Saturday, November 01, 2014

Tragedy. Comedy. Solvency.

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Valley stages take stock after Actors Theatre’s lost season.


None of the Valley’s major theaters is doing Fiddler on the Roof this season. Not literally, anyway. Metaphorically, every season is a precarious fiddling exercise for Valley stages.

Last spring, after 26 years of showcasing homegrown talent with a sly, intellectual take on live theater, Actors Theatre of Phoenix took a tumble, suspending its final two shows and vacating its long-standing spot in the Herberger Theater Center. Though ATP – which plans to return this fall – isn’t “suspended” the way John Edwards’ 2008 presidential campaign is suspended, the lost season illustrates the unique challenges posed by the Valley’s somewhat prosaic theater tastes.


According to Artistic Director Matthew Wiener, ATP’s ripple was a combination of economics, mission and resources. “Our audience is by far younger and more progressive than many other organizations in Phoenix,” he says. Younger audiences connect with the edge and attitude of productions like Dead Man’s Cell Phone and The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, but they’re also less reliable consumers – at least in the Valley, where the typical theater patron responds to more commercially-proven fare.

“It’s not that you can’t do challenging theater here,” Wiener says. “But a lot of things have to line up correctly. You have a very narrow window for success.”

Theaters that do flourish in the oft-rocky soil of the Phoenix arts community rely on varied missions, savvy programming and resourceful fundraising. For instance, Phoenix Theatre – located near the Phoenix Art Museum in Downtown Phoenix – has survived 93 years by knowing what its audience wants. “I talk to our audiences constantly,” Producing Artistic Director Michael Barnard says. “We do surveys all the time. People like to share their ideas.” Phoenix Theatre audiences tend to be older and more traditional – and they like musicals. PT’s upcoming season includes White Christmas and Pippin, bookended by Rent and Les Miserables – two epics of oppressed people with powerful singing chops.

“We’ve also been fortunate to find multiple revenue streams,” Barnard says. Unlike ATP, Phoenix Theatre owns its facility – allowing it to make money off box office services, concessions, and performance and rehearsal space rentals.

Arizona Theatre Company Artistic Director David Ira Goldstein says funding-diversity is necessary for professional theaters in the Southwest: “Arts institutions tend to be under-capitalized out here. We have strong private support and individual donations, but endowments are smaller. Cash flow is tighter.” ATC’s two-city operation and statewide profile give it more resources to work with, he says, but it also gives them a broader audience to please. That’s why next season mixes Victorian standards (The Importance of Being Earnest) with erotic comedy (Venus in Fur) and populist works including The Mountaintop, a look at the last hours of Martin Luther King.

“We have to do work that challenges those who already love theater while still welcoming those new to the art form,” Goldstein says.

   When Valley theaters raise their curtains this fall, Actors Theatre vows to live again. “We’re hoping to do four shows next season,” Wiener says, “though, at the moment, we’re nomadic.” ATP has retained the rights to last year’s pre-empted productions as they seek a new home with more revenue streams.

“Our circumstances just didn’t fit our mission anymore,” Wiener says. “So, we had to change our circumstances, or change our mission. And we’re not doing Bye Bye, Birdie.”

 

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