A.K.A. THEATRE CO. describes its next production, Marvin's Room, scheduled to open March 22, as a study of the "human spirit in the face of death." Ironically, this may also describe a.k.a. Theatre Co.
The human spirit belongs to a.k.a. artistic director, Meg Nolan, who is fighting to keep the gritty theatre company alive. If a.k.a. does not succeed in raising something close to $50,000 by the end of the run of Marvin's Room on April 23, Nolen says, this play will be the last for a.k.a.
In another ironic twist, Marvin's Room will be directed by Chicago-based Bill Morey, one of a.k.a.'s founding members. Morey, Nolen, and a few college buddies opened a.k.a. Theatre on January 15, 1987, with a $15,000 loan from Nolen's father. Over the last eight years, a.k.a. has engaged (and sometimes enraged) Tucson audiences with a diverse mix of production choices and playwrights from Anton Chekhov to Suzan-Lori Parks.
Because a.k.a. has always operated on a shoestring, it has been forced to keep productions rolling year-round, producing anywhere from 10 to 13 mainstage plays a year.
"In the eight years we've been operating, we've never closed for more than three weeks," Nolan said.
a.k.a is known in town as the theatre company that doesn't hesitate to take a risk. It's what Nolan and the others had in mind when they opened the storefront, experimental theatre on east Congress Street. Although her buddies have left over the years to pursue other interests, Nolan has stuck by a.k.a. Theatre Co. and stuck by her artistic vision. The traditional, "mainstream" plays that are mingled into a.k.a.'s annual production schedule enable the company to take some risks and do plays like Jerker and The America Play, Nolen says.
After a strong start, says Nolan, a.k.a. experienced dwindling audiences during its fifth, sixth and seventh years. "In the beginning, we would have people lined up outside to get in," she says. "They seem to be coming back now, but we experienced a few years of complacency--people didn't want to see anything that challenged them, no in-your-face stuff."
But Nolan has never compromised her belief that all types of theatre ought to be produced and seen. a.k.a. will never take the safe route, censor the nudity and profanity it's known for, and produce mainstream theatre simply to put butts in the seats.
"I'd rather close down than change it that way," Nolen said. "We don't judge a show's success based on attendance--but at the same time, it doesn't do any good if no one sees it."
One of a.k.a. most controversial plays of the past year, Jerkers, was also one of its most successful. At the other end of the spectrum, a.k.a held high hopes for the critically acclaimed The America Play, which was a box office disappointment.
a.k.a.'s financial crisis peaked just hours before the scheduled opening of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. a.k.a. owed more than $2,000 for royalties on previously produced plays, before the production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern could move forward. At Nolen's request, an anonymous donor made a last minute gift of $2,000, and one of a.k.a.'s most popular plays of the year was allowed to proceed.
The president of a.k.a.'s board of directors, Neal A. Eckel, reports an accumulated debt of about $15,000, which it hopes to pay off through a fund-raising effort. In addition, a.k.a hopes to make some badly needed building improvements, pay its artists a little, and hire a managing director to supervise expenses that run about $7,000 per month. a.k.a. is also looking for a new board member, Eckel says, who will be devoted strictly to fund-raising efforts.
Since a.k.a.'s audience includes first-time theatre-goers and students, the company is hesitant to raise ticket prices. Nolan says at one time the theatre tried to raise prices and found that it lowered attendance.
a.k.a. receives less than $10,000 a year in public grants and other funding, but the threat of losing this amount means at least one more month's worth of expenses the company must dig up in some other manner.
"The smaller organizations like a.k.a. are going to be hurt the most if funding is cut," said Dian Magie, executive director of Tucson Pima Arts Council. "They are so dependent on everything, any cutback is a struggle. Especially small theatres that have limited seating. It is a struggle just to cover the cost of programming."
Magie reports that on the state level the efforts to abolish the Arizona Arts Trust Fund were unsuccessful and will not be addressed this year. The focus now rests on the level of funding. The senate recommended a $55,000 increase. Governor Fife Symington recommended a $400,000 increase. Yup. Just when you were really starting to hate the guy he goes and does something good like funding the arts program in your kid's school. But here's somebody new to hate: Tucson's own Dan Schottel seconded the motion in the senate to zero out all state support for the arts by 1997. His phone number is 1-602-542-5839.
a.k.a.'s funding woes are not unique. Magie reports that on average nationwide for small and large theatre companies alike, ticket sales make up only about 50 percent of the cost of a production. In 1989 Arizona Theatre Company successfully conducted a similar do-or-die fundraiser on a much larger scale. Susan Claassen, Invisible Theatre's managing artistic director, reports that after more than 20 years on the scene, IT is holding its own, but she can certainly empathize with a.k.a.
"The first 10 years (for IT) were very touch and go," Claassen says. "It takes a lot of commitment from a lot of people to keep it going."
Although the productions at IT and a.k.a. reflect drastically different viewpoints, both companies thrive under the strength of artistic directors who are committed to art, live theatre and freedom of expression. In fact, those drastically different viewpoints are the reasons why Tucson's cultural community cannot afford to lose a.k.a. Theatre Company.
Contributions can be sent to a.k.a. Theatre Co., P.O. Box 3714, Tucson, AZ 85722. If you're interested in getting involved in the fight save federal and state support for the arts, contact the Tucson Pima Arts Council at 624-0595, or stop by their offices located at 240 N. Stone.
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