Monday, Jan. 12, 2009

A Conversation with Aaron Kopec pt. 1

By Russ Bickerstaff
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In arranging an interview with Alchemist Theatre Co-founder Aaron Kopec for an A&E feature, I quickly found out how much time he spends at the place: nearly all of it. The man who helped make one of the most active small theatre spaces in town requested the interview to be there at the theatre/bar. I showed-up not more than an hour before he was set to open on an evening in the middle of last month. We talked across a darkened bar. What follows is a rough transcript of part of our conversation:


THE HOURS

Me: It occurs to me that whenever I come to a show, I see you around . . . and depending on what your level of involvement with the show was, it always seemed to me that seeing you here before a show . . . that the bar was kind of like your living room.

Aaron Kopec:
[laughs]

Me: . . . and looking over you schedule for any given day, it occurs to me that it kind of IS . . . you’re here more than you are at your own place.

Aaron: yes. Most of the week I get here at like . . . 7:30 . . .

Me: A.M.

Aaron: yeah.

Me: Like, if you totaled-out the total number of hours . . .

Aaron:
Oh, I’d be afraid to do that . . . because then I’d realize that I’m getting paid about . . . 2 cents an hour.

Me: But you are getting paid.

Aaron: well . . . occasionally [Alchemist Theatre co-founder] Kirk [Thompsen] splits tips with me.

Me: Had you ever envisioned when you got into theatre that this is what you’d be doing?

Aaron:
um . . . no I don’t think so. When I first started getting into theatre, I was more into theatre. I had a little recording studio and things like that . . . and video production. I thought I was going to be a filmmaker.

Me: When was that?

Aaron: um . . . . it was before it was easier to make movies on computers . . . so it was around ’98.

Me:
What equipment were you working with?

Aaron: We had VHS at first and then we got the XL-Ones. The computers still couldn’t keep up at that time.

Me: When was the switch-over to theatre?

Aaron:
It was when I started to work with Dale [Gutzman] over at Off the Wall. I don’t remember what the first thing was, but he had some project. He wanted something painted and asked if I’d do it. And one thing led to another and I started doing behind the scenes stuff. I ran lights for a couple of his shows. I’m like that—I like being behind the scenes . . . maybe more than I d being onstage. And kind of putting it together and letting it run itself.

Me: and when did being onstage come about? Did you audition?

Aaron: With Dale?

Me: For your first time onstage.

Aaron: Yeah. I went in and I Read for Rossum’s Universal Robots.

Me: [laughs] You know. I saw that one.

Aaron: Did you?

Me: It was before I was a critic and I gotta tell ‘ya . . . major disappointment form me. I LOVE that play and seeing someone else’s vision . . .

Aaron: That was a fun one to be in, though.

Me: Oh, I’m sure it was.

Aaron:
It was my first play since high school. Honorable mention as the studly man servant Radius . . . so that sounds good.

Me: So you were in high school productions, too? Theatre’s been around for you for a long time.

Aaron: Very little . . . I wasn’t in drama club, but I tried acting and directing.

Me: Which was where?

Aaron: Mukwonago.

Me: Really. So you’re from the area.

Aaron: yeah. I moved out of my parents’ house in . . . ’93. I lived on the East Side for a long time.

THE ALCHEMIST

Me: I guess I don’t know all of the background on this place.

Aaron: I’ve always been the kid that took apart dad’s tools and make robots. Or use the drywall mud to make something else. I just always like . . .taking something and making it into something that it’s not intended for. And that’s exactly what theatre is. And once I started working with Dale, that’s what I realized . . . when it comes down to everything—you might have a recording of somebody screaming, but you don’t have dogs, so you’ve gotta find that . . . you piece it together and splice it up . . . or you don’t have working stereo, so you wire it through the VCR and into something else . . . you just force it into working on a budget of 50 bucks. That’s intriguing to me.

Me: And this place?

Aaron: I don’t know. I guess having become friends with Dale and realizing that not only his place, but other small theatre’s are always . . . they do good work. What I love about small theatre is that . . . the runs are always short. Even if it's 18 shows, that’s nothing compared to a 500 run show some place else. So it's always . . . even at the end of the run it’s still brand new. It’s still a prototype. Its like . . . you piece together this jet pack on a $50 budget. And every night you’ve gotta hit the button. And every night you’re not sure if you’re going to fly off the cliff or if you’re going to blow up. And that’s the excitement of small theatre. So that intrigued me. But the money aspect: that, having been involved in bands . . . obviously band venues—they’re all bars like The Cactus Club. So you have this great place where people can play music and listen to music. The place isn’t making money off the music, they’re making money off the drinks. Why doesn’t theatre do that?

TOMMORROW: the virtues of a sustanable business model and surrounding yourself with the right people.

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