Small Theaters, Big Efforts 

Community theater thrives in Tucson at Comedy Playhouse, St. Francis Theatre


Tucson is home to at least a couple of dozen theaters. At least. And that doesn't include some of the amazingly sophisticated high school drama department productions. Sometimes it makes a theater writer's head spin. We try our best to review the major theaters, but there are some smaller, more community theater-type groups that we don't. But every now and then, when space allows, we try to let readers know all that is going on out there, since, even though the quality may vary, there are very dedicated folks—amateurs in the truest sense of the word—who do their best to give their often small audiences a good show.

The Comedy Playhouse has been around for about five years. Bruce Bieszki founded the group and has been its leader since then, but recently he has handed the artistic leadership to Nell Summers. Running on the proverbial shoe-string budget, the group typically has done older plays which are in the public domain, so they pay no royalties. Currently they are running an A.A. Milne show (yes, he of "Winnie the Pooh" fame) called "The Dover Road," which Milne wrote in 1921. (It was made into a film called "Where Sinners Meet.")

The story involves an eloping couple who, when experiencing car trouble, find themselves taking refuge in the home of a Mr. Latimer, a wealthy man who feels he is doing a service by giving prospective couples an opportunity to discern if they are making a good marriage. He really specializes in couples who are undertaking a second marriage: "How much more carefully they should be considered, seeing that one at least of the parties has proved his utter ignorance of the art of marriage."

Summers' mother, Peré Summers has in her retirement found a facility for writing comedies, and is now writing for the group. Next up at the theater is one of her plays, "Pain in the Aunt," which the group produced earlier in the year and found it popular enough to mount again. Each show runs six weekends.

The 40-seat theater is in a strip mall—which provides plenty of parking—at the corner of First Ave. and Prince, and they produce on a year-round basis. They also produce a series of reader's theater events, each taking a well-known humorist's writings and giving them voice. These writers have included Robert Benchley, Mark Twain, and Edna Ferber.

Another small but determined group is St. Francis Theatre. It is sponsored by St. Francis United Methodist Church, although it does not produce plays which are related to church-going or religion of any kind, nor are its performers necessarily members of the church. The church actually sponsors numerous arts-related programs, feeling that arts are a vital part of nurturing the soul, "a means of fostering personal and spiritual growth." The theater program has been around for 20 years, and recently it has been led by Robert Encila and associated with his group, Studio Connections. Encila is returning to his native Philippines in a few weeks.

Over the past few years there have been productions of comedies, dramas and musicals. Most recently they produced a very impressive version of "Working: the Musical," the play based on Studs Terkel's best-selling book, "Working."

Currently onstage is an original play by Micheal Wilkinson, a retiree from the Pacific Northwest who had been involved with directing educational and community theater there for 40 years. He has directed other shows for the St. Francis group, but this is the first play he has written. It's called "Pieces," and it's about the journey of a woman who had an absent father and a mother who has been very stingy with the details of chunks of the family's history, including the rather mysterious death of a child. The woman uncovers other mysteries as she attempts to put together a portrait of her family for her own daughter's benefit.

Wilkinson also directs the show, and he said when he exchanged his writer's hat for his director's one, it became clear that some changes were necessary and his "pencil came out." He also relied on his cast to point out parts of the play that presented them with difficulty as actors. Wilkinson said he was surprised and grateful for "the level of commitment" of the cast.

This is the final play of their season, and a schedule for next year is being finalized.

While summers in Tucson heat up, the pace of Tucson theaters' productions does cool off considerably. But there's always something cooking on a number of stages, any time of year.

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