This is one of two stories about theatre in Arizona; click here to read more.
Arizona is known for its broad, sweeping vistas; rocky mountains that tower above the clouds, only to give way to canyons sculpted by winds and rain; endless expanses of open desert; and vast blue skies that start shifting colors an hour before the sun sets. When monsoon clouds gather on the horizon, we are gifted with some of the most spectacular sunsets in the world. Those clouds also bring lightning, micro-bursts, and flash floods. It’s a daily reminder that drama here isn’t just about people—it’s about people struggling to survive against the backdrop of a beautiful, and often volatile, environment.
The beauty of the landscape, and the room to grow, have brought theatre artists and administrators to Arizona to make their lives and their art. While some were born here, newcomers arrive in waves, searching for something they couldn’t find elsewhere. Just as the weather shapes the landscape, the challenges that Arizona theatremakers face—a transient population, diverse cultures, and finite resources—compel us to adjust to our environment. We’re challenged to think in new ways, and to develop new approaches to our work and our communities. While other states have a more fixed identity, Arizona is still trying to figure out who it is. Those of us who live here are playing an active role in helping to shape its future. (Phoenix was to be the site of Theatre Communications Group’s annual conference in June which since shifted to a two-part virtual conference, May 6-8 and June 2-5.)
The youngest of the conterminous states, Arizona was added to the union on Feb. 14, 1912. Today its capital, Phoenix, is among the five largest cities in the U.S. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, it was the fastest-growing city in the U.S. between 2017 and 2018, tying with San Antonio, Texas, the year before. Yet Phoenix is an anomaly. While this steady flow of people would appear to offer endless opportunities for theatres to expand their audiences, as well as their donor bases, reaching them has proven challenging.
“To reach these new residents, it seems like we’re constantly remarketing,” says Phoenix Theatre Company (PTC) artistic director Michael Barnard. “Also, because the Phoenix metro area is so spread out, we’ve got to work hard just to get people to come to our shows. There are so many people in these isolated pockets, and they don’t want to leave their areas.”
Still, PTC, which celebrated its 100th anniversary this season, is thriving. They’re keen on taking advantage of what Barnard calls their two greatest resources: talent and location. Situated on a 14-acre campus near downtown, in what’s called the central corridor, they share space with an art gallery, a restaurant, and a bar. “We’re a destination in a destination city,” Barnard says.
Barnard and company have seen their budget increase every year since he took the reins 1999, when his annual budget was $750,000. Today it’s $9.6 million. Still, it’s an ongoing struggle to find donors.
“We don’t have as many corporate headquarters here,” says Barnard. “So the few corporations that are here get hit up by everybody. One thing we’ve been trying to do is seek smaller amounts from individual donors. I tell them, we may not be known for the arts like Minneapolis or Chicago, but we can change that. We’ve got so much to offer.”
There’s something for nearly every theatregoer in Phoenix. While PTC and Arizona Theatre Company offer more traditional fare, audiences can find newer and edgier works at Stray Cat Theatre and Nearly Naked Theatre. Childsplay, in Tempe, offers work for younger audiences. Yet many people relocating to Phoenix remain loyal to the institutions in the cities from which they came. Barnard says this transient population is relatively slow to attend shows in Phoenix and to donate to companies in their new home.
“They’re willing to join us, but it’s harder for them to find us,” Barnard says. “It takes time to learn about a new community, to become enmeshed in it.”
The city’s sprawling layout—Phoenix’s metropolitan area covers more than 2,000 square miles, encompassing over 20 incorporated cities—creates communities as diverse as they are far-flung. Arizona Theatre Company’s artistic director, Sean Daniels, wrestles with the same dilemma, only moreso. A native of Mesa, Ariz., Daniels returned to his home state last May. After stints at Actors Theatre of Louisville, Merrimack Repertory, in Lowell, Mass., and the Geva Theatre Center, in Rochester, N.Y., he was finally offered what he calls his dream job.
Daniels inherited a company that nearly closed its doors in 2016, as ATC had struggled with mounting debt as it tried to find a replacement for long-time artistic director David Ira Goldstein. Amplifying the distance issue, ATC has a theatre in Phoenix but its home base is in Tucson. This is curious: While the Tucson metro area’s population is roughly one million, six million-plus call the Phoenix metro area home. After reducing the company’s debt, Daniels is striving to rebalance the company’s focus and to expand its reach in the state’s capital, as well as lay the groundwork for its next phase of development.
