Tag Archives: Matthew Wiener

“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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A mother’s love

The Valley theater scene helped to fuel my own daughter’s love of theater — both performing on stage and experiencing the work of others as an audience member. So Arizona’s theater companies have always felt like members of the family. I feel about them much like I feel about my own children. Each is special. Each is different. Each is good. And I couldn’t bear life without them.

So I was genuinely saddened Friday morning to receive a press release from Actors Theatre in Phoenix noting the very serious financial shortfalls that could threaten their very existence. Especially during a time when another Valley theater company’s building and hiring suggest they’re thriving like never before.

The cast of last seaon's Actors Theatre production of Circle Mirror Transformation

You know, if you have children, that far different fates often befall them — sometimes of their own doing, but often through no fault of their own. As much as it delights to watch one child soar, it hurts to watch another stumble. And when one family member suffers, every family member feels the pain.

It feels easier somehow to help struggling family members when we know they’re also helping themselves. And Actors Theatre of Phoenix has undertaken several steps to resolve their fiscal crisis — exploring new and modified programming, considering merger options, deferring salaries for leading artistic and management staff.

Actors Theatre of Phoenix reports that funding for the company, which has decreased for several years as the overall economy has faultered, took a steep decline this year. We’ve seen similar fates in the world of print journalism, and it isn’t pretty. Folks who support local theater need to step up, or Arizona’s theater community will be far poorer for it.

The company’s production of Geoffrey Nauffts’ “Next Fall” opens tonight at the Herberger Theater Center in downtown Phoenix. Show materials use the tagline “Love is a leap of faith” to describe the work — which offers a “witty and provocative look at faith, commitment and unconditional love.” I’ve long planned to be there for opening night, but now the experience will take on new meaning.

Ticket sales alone won’t prevent Actors Theatre of Phoenix from closing its doors, but every show of support — big or small — makes a difference. Matthew Wiener, producing artistic director for Actors Theatre of Phoenix, says they’ll need to raise $70,000 just to complete the run of “Next Fall” and begin their next production, titled “Hunter Gatherers.” Larger leaps will be needed to move the company forward for the long term.

Folks who feel themselves in any way a part of the Arizona theater community — or the larger arts community that drives so much of our economic growth and youth development — should remember now, and always, that we’re all family.

My daughter Lizabeth, who has long enjoyed the diversity of Arizona’s theater scene, now studies acting in New York City. She’ll be be sad to learn that a sibling of sorts here in the Valley is experiencing such a tough time. I think she’d remind us all, were she here, of one of her favorite quotes from the movie “Lilo & Stitch.” Ohana means family. Family means no one is left behind – or forgotten.

— Lynn

Note: To learn more about Actors Theatre of Phoenix, visit them online at atphx.org. Please note that the play “Next Fall” features mature themes.

Coming up: A leaf of faith?

Photo: John Groseclose

Circle time

I first encountered “circle time” as a young mother, when I’d volunteer in my children’s preschool classroom and everyone would gather to share music, stories or “show and tell” type offerings.

Today I enjoyed “circle time” of a different sort, as Lizabeth and I headed to the Herberger Theater Center for the final Actors Theatre performance of an Annie Baker play titled “Circle Mirror Transformation.”

It opens with students in a community acting class lying in a circle trying to count from one to ten within certain parameters, for the purpose of developing a certain mindfulness of those around them — with mixed results.

Valley audiences can experience another Baker work, titled “Body Awareness,” during Actors Theatre’s 2011-2012 season. The work of playwright Sarah Ruhl (whose “In the Next Room” was a hit for Actors Theatre earlier this season) also returns as Actors Theatre presents “Dead Man’s Cell Phone.”

Their 2011-2012 season opens with “A Conversation With Edith Head” by Paddy Calistro and Susan Claassen — and also includes “Next Fall” (Geoffrey Nauffts), “Hunter Gatherers” (Peter Sinn Nachtrieb) and “Time Stands Still” (Donald Margulies).

We enjoyed our time with “Circle Mirror Transformation” — more than we might have otherwise were it not for astute acting by Valley veterans of the stage.

Though I’d have been happy to simply sit and linger over the stunning set, designed by Kimb Williamson of Scottsdale Community College.

