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October 20, 2014

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Against the odds: How two young Strip performers launched their own Vegas show

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Rob Anderson / Courtesy Photo

Brett Alters (left) and Spencer Novich star in “You Heal We Heal,” an original multimedia stage production the duo funded through the website Kickstarter. The play runs at downtown’s Art Square Theater Jan. 10 - 13, 2013.

Click to enlarge photo

Brett Alters (left) and Spencer Novich star in "You Heal We Heal," an original multimedia stage production the duo funded through the website Kickstarter. The play runs at downtown's Art Square Theater Jan. 10 - 13, 2013.

Click to enlarge photo

A scene from "You Heal We Heal," an original multimedia stage production conceived by Spencer Novich and Brett Alters, the duo funded the project through the website Kickstarter. The play runs at downtown's Art Square Theater Jan. 10 - 13, 2013.

Click to enlarge photo

A scene from "You Heal We Heal," an original multimedia stage production conceived by Spencer Novich and Brett Alters, the duo funded the project through the website Kickstarter. The play runs at downtown's Art Square Theater Jan. 10 - 13, 2013.

'You Heal We Heal'

Brett Alters (left) and Spencer Novich star in Launch slideshow »

This is the second in an occasional series of stories on the birth of a Las Vegas show.

Last September, when Strip performers Brett Alters and Spencer Novich raised $10,000 from strangers on the Internet to fund their home-grown theater production, they thought the hardest part of putting on a show in Vegas was behind them.

But then came that cold night in November, when the two men — standing in wigs and lacy white dresses amid diesel pumps on Blue Diamond, before the curious stares of gruff truck drivers — tried to clandestinely film a scene for their multimedia show.

They forgot to put a memory card in their camera.

Such are the missteps, challenges and surprises these days for Alters and Novich, who, while performing as clowns in two major Strip productions, have managed to prepare their show “You Heal We Heal” for its debut this weekend at the Art Square Theater downtown.

The production was originally titled “Two Little Girls in the Bayou” when it was bankrolled through the crowd-funding website Kickstarter, which gave the project the critical $10,000 needed to meet its projected budget of $20,000; Alters and Novich paid for the rest from their personal savings.

The production has matured substantially from its initial, loosely-defined concept as a theatrical comedy show about two orphan girls growing up in the swamp. The new iteration still features Alters, 25, and Novich, 24, as those characters, but now incorporates film, comedy, theatrics and audience participation for what they’ve satirically dubbed “group therapy for the emotionally damaged little girl inside each one of us.” It’s experimental and outrageous, and not like anything you’ll find on the Strip.

A few months ago, however, the pair was far from surefooted about what lay ahead. With $20,000 in their bank account -- to which they are legally bound to spend on their project -- they were abruptly confronted with the reality of bringing their concept to life.

“We realized that we weren’t hitting on all the things we wanted to. We wanted it to be fully immersive, more than just a funny sketch clown show,” Novich says of the first two months of development. “We wanted something different and experiential, it’s more about what the audience experiences than what we are doing. We wanted to break through the fourth wall and for the playing space to be everywhere.”

Around the same time, they discovered that even low-budget, independent shows like theirs aren’t immune to the challenges faced by more moneyed productions: With the new funding came disagreements over the production’s business handling, and the volunteer creative team of local professionals soon dissolved.

“It had nothing to do with the talent that anybody possesses. It was literally just a business matter,” says Novich, who, along with Alters, prefers to eschew the subject out of respect to their former colleagues.

With their team shaken and their creativity stalled, Novich and Alters found themselves at the nadir in the production process. They reached out to Rob Anderson, owner of Las Vegas-based production and marketing company Revel Studios, whom they connected with after Anderson donated to their Kickstarter campaign. Anderson was eager to get further involved, and though he had no stage production experience, soon signed on as the show’s director.

“I watched this ridiculous video they made for their Kickstarter on Facebook and thought it was great. It seemed so weird and different, how could you not support that? We need that kind of stuff, we need to have more interesting art and performance in Las Vegas,” says Anderson, whose Revel clients include Wynn Resorts Group, Interscope Records and Marilyn Manson.

Anderson’s production experience and multimedia mindset proved to be the catalyst Novich and Alters needed for their vision of an immersive performance experience to become fully realized.

The team has since embarked on what is quite literally a round-the-clock work schedule, meeting and re-writing content in the mornings, rehearsing into the afternoons, then continuing to hone content at night after performing in their respective Strip shows.

“I had no idea how much sleep I was going to lose. Going to sleep early, waking up late are out of the question. My social life is nonexistent,” says Alters, who also turned down a job opportunity in China to keep working on the production.

Sleep isn’t all they’ve been losing. Production costs, including props, costumes, video development, equipment rental and theater rental, have rapidly drained the $20,000 from their bank account. It’s forced them to get creative.

“We’re trying to return everything. We used a trash can for a scene, then it was like ‘Ok, wash it out, let’s return it to Home Depot,” Alters says, laughing. “With the money, it’s not about business, it’s just about budgeting.”

Even with budgeting, $20,000 is only a fraction of what they estimate to be an actual production cost of $50,000 -- an expense they’ve been able to skirt thanks to support from their peers and the local arts community. Their 13-person creative team -- which includes veterans like “Le Reve” aerial conceptor Didier Antoine and Cirque du Soleil Comic Act Designer Stefan Haves -- has provided everything from original music to costumes to prop design on a volunteer basis; their roommate, a coach at a local cheer academy, gave them rehearsal space in his gym in exchange for training students; and the Art Square Theater accommodated rent for their performances to fit their budget.

“Having spent time in New York and Philadelphia and L.A., it’s very, very difficult to muster a lot of talent for free. To call in favors like that, it’s just something you wouldn’t even do or have the ability to do,” Anderson says. “But out here it’s amazing, everyone in the community of performers are all at the top of what they do and yet they’re all super hungry for their own projects and side projects and they’re so willing to swap time amongst each other.”

In the final days before opening night, Alters says the biggest challenge has been editing down the wide range of content contributed by others. Though the initial run of the final product will be brief -- the closing show is on Sunday -- this weekend won’t be the last opportunity to see “You Heal We Heal”; Alters and Novich plan to shop the production around locally and elsewhere, with hopes to open the show for another run in Las Vegas in the spring.

“The local art scene is experiencing a renaissance of generosity almost,” Alters says. “People like Art Square Theater got the opportunity to build the theater, then we come to them and they help give us the opportunity to put on our show. Right now, if you build it, they will come.”

“You Heal We Heal” runs at the Art Square Theater Friday at 11:30 p.m.; Saturday at 12:30 p.m. and 11:30 p.m.; and Sunday at 12:30 p.m. Tickets cost $15 and can be purchased online through www.facebook.com/YouHealWeHeal.

Follow Andrea Domanick on Twitter at @AndreaDomanick and fan her on Facebook at Facebook.com/AndreaDomanick.

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