Story by: Tom Lammert, Lecturer at MSU Department of English
It’s a common practice to dissociate business and art. Websites that specialize in entertainment news routinely publish stories about how Big, Corrupt Hollywood ruined a disgruntled creator’s pure, raw, provocative film that surely would have become the quintessence of genius had fat-cat producers kept their money-hungry paws off it. However, Emma Denson’s The Basket Cases Theatre Company proves monetizing art doesn’t have to be a heinous practice.
Denson’s affinity for theatre started when she was young. She enrolled in acting class when she was six, and she earned a bit role in A Christmas Carol playing one of the many street urchins who caroled throughout the frozen streets of London. She immediately felt comfortable working with the play’s crew. It was this experience that led her to avoid joining the cliques one might most often associate with school—band-kids, athletes, cheerleaders, and the like; acting became her extracurricular focus. However, she wasn’t going to resign herself to portraying ancillary characters. In high school she landed the role of Ado Annie in Oklahoma!
Her experience while performing in this play inspired Denson to explore the possibility of directing, so after she graduated high school Denson attended Wallace State Community College to study under Lauren Salerno, who had directed Denson in Oklahoma! Denson recalls how Salerno commanded a theatre with her knowledge about the craft and her professionalism.
Salerno typifies Denson’s dream of obtaining a Master of Fine Arts in Theatre and working as a producer and director. Salerno is Denson’s answer to the question many theatre students hear: “So what’s your back-up plan for your career?” Denson says, “There is no plan-b because I’m going to make this work.”
Denson recognizes one post-secondary degree isn’t enough to make for herself the life Salerno lives. To help her make theatre her career, Denson plans to do two things: After she graduates from Mississippi State University, she will apply to MFA programs, and she will continue to grow The Basket Cases Theatre Company.
Whereas the MFA will have to wait (Denson is a junior at Mississippi State University), she’s been working hard to sustain The Basket Cases Theatre Company. Since its inception in 2017, the company has been producing and performing plays that appeal to a diverse audience. Denson talks about how her company’s first performance—The Elves and the Shoemaker in December 2017—set the precedent for the kind of audience it attracts and the kind of play it performs.
Akin to companies like Pixar, The Basket Cases Theatre Company entertains children and adults while portraying admirable, multifaceted characters. Achieving this—as any creator knows—is not easy, but Denson and her crew’s work ethic prove their company is all-in when it comes to theatre that can affect its audience. Consider the production for The Elves and the Shoemaker: Denson and her team began adapting the work months before holding auditions for the play, and the three plays performed during 2018 (The Call of the Wild, The Ugly Duckling!, and Frost—A Christmas Play) went through arduous production cycles: The team chooses a play to perform, writes a version of the play that fits the team’s budgetary and crew limitations, holds table reads to refine the work, auditions actors and actresses, rehearses (and rehearses and rehearses), and—finally—performs.
Denson says that “seeing those faces and hearing that laughter” from the audience makes the work worthwhile, especially after having feared no one would come to the company’s first performance of The Elves and the Shoemaker.
Denson isn’t alone in all this work. Jamie Taylor works as the company’s Head Costumer, Walker Harris serves as Head Technical Director, and the Artistic Associates—Brett Armour and Beth Siano—keep The Basket Cases Theatre Company thriving and Denson sane as she works as the company’s Co-Artistic Director. Whereas each team member holds a specific title, Denson says everyone contributes to productions in ways that fall outside the purview of their titles. This delegation of tasks is critical to maintain their production schedule of one play every semester, and managing the team’s tasks proves essential when considering every member of The Basket Cases Theatre Company is also a student who contributes to TheatreMSU. Most recently, Denson acted as the upper-third of a three-person puppet that portrayed Gollum in TheatreMSU’s production of The Hobbit, and she’s currently serving as the Assistant Director for Studio Maroon’s The Tempest and 27 Wagons Full of Cotton.
In addition to producing and performing plays, The Basket Cases Theatre Company hosts acting classes for local elementary, middle, and high school students. These six-week acting classes are held at Starkville’s Church of Christ, and they aim to introduce aspiring actors and actresses to community theatre. At the end of each six-week session, students graduate with a monologue they can use for auditions.
Between producing plays and inspiring local children to engage in community theatre, Denson and The Basket Cases Theatre Company somehow carved out time to work with Mississippi State University’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Outreach. Denson describes her company’s merging with the E-Center as serendipitous; her relative had attended school with a College of Business faculty member, who encouraged Denson to explore the E-Center’s resources.
Thus far, Denson has successfully pitched to the Peer Review Entrepreneurship Panel (PREP), and she’s preparing the presentation she will give to the Entrepreneurship Center Advisory Board (ECAB). She gives credit to the E-Center for fostering her team’s creativity—not tainting it—and providing The Basket Cases Theatre Company with resources that allow even more people to experience theatre.
Thanks to teachers like Salerno, communities that enthusiastically attend plays and musicals, and support from the E-Center, Denson and the other members of The Basket Cases Theatre Company will continue to “tell stories that make a difference” to the next generation of aspiring creators.