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The Nu Puppis Traveling Theater Group Launches a 21st-Century Model 

click to enlarge Dixon Cashwell is a founding member of Nu Puppis.

Scott Elmquist

Dixon Cashwell is a founding member of Nu Puppis.

Basing its debut on a rousing 1950s musical where six men kidnap women to be their wives may not seem the way a theater company dedicated to outer space would choose to open. But Nu Puppis saw it as emblematic of its mission.

The young performing arts collective kicked the dust out of theater rafters this summer on a mission to cultivate the kind of culture necessary for life in space. But really what its founders would like to see is more experimental local theater.

Their first production was born out of a year-and-a-half struggle to re-imagine the Hollywood classic “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.”

They fell in love with it “because of its beautiful music, fantastic dancing and absolutely bizarre and extremely problematic plot,” Connor Scully says by emails from Brooklyn, New York, where he now lives.

He says they asked themselves, “How could we keep the best parts while making it relevant, interesting and a teaching moment for today’s audience?” The answer was acknowledging rather than shying away from the sexism in the story.

Nu Puppis, a term that refers to stars called blue giants, started as a project given to Scully, Dixon Cashwell, Elliot Duffy and Mahlon Rauofi during their senior year at Virginia Commonwealth University. The company grew out of professor Paul Michael Valley’s instructing the senior class to form groups and put together a business model. Close collaborator James Murphy also was asked to join the group.

While the quintet acknowledges Richmond’s world-class visual arts scene, it finds the theater scene far less encouraging of experimental theater. After graduation, four of the five members moved to different cities, but realized their model easily could work in 21st-century global culture. They saw themselves as a company that could explore art independently or as a group and always have a support system.

“We’re all willing to travel for this,” Cashwell says. “Our aim is to have productions wherever there’s a member.” For now that’s Chicago, New York, Richmond and Washington.

Referring to Rebecca Novick’s article, “Please Don’t Start Your Own Theatre Company,” the group bought into her argument that the traditional model for theater companies is failing, so change is in order.

First, they decided life in space would mean total artistic equality.

“Our artists act as our administrators and the structure of how each show is produced and created is entirely flexible,” Scully says. “We also have a unique aesthetic that we wanted to share with the world and there’s no better way of doing that than self-producing.”

That aesthetic was on full display during a run at Firehouse Theater, and despite “dark fantasies that only five people would show up,” according to Cashwell, the shows were well-attended and received.

The group took it as an indication that the audience for experimental theater exists here, although Cashwell also recalls looking out and seeing confusion on some people’s faces — “at least until the limbs started falling off the baby.” For the record, no real babies were harmed, or used, in the production.

Despite initial concerns about producing a problematic piece of theater in politically correct times, “Seven Brides” garnered several Richmond Theatre Critics Circle award nominations. Fully aware of the limitations in being mostly white men attempting to do progressive theater, the ensemble began expanding in September with seven new members who love art and space and have ideas on how the two interact — three in Richmond, two in Washington and one in New Jersey.

“We’re hoping to attend some fringe festivals in the spring and summer and applications for those are just starting to open up,” Scully says. “We’re also workshopping some new plays that we’re just starting to get timelines and locations worked out for.”

But the ultimate goal is an otherworldly pursuit — space. “There’s lots of improv in space travel,” Cashwell says. “We’d love to do theater in space. That’s the end game.” S

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