After the show we chatted and shared hugs with Maren Maclean (one of five actors in the show), who is one of Lizabeth’s most beloved acting teachers. Lizabeth was eager to share her college decision with Maclean in person. Her choice of an NYC school drew a fitting response: Duh!

Soon we were talking all things East Coast. Maclean’s upcoming reunion at “Indian Hills High School” in Oakland, New Jersey. Our attempts to snag “The Book of Mormon” tickets when we’re in NYC for Lizabeth’s college orientation.

I was keen on showing off my Mother’s Day gifts from Lizabeth — a bracelet and sterling silver earrings with a very circle/mirror vibe. I suspect I’ll be wearing them next Mother’s Day too — my first one without all three kids roosting at least part-time in the nest.

When we got home from the show, I made dinner before sitting down to relax with the latest issue of “American Theatre” magazine, a subscription I enjoy as a gift from my husband for another occasion I’ve all but fogotten by now.

There in the “On Stage: May/June 11” section I spotted a picture of Maclean, Staci Robbins and Rusty Ferracane performing in “Circle Mirror Transformation.”

Just more evidence of the “full circle” nature of my day, and of life. The only thing missing is a bit of “circle time” with two and three year olds. Don’t be surprised if you see me sitting cross-legged on the floor somewhere singing along with a bunch of preschoolers this week.

That’s the best “circle time” of all.

— Lynn

Coming up: More new season announcements

Women playwrights & Arizona theater

Katsina Dolls and Hopi Ceremonial Calendar on exhibit at the Heard Museum North Scottsdale

I was struck, during a recent trip to the Heard Museum North Scottsdale, by a round graphic of the Hopi ceremonial calendar. The calendar depicts time in circular rather than linear fashion — speaking volumes about differing ways diverse cultures sometimes view time.

The image of an unbroken circle came to mind the other day when I got to thinking about Valley writer and performer Kathleen Buckstaff — who will present a piece titled “The Tiffany Box” at Theatre Artists Studio in Phoenix Nov 4-14.

Our children attended the same elementary school, though I don’t recall that we ever had the opportunity to spend all that much time together. Still, I am eager to see the work — a “unique and intimate performance piece” in which Buckstaff shares a “touching and uplifting journey from love to loss.”

"The Tiffany Box", written and performed by Kathleen Buckstaff, comes to Theatre Artists Studio in Phoenix Nov 4-14

I spoke recently with Matthew Wiener, producing artistic director for Actors Theatre of Phoenix, who noted that three of the offerings in their current season are works by women playwrights.

Wiener takes great pride in bringing “recent, contemporary shows from New York” to the Valley. The company’s 2010-2011 season includes “three of the most exciting playwriting women today.”

In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play)” by Sarah Ruhl runs Oct 29-Nov 14. It’s “a comedy about marriage, intimacy and electricity” set in the 1880s.

This” by Melissa James Gibson runs Jan 21-Feb 6, 2011. It’s a “bright, witty, un-romantic comedy” about “the uncertain steps of a circle of friends backing their way into middle age.”

Circle Mirror Transformation” by Annie Baker runs Apr 22-May 8, 2011. It’s the Arizona premiere of an “inventive and absorbing comedy” exploring “the impact we can have on each other’s lives.”

Actors Theatre presents "In the Next Room" by Sarah Ruhl Oct 29-Nov 14 at the Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix. Pictured here are Angelica Howland (Catherine Givings) and Erica Connell (Sabrina Daldry). Photo: John Groseclose

The Arizona Women’s Theatre Company, established in 2003 and based in Scottsdale, produces “contemporary, provocative, thought provoking plays written by women.”

The company is working to provide “an innovative forum for women’s issues” — revealing women’s lives and documenting women’s experiences.

Their “Pandora Showcase,” taking place Nov 12-13 and Nov 19-20 at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts, will feature “contemporary and new plays by Arizona women playwrights.”

Women playwrights from across the country are invited to submit works for consideration as Arizona Women’s Theatre Company seeks scripts for its 5th Annual Pandora Festival.

A juried panel will select unpublished full length, one act and 10 minutes plays for staged readings during the May 20-22, 2011 festival at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts.

Check the Arizona Women’s Theatre Company website for submission details, instructions and deadlines.

And keep an eye on Theatre Artists Studio, which often features the work of Arizona playwrights and actors including the magazine’s own Debra Rich Gettleman.

