Toil and Trouble

Written by M.V. Moorhead Category: Valley News Issue: October 2013
Group Free

Amid an executive flux, Arizona Theatre Company’s Director of Education brings social media-savvy Shakespeare to Arizona schools.

If Hamlet had a Facebook page, among his “likes” would be “procrastinating.”

So, at least, concluded the kids of the small town of Young, Arizona this year, after they were introduced to Shakespeare’s masterpiece via MyShakespeare, one of Arizona Theatre Company’s education outreach programs.  By the end of the program, the students had set up Facebook profiles for Hamlet, Horatio and the whole gang.

The Renaissance meets the Digital Age thanks to Stephen Wrentmore, Director of Education and Associate Artistic Director for ATC. The Londoner and Oxford scholar aims to engage students in theater in new ways, such as the MyShakespeare program, a three-year, multi-layered project. ATC has long sponsored such programs, but the curriculum was often limited to showing kids a play, which essentially meant nothing more to them than time away from class. Over the years, Wrentmore has led theater workshops and educational programs around the world, including at several “last chance” schools stateside and even a penitentiary. His approach is immersion – instead of showing students a play, have them make Facebook pages for the characters and perform the plays.

“You can’t set up a Facebook page for a character unless you know that character really well,” Wrentmore says. And getting to know characters well isn’t just for theater folk. “The purpose of theater education is not to create little actors,” he insists. “It’s to create articulate, deep-thinking contributors to society.”

This may sound a good deal trickier than creating little actors, but it’s Wrentmore’s mission – a noble goal that’s helped make him a contender for the job of Artistic Director at ATC, after current AD David Ira Goldstein vacates the position at the end of the 2013-2014 season. Goldstein’s departure was announced on the heels of a crippling deficit, underperformance at the box office, and instability among ATC’s board of trustees. In August, ATC Managing Director Mark Cole announced his resignation; he was succeeded by interim managing director Jessica Andrews. A national search for both positions launches in January; ATC hopes to have  a new team in place at the beginning of the 2014-2015 season.

For now, Wrentmore, who landed at ATC nearly three years ago, sees his job as “handing over ownership” of ATC to the next generation. That includes young Arizonans who don’t fit the standard profile of theater enthusiasts. “They had been told that the best job they could hope for was at Circle K,” Wrentmore says of the lower-income students at which his programs are aimed. “I’m not saying that spending time with us changed that... [but] you give them access to Shakespeare, and everything else falls into place. If they’re looking for a way to express their feelings, Shakespeare has already found a way to articulate it.”

Of his own early career, Wrentmore says, “I realized that I was waiting for permission from somebody who didn’t exist. The work we do [at ATC] is about saying, ‘You have permission.’ That’s what the elites tell their kids. Their kids walk around with a confidence and a sense of ownership that’s intimidating. I want to give that to a kid from a Title 1 school.”

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New Direction
Arizona Theatre Company isn’t the only Valley arts organization to see a changing of the guard. Meet the new heads of three major arts entities.

Arizona Opera: Former baritone singer Ryan Taylor was named general director in July. Taylor, who came to Arizona Opera in January 2012 as director of artistic administration, formerly worked as general director at Berkshire Opera Company in Massachusetts and community development manager for Wolf Trap Opera Company in Virginia.

Musical Instrument Museum: Carrie M. Heinonen took over as president and director in August. The former marketing executive at the Art Institute of Chicago grew up in Tucson and once served as a curatorial assistant at the Heard Museum.

Heard Museum: In August, the museum named its first Native American director, James Pepper Henry. Henry, a member of the Kaw Nation of Oklahoma, previously worked at museums including the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center in Alaska.  — Niki D’Andrea