“We’re primed for growth in Phoenix,” says Daniels. He compares the theatre’s Tucson base to “a community hub, like the church. You’re going to run into people in the grocery store. Your kids are going to play on the same baseball team. That’s all part of being in the same place. But Phoenix is so spread out, you don’t always see the same people. So we’ve got to figure out ways to bring more people into the fold.”
In the past, advertising and response from critics could serve to bring new theatregoers into the building, but there’s been a shift in the culture. Robrt Pela has been writing about theatre in Phoenix since 1985, but his weekly theatre column at Phoenix New Times was cut last year when a new culture editor arrived at the alternative weekly.
“Things are changing,” says Pela. “When I started at the Phoenix New Times in 1991, my quota was two critical essays a week. In the past year, year-and-a-half, it was whittled down to one essay per month.”
While Pela is concerned about these changes, he sees them as a consequence of larger movements in the culture. Pela pointed to the way that a food writer, for instance, was often a trained journalist who had some knowledge of their beat, and whose work could convince people in the community to try something new. “That’s been replaced by people on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, who are simply sharing their opinions,” says Pela. “These opinions may or may not be informed by a critical framework. Journalism as we know it is dying. The beats are dying. It makes me sad, but I try to see it as an evolution. These changes will challenge us to learn new ways of doing things.”
At ATC, Daniels is building his plan to develop audiences around those changes. In addition to increasing staff in Phoenix, he has launched the Cohort Club, a program based on one he ran at Merrimack, which encourages audience members to not only see shows but to be part of the process.
“They attend rehearsals, design meetings, whatever they like,” says Daniels. “But they have to write something every time they enter the building, and post it on social media, or wherever people can read it. We’re trying to educate people about theatre, help them find the language to communicate about what they see, and then spread the word. We want them to take ownership of the thea-tre, because it’s ultimately theirs. We need new audiences if we’re going to create new work.”
Though Arizona has not traditionally been known for developing new work, Daniels, who is also a playwright, aims to change that.
“There’s this misconception that if you’re not living in New York, you’re not really an artist,” he says. “But none of that’s true. That’s just New York hype. What I’m really excited about is for shows to start here, and then go to New York, or go wherever they end up going.”
Daniels notes that Arizona has many things that make it attractive as a new-work hub, and that it’s only a matter of time before people take notice.
“Arizona has an amazing support system, low cost of living, and a number of theatres that can get involved,” he says. “We are far away from the pressures of developing work in New York. We’re freer to experiment, so we can focus more on the work itself. We have all these things working for us, but we haven’t put it together yet. It’s really time for us to own it, to organize our resources in a way that puts us at the front of the conversation.”
Playwright Virginia “Vicki” Grise, who was born in San Antonio, says she has found a home in Arizona for her work. She left New York City to develop her play, Their Dogs Came With Them, because, she says, she started to feel that new-play development models had become too rigid.
“Different artists require different things from the processes we call new-play development,” she says. “I’m less concerned about myself or my career than I am about the work. It’s important that we let go of ownership, and our egos.”
For Their Dogs Came With Them, based upon Helena Maria Viramontes’s novel of the same name, the development process didn’t begin in a theatre but at Perryville women’s prison in Goodyear, Ariz.
“We talk about diversity a lot, but I don’t think we’ve gone far enough to address it yet,” says Grise. “It’s not just about race or gender. It’s about aesthetics too, and ultimately who we bring into our processes.”
Of the 17 actors Grise worked with at Perryville, all were inmates—including one whom Grise thinks of as the fiercest dramaturg she’s ever worked with. “One day I mentioned that I was going to cut a character, Chavala, and my dramaturg was completely against it,” says Grise. “I said, ‘Chavala doesn’t move the story forward, it’s just not working.’ My dramaturg said: ‘This is a play about displacement. How are you going to cut the one character who embodies displacement?’ And she was right. She even cited my other work to defend her argument.”
Grise says that all of her collaborators worked with the same kind of focused intensity, which in retrospect she doesn’t find surprising.
“That urgency came from the community that made the play,” says Grise. “This play is about how the state controls our lives, our bodies. And we performed it in a prison yard, in a three-quarter round. You could see the performers, the audience watching the performers, the guards, and the prison itself. You could hear people on the loudspeaker, the clanging of gates, the wind. All of that became part of the play.”