Like so many women writers, there’s more to Gettleman than just a pretty blog.

— Lynn

Note: Local writers Amy Silverman and Deborah Sussman Susser offer two “Mothers Who Write” workshops each year. The next 10-week series begins Feb 24 at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art.

Coming up: Playwriting contests

The fine art of farce

A Valley reviewer recently dubbed Phoenix Theatre’s “Noises Off” the “best comedy you are likely ever to see.” I’d be inclined to agree had I not seen so much fabulously funny fare from this professional theater company through the years.

There’s plenty more to come from Phoenix Theatre — including the first production of the racy Broadway musical “Avenue Q” by an Arizona theater company. Who’s to say they won’t outdo themselves yet again?

Their casting is simply superb — and this show is no exception. Add a complex and creative set, maddeningly funny material and music to knock your socks (or boxer shorts) off — and you have a farce that’s nothing short of fine art.

"Noises Off" elevates farce to a fine art (Photo by Laura Durant)

Direction by Matthew Wiener, producing artistic director for Actors Theatre of Phoenix, only fuels the flames — for both the fantastically talented cast and the audience members who mistakenly presume they are out for a night of modest theater.

Picture yourself in a British theater waiting for the curtain to rise on “Nothing On” presented by “A Noise Within” productions. You’re leafing through the program only to discover actor/creative team credits that include playing Britain’s most famous lollypop lady, winning a coveted medal for violence, and loving anything small and furry.

It’s easy to imagine because every “Noises Off” playbill includes a fictitious “Nothing On” program replete with cast/creative team bios as well as a lovely bit of dramaturgy borrowed from an expert ‘in the semantics of Bedroom Farce.’

Members of the "Noises Off" cast in all their slapstick glory (Photo by Laura Durant)

If you carefully read the pseudo-program before the curtain opens, you’ll get your fix of fascinating facts about various elements of the production — the slamming doors, the falling trousers, mistaken identities and more.

You’ll discover that uproarious laughter, for some, “is a metaphysical representation of the sexual act.” If that’s the case, you’re in for one heck of an orgy when you see this show.

Good news for parents: Other than a black negligee and boxer shorts (not worn together, thankfully), there’s little that’s explicitly rude or crude in this show. It’s rife with inuendo, but I can’t imagine that many kids would catch the subtleties. They will, however, appreciate the many triumphs in physical comedy.

You never know where that baggage might end up (Photo by Laura Durant)

“Noises Off” by Michael Frayn consists of three acts featuring the folly of a ficticious “Nothing On” production. Act I depicts the final rehearsal for “Nothing On” — setting up characters and situations that won’t be fully appreciated until later in the work. It’s funny, but you won’t yet find yourself wishing you’d made that last minute potty stop.

Act II reveals a bevy of backstage bungling as we witness a performance of “Nothing On” from behind the scenes. It’s funnier and more outrageous than the first, but the farce really hits the fan during Act III, when we finally see the onstage mayhem as it appears to unwitting audience members.

Plenty of pratfalls involve persnickety props — a disappearing and reappearing plate of sardines, a rotary dial phone with a tendency-to-tangle cord, flowers that never cease to find their way into the wrong suitors’ hands. The rotating set-piece — the two-story home where “Nothing On” is set — is equally delightful.

I do have to wonder, though, whether younger audiences would be more appreciative if the work was updated a bit with Starbucks in lieu of sardines or computer wires in lieu of telephone cords. Of course, there’d be no stopping there since the world may soon be wireless — and the modern day quest for efficiency robbed of sensual pleasures like reading a paperback book over a cup of coffee might just as easily bring caffeine injections via some sort of biochip.

Steer clear of slippery sardines, among other things (Photo by Laura Durant)

It’s been several days since I saw the play, being performed at Phoenix Theatre through Sept 19 (extended from Sept 12 due to ‘popular demand and critical acclaim’). But I still find myself leafing through the actual program — where I’m learning all sorts of things about our local talent.

Leann Dearing (Brooke) and her husband Matthew are acting instructors with Dearing Acting Studio. Mike Lawler (Selsdon) is a member of Phoenix Theatre’s “Partners That Heal” program. Maren Maclean (Belinda) has extensive Shakespeare experience (including several seasons as education outreach director for Southwest Shakespeare Company) — which I’m convinced is the best training ground for the craft of comedy.

