Ally Theatre Company Earns the John Aniello Award for Outstanding Emerging Theatre Company (Interview)

Ally's founding leaders Ty Hallmark and Tai Alexander discuss the company's mission, history, and goals.

Ally Theatre Company will receive the 2019 John Aniello Award for Outstanding Emerging Theatre Company at the 35th Annual Helen Hayes Awards. At its core mission, Ally Theatre Company is committed to producing theater designed to acknowledge and confront systemic oppression in America.

Founding and Producing Artistic Director of Ally Theatre Company, Ty Hallmark. Photo courtesy of Ally Theatre Company.

The John Aniello Award for Outstanding Emerging Theatre Company is selected each year by theatreWashington’s Emerging Theatre Committee. To qualify, theaters must produce at least one show per year, each with a minimum of nine performances, for two consecutive years. Ally Theatre Company joins previous honorees such as Constellation Theatre, Monumental Theatre Company, Taffety Punk, The Welders, and 1st Stage.

“Receiving the Aniello award represents the recognition of our commitment to illuminating unheard voices and unseen spaces in our community and in our world,” said Founding and Producing Artistic Director Ty Hallmark and Managing Director Ivana (Tai) Alexander, in a recent joint interview. It is a moment for us to pause, take a breath, look around at what we’ve done thus far, and allow for a moment of amazement. Then, on Tuesday, it’s back to work!”

Hallmark and Alexander added their appreciation to “Joe’s Movement Emporium for their constancy and support from day one. Our neighborhood community in Mount Rainier, the Gateway Arts District, and Hyattsville have welcomed and embraced our company, mission, and ethos.”

The full interview with Hallmark and Alexander follows. The Helen Hayes Awards ceremony will be presented on Monday, May 13, 2019, at The Anthem, DC’s District Wharf.

David Siegel: Why did you establish Ally Theatre?  Was there something missing in the DC area theater community?

Managing Director of Ally Theatre Company, Ivana (Tai) Alexander. Photo courtesy of Ally Theatre Company.

Ty Hallmark and Tai Alexander of Ally Theatre Company: We established Ally Theatre Company in November 2016 because we wanted to build a company that confronted and acknowledged issues of systemic injustice and oppression in America. And we wanted to do this work by lifting up the voices and telling the stories that for too long have gone underrepresented in the American Theatre. It is important to us, critical even, that we put these populations at the front and center of our narratives and our organization.

We view the word “ally” as a verb, not a noun. We are active in opening up space and opportunities for new artists or experienced ones with a story to tell. We are also heavily engaged with the communities that we serve – those in Mount Rainier, Maryland where our home base, Joe’s Movement Emporium, is located and the surrounding towns of Brentwood, North Brentwood, and Hyattsville. Eventually, as we work together, we hope that our neighbors will come to think of Ally Theatre Company as THEIR theater company, a place they come to converse, socialize, and see themselves represented on our stage. We want our house to be their house. This is very much our ultimate goal.

What have been some of the biggest challenges in establishing a new professional theater company?

Oddly, the challenge that is usually tough for young theatre companies – the matter of finding space – was easy for us. Ty Hallmark, our Founding and Producing Artistic Director, previously worked at Joe’s Movement Emporium and recalled the Executive Director saying she wished for more theatre in the space. Joe’s was and is already a strong and established community center whose mission aligns perfectly with ours. Forming a partnership with them and becoming a resident theater company was one of the first things we did upon our founding and we are so grateful to them for their guidance and generosity. It is wonderful to have a home and they are so game for all the risk-taking and bold statements we wish to make in our work.

Honestly, our biggest challenge has been our growth. We like to joke that Ally is our racehorse who charged out of the gate and hasn’t looked back. It’s hard to keep up sometimes. We’re an ambitious company and we don’t back down from challenges. We also, all of us, have incredibly full lives. Three of us on the leadership team are in graduate school and most of us have full-time day jobs on top of the work we do at Ally so juggling it all and prioritizing programming and our community’s needs is probably the biggest hurdle we tackle.

The work we produce is also challenging. We have intense and deep conversations anytime we consider a show – who are we serving, is this on mission, what conversation do we want to have, what conversation do we think we may have – these are all questions we ponder and think about. It’s a constant balancing act. And we won’t always get it right. We acknowledge that we will be imperfect allies, but we will always try and always listen, learn, and grow.

What accomplishments are you most proud of?

Our first show, The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington, by James Ijames was a phenomenal beginning. Ty saw the world premiere in Philadelphia in 2014 and it was here, you could say, that the seeds for Ally Theatre Company were planted. The show, centered around the house slaves of Martha Washington on death watch, knowing her will states they should be freed when she dies, is a uproarious, fierce, bold, and heartbreaking reclamation of American history and we knew it must be our opening statement to the DC theater community. The talent we assembled and the faith that all our artists had in our baby theater company and this production will always be remembered. We really hope we get to remount this play in a few years when we are well established. Everyone needs to see it.

We are also incredibly proud of #poolparty and the way in which it brought our community together. Written by Hyattsville resident (and longtime DMV theatre artist) Jennifer Mendenhall and inspired by an incident of racial discrimination at the pool down the road from Joe’s, it was our first production that was truly by, for, and of the communities we serve and the response was tremendous. We were able to host a free matinee for Prince George’s County kids thanks to the generosity of #poolparty audiences and the family whose story inspired it all was able to be present for our opening night. It was a real moment of connection and community and brought home why we do what we do. Theatre can be an agent of change and the conversations and actions that stemmed from the production of #poolparty proved it.

And really, we could list all the shows we’ve produced because each of them has been unique, challenging, and powerful. Every time we get a production up it is an accomplishment. We’ve been so lucky to work with artists like Tracey Conyer Lee who wrote Rabbit Summer, Taylor Reynolds who created Think Before You Holla, Hope Villanueva and Megan Behm who respectively wrote and directed The Head That Wears The Crown, and Laura Rocklyn who brought the magnificent story of Clover Adams to life in Clover.

Will receiving the John Aniello Award change your work? What do you have planned for the coming 2019-2020 season?

We don’t know that it will change our work. We are incredibly mission-centric and community focused and received the award for that. We have no plans to veer from this course.

We’re tremendously excited for and eager to get working on our upcoming season which consists of the DC-area premiere of Naomi Wallace’s The War Boys, a new piece, Dhana and the Rosebuds, centered on the Syrian refugee crisis as devised and created by Federica Cellini and the local Syrian community, and the tense workplace thriller, Rasheeda Speaking by Joel Drake Johnson. Each of these shows occupies space at the intersection of borders and belonging, exploring what happens when borders, be they physical, structural, psychological, or spiritual, are created in our lives and communities and how they affect our ability to survive and thrive because of and in spite of those barriers. We are curious to see what conversations may come forth and what actions might spur forward from each of these productions. It’s going to be an exciting third year.  

For Ally Theatre Company box office information or tickets, call (301) 699-1819 or go online.