“Next Fall” with Actors Theatre

The cast of Next Fall being performed by Actors Theatre at the Herberger Theater Center

While audience members are busy enjoying early offerings in various 2011/12 theater lineups, folks behind the scenes are already well into planning for next fall — when the 2012/13 season will get underway. They’re considering what’s sold tickets in the past and what might sell them in the future, thinking about what’s been overdone and what sounds surprisingly fresh, wondering whether the economy will be crawling or really chugging along.

But for one Valley theater company, Actors Theatre of Phoenix, it’ll take all the support they can muster just to make it through this fall. Before a recent performance of their current offering, a Goeffrey Nauffts’ play titled “Next Fall,” Erica Black briefly shared a bit about their financial woes — which are significant — and invited theater goers to give in a show of “grassroots support.”

To date, they’ve reached well over half the dollars needed to carry them through this production and the next — another edgy work, titled “Hunter Gatherers.” But making it to next fall, and beyond, will take gifts of a much larger magnitude. In total, Actors Theatre of Phoenix needs a half million dollars to survive through this season — and we all want them to make it.

After last Sunday’s standing ovation for the cast of “Next Fall,” one of six cast members shared his own fervent hope that the community will come together in support of Actors Theatre. It was Robert Kolby Harper, who performs the role of Adam. Harper is associate artistic director for Phoenix Theatre and artistic director for its Cookie Company.

L to R: Robert Kolby Harper (Adam) and David Dickinson (Brandon) in Next Fall

Harper likened the Arizona theater scene to a family, reminding us all that no one wants to lose a family member. Harper’s character in “Next Fall” worries he’ll lose boyfriend Luke (played by Chance Dean), who lies near death in a hospital bed Adam never sees because he isn’t “family.” The play alternates between scenes in a hospital waiting room and scenes in the couple’s New York City apartment, where a giant Mapplethorpe we see only briefly hangs over the bed.

“Next Fall” opens with the beeping sound of a heart monitor, but comedic elements quickly outpace the tragic as Debra K. Stevens, known to younger theater-goers for her work with Childsplay, launches into some serious Southern dialect with comments about thighs rubbing together and bagels being “one of those Jewish things.”

My favorite scenes involved flashbacks to pre-hospital days, with atheist Adam and Christian Luke bantering back and forth about their disparate beliefs. The seriousness of the dilemma — what to do when you worry a loved one will go to hell — is portayed with honesty, elegance and humor. The issue is a very real one in many families, and the playwright does it justice without resorting to platitudes.

Works this original covering topics too often tucked under the table (or shoved in a closet) are rare. Theater companies who dare to present them rarer still. That they perform them with such beauty and brilliance makes the thought of losing Actors Theatre all the more devastating. You’ll see for yourself, when you witness “Next Fall,” just how vital it is that we all step up to assure that Arizona audiences can experience works like these for many fall seasons to come.

— Lynn

Note: “Next Fall,” which is directed by Matthew Wiener, is currently scheduled to run through Nov. 13. Click here to learn more about the show or how you can support Actors Theatre. As of yesterday afternoon, they’d raised more than $45,000 of the $70,000 needed for the first phase of their three-part fundraising campaign.

Coming up: A “Star Trek” tale, Performance art meets native culture

Photos by John Groseclose. Top photo features (L to R): Debra K. Stevens (Arlene), David Dickinson (Brandon), David Vining (Butch), Chance Dean (Luke), Andi Watson (Holly) and Robert Kolby Harper (Adam).

Update: Actors Theatre announced on 11/14 that it has reached the first of its three fundrasiing goals.

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