That’s why Grise urges theatre artists to think outside the black box.
“We need to ask ourselves, what’s really possible? I want to collaborate with people from different disciplines from the beginning of the process,” she says. “There’s all of this knowledge in the community that we don’t share. Not only can it make the stories we tell more truthful, but we also build community through sharing this knowledge.”
In Arizona, that knowledge, and the people who share it, are varied. Our individual visions of what the community actually looks like—in terms of ethnicity, gender identity, and ideologies—are often challenged. That’s one thing that intrigued Michael Rohd, founding artistic director of Portland, Ore.’s Sojourn Theatre, when he moved to Phoenix to teach at Arizona State University (ASU), the largest research university in the country, just before the 2016 election.
“I knew Arizona to be a super-fascinating, complex, red-purple state,” says Rohd. “That was part of its appeal. As an artist, I’m very interested in the question: What does it take to be in difficult conversations without losing a relationship?”
Rohd and his collaborators have sought to harness the charged atmosphere that emerged after Trump’s election via participatory theatre. This is a state, after all, where someone like Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who faced a raft of federal civil rights lawsuits for his treatment of Latinx immigrants in the community, could be repeatedly voted into office, and where you can find Latinx voters who cast ballots for Trump in 2016, despite his intention to build a wall along the Mexican/American border (and his pardon of Arpaio).
Demographics may not be destiny, though: The population in Phoenix is roughly 43 percent white and 42 percent Latinx, with smaller numbers of Native American, Black, and Asian people, according to the U.S. Census, and Tucson’s numbers are nearly identical. But Phoenix is traditionally a red city, while Tucson votes blue. This leads to contentious, even volatile discussions in city halls, streets, and homes across the state.
“Audiences here are hungry for conversation,” Rohd says. “They want to feel civically engaged. They want to have a place where they can talk about this stuff, and that’s what theatre is all about.”
That’s why Sojourn Theatre staged The Race at ASU’s Galvin Playhouse on Election Day in 2016. Rohd describes The Race, developed at a workshop at Georgetown University in 2008, as an exploration of what Americans want in their leaders. After a section of the performance called “Presidential Speech Karaoke,” which invited audience members to enter the arena and read a candidate’s words displayed on teleprompters, the performance shifted gears.
“The entire second act is composed of questions we’ve curated over the past decade,” Rohd says. “The performers ask each other questions, and then we open up the circle, extending questions to the audience, giving them space to respond. We were performing the piece as the results were rolling in.”
During the six-minute dance that caps the performance, which Rohd says had shades of Pina Bausch, he could hear, and feel, the audience’s reactions.
“It was becoming clearer what was about to happen,” he says. “Members of the audience were whispering, shouting, crying. The whole atmosphere was charged. It was exceptionally powerful.”
Rohd’s colleague, the dramaturg and scholar Tiffany Lopez, left Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles four years ago to become director of the School of Film, Dance, and Theatre at ASU. Lopez said the university and the surrounding community give her students unparalleled opportunities for growth in the classroom and beyond.
“Our students aren’t just making theatre,” Lopez says, “they’re engaged in the community. We’re constantly asking ourselves what theatre does and what does it mean. One of our goals here is to get these young artists to work from their vision and their voice. To that end we’re invested in exploring new ways of making theatre, such as devising and incorporating new media. It’s all about sharing knowledge and expertise.”
Lopez says that the burgeoning theatre scene in Phoenix is one reason why her students don’t feel the need to leave after they graduate.
“There’s so much going on here,” she says. “Our graduates don’t have to think, Should I move to L.A. or New York? They can stay right here, where we have so many companies doing great work and so much room to grow.”
For Elaine Romero, playwright in residence at Arizona Theatre Company and associate professor of film, theatre, and television at Tucson’s University of Arizona, Arizona’s sense of community, and the landscape in which it grows, is everything. Though Romero was born in New Mexico, and her work has afforded her the opportunity to travel the country, she calls Tucson home.
“I fell in love with Arizona years ago and decided I wanted to make work here,” says Romero. “It starves us at times, but it feeds us too. I could be in a coffee shop in Chicago and it could be snowing outside, but if I just close my eyes, I can see the mountains surrounding Tucson. When I visualize those mountains, when I evoke that place, I feel like I can begin. This is a landscape we can grow into.”