Gail Wolfenden-Steib (costume designer) operates Rukshana Raks!, a custom dancewear business specializing in belly dance costumes for both cabaret and tribal dance styles. Katie McNamara (properties designer) has worked as a prop artisan for the Utah Shakespearean Festival, Shakespeare Santa Cruz and others.

Matthew Wiener (director) holds an MFA from the Yale School of Drama. Michael J. Eddy (production manager/lighting designer) sits on the board of Scorpius Dance Theatre (which presents “A Vampire Tale” to sold out crowds each Halloween season). Pasha W. Yamotahari (assistant director and more) holds a journalism degree from the Cronkite School at ASU and has earned dramaturge and critic awards from the presitigious Kennedy Center.

Beware of doors that fly open or slam shut (Photo by Laura Durant)

Despite the farcical nature of the fare, I came away from it asking myself a rather serious question. Might I want to be a dramatuge when I grow up? Thankfully, I still have time to decide.

In the meantime, being an avid supporter of the Valley’s arts scene is a mighty fine gig.

–Lynn

Note: Mention the word “sardines” when ordering your tickets to enjoy a $5 savings while the offer lasts.

Coming up: Lynn and Liz encounter a frog and a toad a la Childsplay in Tempe; “Music Man” (with Phoenix Symphony and Phoenix Theatre) meets the Musical Instrument Museum; Making magic happen

Photos (from the top): Joseph Kremer;  Mike Lawler, Joseph Kremer, Christopher Williams, Maren Maclean, Cathy Dresbach; Christopher Williams, Leeann Dearing; Christopher Williams, Cathy Dresbach; Joseph Kremer, Cathy Dresbach, Robert Kolby Harper, Leeann Dearing (counter-clockwise from top left). All photos by Laura Durant of Durant Communications.

School is a feeling place

School is a feeling place… 

It’s one of many pearls shared by actor and playwright Nilaja Sun of New York, who’s performing her critically-acclaimed one-woman, self-authored play “No Child” through Sunday, May 9, at the Herberger Theater Center. 

Matthew Wiener, producing artistic director for Actors Theatre in Phoenix, says the company chose “No Child” because there’s “something special about bringing out an original voice and artist.” 

“This is an important play for our community at this time,” reflects Wiener. “The work is very appropriate for Arizona given our educational world. It has something to say without being an ‘I told you so’ or judgment thing.” 

Wiener diplomatically refrained from elaborating but I suspect many of you can fill in the possible blanks here. Lousy funding for education. Low appreciation for the importance of arts in education. Little regard for the value of diverse voices. Take your pick. 

Nilaja Sun of "No Child"

Sun’s play is populated by people you’d find in a public school in the Bronx, which is the setting for her riff–both reflective and riotous. “No Child” follows a teaching artist as she engages students who’ve been written off by others and, in many cases, themselves. 

There’s the janitor, who opens and closes the play—all the while pushing a wide broom as he sings a blues song that alludes to finding one’s way to a brighter day. There’s the new teacher thrown into a world that might as well be galaxies away—and others. 

Sun says she chose to open the work with the school janitor as an homage—she uses the term “love letter”—to all those unsung heroes in our schools: the janitors, cafeteria workers and crosswalk guards among us. 

And there are the students. They’ve been through several teachers just this year alone, but warm after a time to the woman who tells them “From now on, we are nothing but thespians.” (It’s a line one of her students repeatedly meets with “Lesbians?”) 

Sun’s mission is to journey with the students through a six-week teaching gig that culminates in the presentation of a school play about a group of convicts. The play is titled “Our Country’s Good.” 

It doesn’t take long for students to recognize the parallels between low expectations of convicts and low perceptions of students–or for Sun to wonder whether preparing students to be convicts might be what some of our schools seem to do best these days. 

The students complain of hunger, too many rules and boredom—which prompts Sun, in her role of teaching artist, to offer the following: “Boredom, my love, usually comes from boring people.” 

There’s nothing boring about this play. It’s saturated with subject matter that matters. It’s a humanizing force in a world where students are too often viewed as a collective mob rather than individual muses. 

The students Sun portrays, all compilations of students she worked with during eight years as a tenacious teaching artist in New York’s toughest classrooms, have distinctive dialects, physical movement and views of the world. 

