Raising Phoenix: Coming Around to Community Theater

Amy SilvermanMarch 3, 2022
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Illustration by Hannah Agosta
Illustration by Hannah Agosta

Community theater is easy to love when you’re not hating it. 

On a pretty winter evening in early 2020, I drove across town to a tiny theater in Glendale to see a relaunch of the biggest bomb in the history of Broadway musicals. 

I’m not really a Stephen King fan, and I can’t stand the sight of blood – even if it’s fake – but something about the whole “biggest bomb in history” thing had me curious. So there I was, on a Saturday night, at a sold-out performance of Brelby Theatre Company’s Carrie: The Musical.

You know what? It was freaking awesome. And not just for the camp factor, though that was huge. The acting, singing, staging – every bit of the performance was terrific. I was shocked.

Historically speaking, if there’s one thing I like less than the horror genre, it’s community theater. As a features editor at a newspaper for 15 years, I read dozens of local theater reviews but seldom attended a performance. On one occasion, I accompanied the theater critic to a lunchtime performance at the Herberger Theater Center’s 118-seat Kax Stage, one of those minimalist spaces designated for experimental productions, known in theater parlance as a “black box.” The show was embarrassingly bad, and I squirmed in my seat, not knowing where to look or how I’d make it through the next 90 minutes. 

I stole a glance at my companion, knowing he couldn’t be enjoying the show any more than I was. He sat straight up, face stolid, staring intently at the stage. 

Unable to stand it anymore, I whisper-whined through gritted teeth, “How do you do this?”

Without a pause, the critic replied, “I’m rearranging living room furniture in my head.”

I didn’t go to the theater again for many years. Not here, anyway. Looking back, I’m not sure where I got it in my head that good theater is about location. After all, the very first Broadway show I saw was Cats at the Winter Garden Theatre in 1982. Hardly an auspicious introduction. 

But the bias persisted. I didn’t see the point of community theater – not here in metro Phoenix, not anywhere. I couldn’t figure out why anyone would bother attending a production of Annie in the round at a theater in Gilbert, or even a traveling show at ASU Gammage in Tempe, notorious for its gorgeous architecture and impossibly lousy sound.

I’m not sure what changed. Decades of living here as an adult? Raising kids who are drawn to the stage? Desperation for something beyond reality TV? Maybe I simply grew up.

Most likely, though, it’s simply the experience of putting my reluctant butt in a lot of auditorium chairs. I’ve seen a high school production of Spring Awakening that blew me away. ASU’s Lyric Opera Theater mounted the best production of Rent I’ve ever seen, anywhere (save for the one my kid was in, but I’m biased there). And Hale Theatre Center – the one in Gilbert? I’ve seen several excellent shows there, though to be honest if I never see another production of Annie again – anywhere – I’ll be good. 

This is going to sound impossibly corny, but here’s what I really think: It’s less about theater and more about community. I used to look around a small theater and scoff, “I bet there’s no one here who isn’t related to a cast member.” Now I see the same thing and smile. 

This is not really related to the pandemic, except for the part where most of us didn’t get out for more than a year. I sat in my kid’s high school choir concert last fall and sobbed – not because the music was so good, or because my daughter was performing (she was buried three rows back, I couldn’t see her) but because it felt so good to be in a space with other people, watching a live performance. I didn’t even notice that the students were singing behind masks. 

Little wonder the recent HBO Max mini-series Station Eleven has resonated so strongly with so many people – a phenomenon partly rooted in the show’s post-pandemic setting, but more deeply in its portrayal of the arts and the lesson that you don’t need fancy sound equipment, costumes or a stage (or any stage at all) to move people with a performance. 

When our real-life pandemic hit, I hadn’t been to New York in several years. I had a plane ticket and plans to see Hadestown on Broadway on March 13, 2020. You can imagine how that went down. 

I was devastated at the time, having no idea how small a sacrifice that trip would wind up being in the scheme of the next several months. Looking back, I’m pretty sure I would have been disappointed. There’s no way Broadway’s Hadestown would have held up to Glendale’s Carrie: The Musical.

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Amy Silverman

Born and raised in Phoenix, Amy Silverman is a multiple winner of the Virg Hill Arizona Journalist of the Year award. She also penned the memoir My Heart Can’t Even Believe It. 

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