A similar sense of belonging, and the purpose that comes with it, brought Marc David Pinate, Tempe native and producing director of Tucson’s Borderlands Theater, back to the state after earning a Master’s degree in directing from the Theatre School at DePaul University.
“When I told people what I was going to do after graduation, it was a forgone conclusion that I’d go to New York, L.A., or stay put in Chicago,” Pinate says. He opted to return to Arizona, reasoning, “I’d become more mature, and I saw possibilities that could only exist in Arizona.”
Pinate and his wife, playwright and Borderlands marketing/-outreach director Milta Ortiz, moved to Tucson after she was given a grant to develop a play with Borderlands. Then the theatre’s founder and producing artistic director, Barclay Goldsmith, decided to step down, and Pinate applied for the job and got it.
Under Pinate’s leadership, Borderlands has begun to focus on site-specific performances that rely heavily upon interviews with people from the communities in which they perform.
“I was wrestling with the question of how to get Latinx people into the theatre,” Pinate said. “I worked with Teatro Visión for a while. I got heavy into street theatre. Then I read something Luis Valdez wrote: ‘If you can’t get the pueblo into the theatre, you’ve got to bring the theatre to the pueblo.’”
That “aha!” moment was the seed for Barrio Stories, a series of site-specific performances that began with Barrio Viejo in downtown Tucson. Explains Pinate, “This neighborhood was the center of the city for Chicanos. For that reason, it was also a neighborhood that was seen as a blight by developers, who wanted to bring tourism downtown.” The city, he says, tried to wipe out the neighborhood by neglecting basic services and leaving trash in the streets. “Then they built the Tucson Convention Center where those houses and businesses once stood,” he says.
Over 5,000 people saw the show, which was performed outdoors at the Tucson Convention Center. Just a block south, on Meyer Avenue, stands Teatro Carmen. Once home to Borderlands, the venue now stands vacant. “I spoke with people who lived there, who felt like their wounds were finally being addressed,” he says. “They felt like their suffering had finally been legitimized.”
The next installment of Barrio Stories, which dealt with Barrio Anita, a neighborhood situated between downtown Tucson and the west side, marked a turning point for Pinate and company. “We really went out into the community, and opened up dialogues with the developers who were buying houses and lots,” he says. “Whereas Barrio Viejo had already happened, gentrification was just beginning to creep into Barrio Anita. So residents still had a chance to help shape the way their neighborhood might change.”
Pinate said that the performance helped heal some old wounds in the neighborhood, in part by reuniting a neighborhood committee that had dissolved more than 10 years before. The following installment of Barrio Stories, which was scheduled to run April 24-25 until the pandemic lockdown, was about the community of Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Mexico.
“Nogales is a city that was separated by the border,” Pinate says. “It’s also been impacted by the narratives surrounding 9/11 and cartel violence. Morley Avenue used to be a vibrant business district, a center of commerce, before these narratives emerged. Now it’s a ghost town.”
Pinate pointed to the broader effects caused by these changes, including what he called talent flight.
“You’ve got all these young people in Nogales who are coming of age, and the first thing they want to do is go somewhere else,” he says. “As I’ve been spending more time there, and doing research, I see what’s happening. It used to be packed, but now there aren’t many jobs for young people. In those conditions, they’re more likely to leave. We’re all more likely to leave our hometowns if we don’t feel connected.”
Pinate paused as he hit upon a fundamental question faced by many Arizonans, artists and otherwise. That is, for all that this state has to offer—the beautiful landscape, a complicated history, the space to grow and find oneself, and communities in which others are striving to do the same—many of us choose to leave. And once we’re gone, and we see what we’ve lost, we choose to return.
“I get it, because I did it too,” Pinate says. “That’s my story. When I was old enough to leave, I was like, ‘I’m out.’ But when I was gone, I missed it. My family has been in Arizona for thousands of years. This has always been my home, even when I was away. Now that I’m back, I’ve found more purpose in my work. When you’re involved, you feel like you belong to the community, and the community belongs to you.”
David Dudley is a Tucson, Ariz.-based playwright, freelance journalist, and educator. He earned a BFA in playwriting from the Theatre School at DePaul University, and an MFA in playwriting from Southern Illinois University, Carbondale.