The key to Big Idea’s big success? The passion and razor-sharp focus of its Artistic Director, Benjamin Ismail, just might have something to do with it. We were lucky enough to chat with the company’s fearless leader to learn more about his passions and Big Idea Theatre’s bright future.
Despite being born to an “artistically disinclined” family, the Memphis native swears theatre is in his blood. Given the timeline of his theatre career, that assessment seems accurate. At the age of 8, Ismail acted in his first show; by age 13, he directed a children’s theatre production of the Ugly Duckling. His semi-professional debut came at the age of 17. Not too shabby for the son of an accountant.
And from the get-go, Ismail knew that acting wasn’t the only way he wanted to command the stage. “I started off acting and after doing it for a few years, I started having my opinions. I would always ask questions. Ask why a prop was there? Why should I stand here? My inquisitiveness led me to learn more about all facets of a production, [including] lighting and costume design. Naturally, directing was the next step.”
Before finding his home at Big Idea Theatre eight years ago, Ismail worked elsewhere around the country as an actor and director. To say life was challenging would be an understatement. “There’s a reason for the term ‘starving artist’. Gigs are far and few between; you have to work several jobs to pay the rent…to buy groceries.”
But Ismail finds the stress of theatre life to be well worth it. “Although it may not seem like it from appearances, I’m insecure and shy. Through theatre, I’ve found strength. I know what I’m capable of…I’ve learned to trust myself. I’ve challenged myself and I’ve been blessed with so many wonderful opportunities.”
Doing what he does best. Photo courtesy of Big Idea Theatre.
What’s the Big Idea?
Like the productions the company puts on, the story behind Big Idea Theatre is riveting. Originally based in Roseville, in 2008, Kirk Blackinton and Shannon Mahoney took over the Big Idea Theatre and moved it North Sacramento. At the new locale, the husband and wife duo envisioned a semi-professional community theatre group where everyone involved would have a say in the artistic process. To make this vision a reality, Big Idea Theatre operates as a democratic collective, where a volunteer 15-20 membership works together to make its shows possible; members vote on subjects like show selection and leadership. “We’re a theatrical think tank. These different voices allow for a greater richness of ideas.”
But does the democratic nature of the company slow down the creative process? “Some things are just easier to agree upon than others…we are getting better administratively. We don’t have a large budget so this format works for us. We can compete from this position. We’ve embraced what we are.”
And so has the rest of Sacramento. “We get a lot of support from professional companies; casting directors from Capital Stage and the Sacramento Theatre Company are attending our shows. All of this exposure for the artists we work with has made us proud and proves that we have more at stake.”
“Neither Here Nor There”
All the world’s a stage, and at the moment, those words couldn’t be more true. Ismail is currently in St. Petersburg, Florida directing American Stage’s upcoming production of 4,000 Miles. Like the dramedy’s lead character, Ben travelled cross country, opting to drive the 3,000 miles to his American Stage gig. “During my drive, I was able to think about life…and the country is much smaller now.”
But life is anything but a beach in Florida. His mind is just as much in Sacramento as it is there. “While I’m here, I am still working with our guys at Big Idea Theatre for 7 Homeless Mammoths Wandering New England. I’m working 14-16 hour days practically every day through March 18…I’m constantly juggling two or three theatre jobs at a time. It’s a never-ending cycle.”
The Future is Bright
Big ideas are in the works for the 57-seat theater. Ismail and the company are finding more ways to use the theater itself; hosting more standup nights, concerts, and writing and acting workshops are in the works. Investing in its own talent is also a high priority: “We are committed to bringing up the next generation of [actors]…helping them succeed helps us succeed. We need to uplift them, secure more funding for them, and help them find professional, equity paying jobs.”
Photo courtesy of Big Idea Theatre.
Putting on a show is no laughing matter. Here’s what it takes to bring a Big Idea Theatre show to life: