They left Columbus for big cities and came back to shake up the theater scene. Here’s how.

New theatrical production company hopes to shake up theater scene in Columbus

Muddy Water Theatre Project is a new theatrical production company that doesn’t have a roof or an electric bill, according to the co-founders That's because Muddy Water isn’t confined to one space, and they're available to produce your show.
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Muddy Water Theatre Project is a new theatrical production company that doesn’t have a roof or an electric bill, according to the co-founders That's because Muddy Water isn’t confined to one space, and they're available to produce your show.

Ben Redding remembers watching a production of “Rent” at the RiverCenter for the Performing Arts when half of the audience walked out.

Redding, now 28, was in his teens at the time. As a gay man with big theater dreams, the incident drove home a point he’d already known — Columbus wasn’t somewhere he thought he could stay.

“I knew my sexuality was out of the normal realm when I was very young,” he said. “I grew up with that. ...It just didn’t seem like there was a path for me here.”

Redding met Austin Sargent in middle school, and their drama teacher ignited their passion for the stage.

“We were those kids that were like ‘I love musical theater. I do it every day … and I want to be an actor forever,” Redding said. “We were obsessed with it.”

Like Redding, Sargent made plans to leave too.

“I left Columbus because I didn’t see a future in theater here,” Sargent, 25, said.

The men left home and went their separate ways, both pursuing careers in bigger cities. But something didn’t feel right. They were drawn back home in search of something more.

Now, they want to shake up Columbus’ arts scene.

A show from anywhere

Redding and Sargent started the Muddy Water Theatre Project, a theatrical production company that will host shows across Columbus.

The duo said their shows will highlight local artists and entertainers and bring theater to diverse audiences in the city.

They don’t have an office space, a roof or an electric bill. Their shows aren’t confined to one space, and that’s intentional. A Muddy Water play could be performed at a boutique, restaurant, a space in Uptown or anywhere else that gives them a feeling.

That’s the beauty of pop-up theater. The venue can change based on a character, an idea, or an inspiration. For larger shows that require more time and set up, the group feels that they sort of take over and adopt a space.

“Not a lot of places can do something like this because it takes a really awesome community and a really supportive arts network to make this happen,” Redding said.

Redding and Sargent said coming back home and operating a production company wasn’t in their life plans, but things changed.

‘Why would I ever leave?’

Redding was involved with the Springer Opera House, Columbus Ballet and other arts groups when he was younger. But he felt like he had reached a ceiling in Columbus’ theater world. The city, too, didn’t seem welcoming to a gay teenager in the early 2000s.

“I did not see myself really reflected in the culture of Columbus,” he said.

Redding left for theater boarding school in Massachusetts, and he said it changed his life. He went on to graduate from Elon University and spent a year playing his dream role of Riff in Westside Story.

“It was the Broadway tour,” he said. “It was everything I’d ever wanted.”

Redding moved to New York and was auditioning for shows “like crazy,” he said.

But he soon started to wonder if he could keep up. He came to Columbus about three or four years ago to do a show at Springer and eventually decided to move back to the area last summer.

“I was like, ‘Why would I ever leave?’” he said. “I’m traveling the world. I’m doing all this stuff, but I’m not really affecting anything. I’m just, you know, in a cycle. I can come to Columbus. People care enough about it. ... I want to make Columbus the cool town I know it can be.”

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Austin Sargent, left, and Ben Redding, both directors and producers living in Columbus, Georgia, have launched the Muddy Water Theatre Project. 07/12/19 Mike Haskey mhaskey@ledger-enquirer.com

Sargent left the Columbus area after high school to attend Viterbo Univesity in La Crosse, Wisconsin, to study musical theater performance and arts administration.

“Everyone I knew was moving to bigger cities because of the diversity of programming, the accessibility of the city and the opportunities that awaited young post-grads,” Sargent said. “I wanted a city culture and an artist culture that looked like me. Somewhere I felt that I fit.”

After graduating college, Sargent moved to Minneapolis, where he was captivated by the city’s vibrant and varied art scene.

“There are theaters that are at the back of a bowling alley, under the library basement or in (a) mother-in-law suite above the garage,” he said. “I fell in love with that style of theater.”

Still, though, he felt unfulfilled.

“I was just answering people’s emails instead rather than being the person who sent out emails,” Sargent said.

