely we’ve been making our way along, and with the more Vagabonds we collect on this journey we push ourselves further and further. Our second show was a foray into original work, and it scored us an IRNE nom. Our third show was original, too—but took a huge left turn and was a historically-accurate melodrama about pirates.

We’ve done existentialist and absurdist readings. We’re taking True Believers, a show about Comic-Con and superheroes, to Improv Boston’s Geek Week in April (keep following our adventure with that play… good things are coming). We’ve gone where the wind has taken us. To me, that’s essential Vagabond – it’s about the “getting there” not about the destination.

What’s in a name? To me, everything. Whenever I see “Vagabond Theatre Group” emblazoned on a business card, a poster, a program, or an email, I see exactly who we are: a collective of people who have had a long journey into the wilds of theatre.

I see people who have done radically different shows with the same gusto and love of life for each one. I see long nights on friends’ couches worrying about rehearsal space. I see our staff, stealing all the comfortable chairs at Starbucks to have a meeting every week. I see individuals from disparate walks winding our way into each other’s lives and somehow ending up at rehearsal.

I guess in short I could have just said “We are Vagabond Theatre Group,” and that would have said it all.  But where’s the fun in that?

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