Spotlight on ONEAL: The Nightingale Theater1
June 3, 2012 by molliveroneal
An Interview by Molly O’Connor
For over a decade, the Nightingale Theatre has presented new and original performance works, providing a highly creative edge to the Tulsa theater scene and a venue that brings together local audiences and artists. Located in the northeast industrial edge of downtown Tulsa, the quirky theater space is also considered an instrumental influence in the revitalization efforts of the historic Pearl District. Founded in the 90’s by four creative twenty-somethings (Sara and John Cruncelton and Amber and Jeff Whitlatch), the Nightingale Theater is a remarkable example of how young leaders have taken bold and brave steps to contribute to the arts in Oklahoma. Co-founder John Cruncelton shares more about the fab-four and their story of building the Nightingale Theater from the ground up, a true labor of love.
How did all of you originally meet? Are you all from Tulsa?
We all met in high school, in Broken Arrow. Sara, John, and Amber are locals, but Jeff showed up one day as a fresh transplant from Cincinnati sporting a twelve-inch high mohawk and a heap of urban attitude. He immediately entered into a fractious and infamous battle of wills with the school administration over his sartorial choices and became something of a galvanizing influence among the pathetic underclass of sensitive misfits (including Sara, John, and Amber). John was the type of obnoxious high school student who lugged a portable typewriter to classes and studiously (and noisily) clacked out abortive scripts on the subjects of entropy, vampires, God, and anything else that wasn’t an actual school assignment. He barely knew what a play was, but he had an idea that it could be something like a mixture of the Sex Pistols, Shakespeare, and Hee Haw. Sara and John were acquainted through the high school drama program, but at the time had limited interaction because Sara was notoriously silent. Not speaking was her trademark, and this commitment to inexpressiveness, however bizarre for an aspiring actress, had a delightfully subversive quality to it that helped cement the otherwise unspoken sense of kinship between the misfits. It should be mentioned that although she spoke little, she did drive the only polka-dotted car on campus. Amber was a well-known libertine and lived a life of genuine weirdness that the rest of us could only pose at. Her home was a headquarters for all sorts of subversive activities, and the walls were literally painted over with slogans and artwork from the adolescent rabble who gathered there to cling to insanity in the void of suburban blankness. In many ways, Amber provided a center for the nascent group. She also provided a romantic quest for Jeff, who more or less started courting her immediately, keeping up the pursuit well into adulthood.
Jeff at the time was an environmental activist involved with Earthfirst, and the agitprop side of his activities blended nicely with the theatrical interests of John and Sara, and the anarchic worldview of Amber. Somehow, this was the nucleus of the Nightingale Theater. This center managed to hold together well enough that the group was able to re-coalesce after the college years without too much loss of integrity…and Sara had also by that time learned to talk!
How did the concept for Nightingale Theater begin? Who initiated the plans and when did the theater first open?
The impetus for creating the Nightingale was to provide a home for the plays we were making. Starting in 1995, we were an itinerant troupe who worked project to project, space to space. John would finish a play, and the group would scrounge up actors, equipment, rehearsal space, and a performance venue. We rehearsed and performed in libraries, community centers, parks, living rooms, art studios, the Center For the Physically Limited, the Delaware Playhouse….anywhere we could get a foothold. We rarely stopped to ask why we were busting to produce these plays–the quality of work certainly was not that compelling–but we all appreciated the sense of direction the commitment to an artistic cause provided us. Eventually, we grew into the idea of building a modest temple to our humble, mostly unconscious pursuit of purpose, and the Nightingale was conceived. We opened in January 2000.
Why the industrial location?
The warehouse we settled in was the only building we could afford. Magically, it had everything we needed, including a defunct fire suppression sprinkler system we were able to rebuild for a tiny fraction of the cost of a new installation. But we didn’t seek out an industrial location intentionally. The building we needed was just there, waiting for us. We all truly knew the moment we saw it that it was the one.
What is the mission of Nightingale Theater?
The mission of the Nightingale is to facilitate inspiration. We follow the projects that inspire us. The troupe does not exist outside of the work. We have no dogma beyond the current project. We are all of us inspiration junkies, and we maintain the temple so we can get our fix of the divine.
What have you guys learned along the way?
Patience, humility, how to get a laugh, how to unclog toilets with a coat hanger, love for our audience, respect for money, fear of the goddess, how to tempt fate…. Foremost, we have learned, or at least started to learn, how to make theater.
What have been the major challenges in your endeavors? What have been the rewards?
The biggest challenge is maintaining a pure source of inspiration and not succumbing to burnout. Owning a facility adds a huge mess of daily grind type concerns on top of the artistic struggles, and the need for a constant production schedule to pay the bills can make creating art seem like a job. The best way we have found to cope? Relying on each other. The rewards are all in the moment.
How has Nightingale Theater created a positive impact on the Tulsa community?
That’s probably not for us to say… If you believe that art has any beneficent influence on society (which is debatable) then of course we can chalk that one up. John is personally dubious that art improves anything. But the basic DIY example the Nightingale offers probably has some value to those in the community looking to find their own meaning in a megalopolitan world of corporate brandthink. If we can do it, so can you!
How has Nightingale Theater benefited local performers, writers, musicians and artists?
We give ’em a home.
Why is Nightingale Theater perfect for Oklahoma?
No reason beyond the fact that we are a natural growth.
What advice would you give other new and emerging arts leaders who are interested in pursuing their goals in Oklahoma?
Don’t think about being a leader, don’t write a manifesto, don’t shake too many hands, and don’t get too clever at self-promotion. The only thing an artist is supposed to do is raise her babies. Make your inspiration manifest. Give your energy to the work you are creating and the other stuff will sort itself out.
In addition to featuring original theater, the Nightingale also presents multidisciplinary performances, music, spoken word and contemporary dance: a sure bet for your next lively arts night out on the town. Their schedule of events is available at www.nightingaletheater.com
This is great, Molly! Thank you so much for featuring us!