Sargent moved back to Columbus in the fall of 2017 and began looking to provide audiences with new artistic experiences.

“I used to be the person that complained about Columbus and would say, ‘There’s nothing to do,’” he said. “Instead of being that person that sits in their apartment and gazes out of the window waiting for something to fall from the sky, I decided to be the person that is going to do something about it.”

Redding and Sargent kept in the touch via social media over the years but they started running into each other once they moved back. Sargent starred in a show produced by Redding in November 2018. They soon began talking about projects they wanted to work on and eventually decided to join forces as Muddy Water.

“We started cooking it up around January or February (2019),” Redding said. “We have both been doing our own thing and we just sort of brought them together.”

How a Muddy Water show comes to life

A successful pop-up is a labor-intensive process, the duo said. Sometimes, they’re bringing someone else’s idea to life. At other points, they’re building their own show from the ground up.

There’s a little less work involved when it’s someone else’s show. For those performances, Redding and Sargent fill in the gaps. That could mean helping with props, ticketing, pricing and other sorts of administrative tasks.

“We like to be hands-off for those because we like to let other people do what they want to do,” Redding said.

For their own productions, Muddy Water handles everything. With the help of production manager Raven Triplett and stage manager Hunter Lewis, the group builds the set, casts the roles, directs the performance and lights the show, Redding said.

“Our big shows are more stationary, and we take over those locations and make them ours,” he said.

The shows presented or produced by the men are primarily geared toward the millennial and Gen-X crowd. Redding said that most of the shows put on in the city now are geared toward families and younger crowds.

“That’s great and all but it doesn’t say anything about our culture really,” he said. “Art as a whole ... has been difficult and striking and conversation starters. ...That’s why we called it Muddy Water. We feel like, generally, in Columbus, we are lacking that diversified programming that it is a little more ... culture-defining. About what we stand for and what we don’t stand for.”

One way to address that is casting, Redding said.

“It’s about content choice, first and foremost, and we really try to be creative about the ways we cast,” he said. “We try to be open-minded about what the best person might look like. ...We’re very much so a group that does color-blind casting, so it’s highly possible that you could come see one of our shows and there’s a family unit … that might all be different races.”

Muddy Water’s first project was “Glass Half Full” in late June. The show starred Nick Rulon as “Grimey the Custodian” and Ansley Lynn as “Mops.” The show covered topics like water conservation, pollution and sustainability. It was performed on the concrete pad on Broadway, between 11th and 12th Street.

“They came up with all the content and we collected some cardboard and painted some cardboard and made a set for them,” Redding said. “It was very cohesive.”

They’ll continue doing pop-up projects like that throughout the year as people continue to pitch them ideas, Redding said.

Their first larger show, called “Three-Act Play,” will run Aug. 22, 23 and 24 at Pop Uptown. Muddy Water will be converting the space into a speakeasy. Each night features three short shows. The first show is Tennessee Williams’ “Pretty Trap.” The second is “Soap Opera” by David Ives. The third is “Drinking Problem” by Theresa Rebeck.

Tickets haven’t been released, but prices are expected to range from $10 for standing room to $100 for VIP. You’ll be able to buy them at Muddy Water’s website. Redding said the group will work out some sort of exchange for those unable to pay for a ticket. Muddy Water is always looking for volunteers.

“We know there are people in Columbus who can afford a $100 ticket and there are people in Columbus that can afford a $10 ticket and its not fair to say that two kinds of people can’t be in the same room,” Redding said.

The shows will also feature two 20 minute intermissions. The breaks are almost as long as the plays by design. It leaves plenty of time for patrons to get a drink or chat and mingle. The event is meant to challenge the typical theater experience.

“You’re used to coming to the show, maybe being there ten minutes before and watching a show and being quiet the whole time,” Sargent said. “With this, we are asking you to get there early so that you can find a nice spot to sit, talk to your friends, see a show and immediately talk about it.”

Those pop-up projects and Muddy Water-produced pieces continue to work to change theater experiences here in Columbus — one of Muddy Water’s primary goals.

“There is more to art than one specific genre,” Sargent said. “We have all the resources to make Columbus a true artist hub, where artists are paid and acknowledged and united together. There could be art in every pocket of this city—there are plenty of incredible artists in this city to make it happen, but we need the community to show up.”