Fiscal Play

Tucson's theater companies release schedules that show money is a concern

Some of Tucson's best-established theater companies are in financial trouble. They're striving mightily not to make this a public issue--disaster is not yet looming--but you can figure out what's going on just by looking at their 2006-2007 season schedules.

You don't have to know that Borderlands Theater has recently eliminated an administrative position and cut a production to see that the company has lost some of its confidence. From now until December, Borderlands isn't presenting a long run of any fully produced plays. To the company's credit, it's doing more than ever to develop new plays, but this takes the form of one-night staged readings of Toni Press-Coffman's La Sangre Llama in August and David Rambo's Ice Breakers in October, along with a two-night "developmental production" in September of A Visitor's Guide to Arivaca--Map Not to Scale by Evangeline Ordaz, and two performances of Dan Guerrero's one-man show Gaytino! in October. None of this will involve big production costs, nor will the company have to struggle to attract audiences over the course of a two- or three-week run.

In December, Borderlands trots out its traditional community Christmas pageant A Tucson Pastorela for all of a week and a half. This usually pulls in people who don't otherwise go to plays, but attendance has been spotty on nights I've gone in the recent past; perhaps a shorter run and an all-new script by Press-Coffman will help. Not until spring will Borderlands mount and sustain full productions: the premiere of Hippie Mexicana by Evangeline Ordaz in April, and in June, delayed from this season, Earthquake Chica by Anne Garcia-Romero. Note that these are both comedies, which conventional wisdom says lures more theatergoers than the serious stuff for which Borderlands is best known. The theater's artistic director, Barclay Goldsmith, says the confluence of comedies was accidental: "I haven't found that light plays attract any more people than our darker fare."

Goldsmith doesn't want to reveal how much of a shortfall he has on his $280,000 budget, other than to say that it's "worrisome" but "manageable," and that the staff and board "are addressing it seriously." The problem, he says, stems from "an incorrect formula we used in budgeting our ticket sales." Conjunto, this past season's biggest production, failed to draw the audience support Goldsmith had hoped, although he was satisfied with the attendance at other full productions, and was even surprised by the success of Deseo/Desire, which included a lot of Spanish dialogue.

Meanwhile, Arizona Theatre Company, the state's leading professional theater, has gone schizophrenic. On one hand, it's pandering to the unsophisticated, anti-intellectual Phoenix crowd and the least sophisticated elements of the Tucson audience with two offerings that are really cabaret shows, not mainstage material: impersonators doing the greatest hits of Ella Fitzgerald (Ella) and Janis Joplin (Love, Janis). This is exactly the sort of moneymaking scheme that attracts droves of people who can't stomach real theater.

On the other hand, ATC's season includes elements that are at least honorable, and even a bit daring. There's a safe Shakespeare comedy (Twelfth Night), an installment of August Wilson's beautifully crafted multiplay saga of African-American life in the 20th century (Jitney) and potential crowd-pleasers including a recent work ominously billed as "a heartwarming tale of youthful hope" (Molly's Delicious, by Six Feet Under writer Craig Wright) and Souvenir. Most intriguing of all is Doug Wright's provocative I Am My Own Wife, about a German transvestite living under Nazi and Communist regimes.

From the number of small-cast (and one-person) shows and the pop appeal of a fair chunk of the season, it's clear that ATC is not in a position to do whatever it wants, box office be damned. And perhaps it's fiscal nervousness that led to Jessica Andrews' recent promotion from managing director to executive director. A new staffer is going to take over the mundane day-to-day administrative tasks while Andrews devotes more time to raising money.

So with the long-established Borderlands and ATC working assiduously not to look like they're falling on hard times, what are we to make of the self-assured season of Beowulf Alley Theatre Company?

In its first full season in its own theater, despite favorable and occasionally even orgasmic reviews in the local papers, Beowulf Alley has had trouble getting a respectable number of bodies in its seats. And as a new company, it isn't getting very large grants from the usual funding agencies.

So while the coming season's lineup is not nearly as daring as what the company has been talking about since its inception, it at least isn't toasting the same old chestnuts and spinning out yet another blob of cotton candy. There's a psychologically intense play called Frozen, an intricate relationship play by Stephen Dietz titled Fiction, a Truman Capote holiday adaptation (no, not In Cold Blood on Ice), an English ghost story called The Woman in Black, Peter Schaffer's aptly named Black Comedy and a stage version of Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. Not exactly Beckett and Marat/Sade, but neither is it Neil Simon's Greatest Hits.

Says Artistic Director Stephen Elton, "Being a small, developing theater with the mission we have, my biggest challenge is finding material that I want to produce that will not end up closing us down. My hope is that with every passing season, the audience base grows, and the audience members themselves continue to develop their taste toward our kind of theater."

Just what are the public's tastes right now? That's something Elton can't yet say. He's had many conversations with Goldsmith and other theater colleagues about how unpredictable Tucson theatergoers can be.

"Even if I don't want to admit it out loud," he says, "the choices that I made to make up this season are an attempt to figure out what the audience wants, or they are at least an attempt to help develop the audience's taste.

"Does the theater drive the audience, or does the audience drive the theater? Many of my friends complain about ATC, saying that their material is too soft and doesn't challenge enough, and that it's too predictable. But I think the audience is more to blame. If David Ira (Goldstein) felt that a production of The Pillowman, for instance, would completely sell out, then of course he would strongly consider it. But we all know that it wouldn't, that the only plays that sell out have either a fair lady or a modern major general in them. So I have a hard time blaming ATC for producing theater that pays the bills.

"This spring, ATC will produce I Am My Own Wife. It's a great piece, the most challenging of their season. We'll see how it goes. If every single person who has complained to me about ATC is not at that performance with their entire extended family, then I will enforce a no-complain zone about 25 feet around my person. I think just like 'regular' people, artists and arts patrons sometimes take the passive route in blaming the institutions instead of--at minimum--recognizing the market they live in."

Of course, this could turn out to be a market they don't want to live in. Can Top Hat Theatre Club keep going on slap-happy comedies? Will Rogue Theatre survive its brain-busting second season, showcasing the work of John Keats, Jean Genet and Bertolt Brecht? Will we respect ATC in the morning? Can't we all just get along?

The artists would like to. The rest is up to you.

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