During a post-performance talk back with the audience Sunday afternoon, she likened switching between characters to snapping fresh, crisp asparagus—noting her director’s insistence that there be a clean, clear break at every juncture (even if a character’s only contribution might be a glance or a sigh). 

Sun’s generosity of spirit is evident in both her performance and her attention to the details of each audience member’s question. She’s a captivating channel for a world few of us may ever experience in a time where it matters to each and every one of us. 

Make space in your world for “No Child.” If you’ve ever been a teacher, in any sense of the word—or a student—this work will resonate with things you’ve felt, wondered about and imagined. 

Theater, thanks to Sun, is a feeling place—and we’re all better for it. 

–Lynn 

Note: “No Child” contains mature language (including racial slurs hurled between students of different ethnicities), so be prepared to address this element of the work if you chose to take your child or teen to see this production. 

Coming up: Review of Arizona Theatre Company’s presentation of “The Second City Does Arizona, or Close, But No Saguaro”—being performed at the Herberger Theater Center through May 16.

Today’s tidbits: FREE concert tonight featuring South Mountain Community College Community Band and Jazz Ensemble with young musicians from Valley schools–NFL YET Academy, Bernard Black Elementary School and Cloves C. Campbell Elementary School. Concert is at 7pm at SCMM, located at 7050 S. 24th St. in Phoenix. Info at www.southmountaincc.edu or 602-243-8353.

Shipwrecked with cheesecake?

I thought of Actors Theatre Tuesday night when many of you were likely watching the season premier of the final season of “Lost.”

I’ve never had much success comprehending the convoluted story line, so I’m glad to know there’s an adventure story playing closer to home that I can enjoy in just a few hours time.

Scene from "Shipwrecked!"

It’s “Shipwrecked!,” playing at the Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix through February 7th.  You won’t be able to buy a DVD of this baby if you miss it, and this weekend is your last chance to experience it.

I talked recently with Matthew Wiener, now in his 14th season as producing artistic director for Actors Theatre, about “Shipwrecked!” and some of their other season selections.

The titles alone are enough to entertain my brain: Triple Espresso, Boom, Secret Order, No Child.

Given the economic climate, says Wiener, many folks are looking to theater as a sort of escapism. “It’s not,” he quips, “the ideal time to do Death of a Salesman.” Today’s audiences enjoy adventurous works that make them smile.

Shipwrecked!” fits the bill, and is all the better because it’s compelling theater for kids and grown-ups alike.

Scene from "Shipwrecked!"

I asked Wiener what’s ahead for Actors Theatre, who says their 2010-2011 season will be announced in March. It’s that time of year for all our theater companies, who each put their own twist on deciding what shows to run.

Wiener begins, as do many others, by reading plays—by learning what’s out there and what’s available at any given moment depending on licensing agreements and such.

Bigger theaters, he says, get “dibs” over the smaller ones. Making individual selections is a bit like ordering off the Chinese menu, according to Wiener—you pick one from column A, another from column B and so forth.

The best seasons are a blend of interesting works that appeal to a broad range of tastes while continuing to engage loyal patrons.

Especially in tough economic times, practical matters weigh heavily in decision making. Theater companies have to contend with straining budgets, which impacts the number of people they can hire for their shows and what they are actually able to execute on stage.

Scene from "Shipwrecked!"

Having a pool or rainstorm on stage would be something, says Wiener, but it’s just not feasible in today’s environment. Never fear, directors. I can live without all the bells and whistles if you simply roll a giant cheesecake out onto the stage during curtain call and invite us all up with forks to dive in.

I don’t see any cheesecake in Wiener’s future—but I’m intrigued nonetheless. The ideal season, he says, provides a balance between works that are challenging, thoughtful and provocative and works that are highly entertaining.

“We’re not that large,” reflects Wiener. “So we don’t have to serve the mainstream.” The Actors Theatre audience, he says, “is interested in being provoked.”

With so much television reporting and programming that’s just downright annoying these days, being provoked in a meaningful way is a refreshing change.

Bring it on.

–Lynn

Note: Actors Theatre presents  a benefit bash titled “2010 Gourmetheatre” on Saturday, March 27th–which kicks off at Memorial Hall at Steele Indian School Park in Phoenix. Contact Actors Theatre for ticket information and sponsorship opportunities.