Looking to Challenge

Catalina Players changes direction, dumping the dinners and adding some edge

This new year marks the 25th anniversary of the Catalina Players, and the theater group's executive director is ready for a change.

Oh, Priscilla Marquez isn't going anywhere. She believes in change from within--which makes sense, considering that the Catalina Players began as a self-help-through-acting group in 1983. So rather than abandoning the ensemble she has belonged to from the very beginning, and run since 1988, Marquez is helping the Catalina Players grow up.

That means more finished productions and a more serious, even slightly provocative, choice of scripts.

"There's so much going on in the world," says Marquez, "it's time for a message."

For its first two-plus decades, the group's primary message was simply that theater could be fun for everyone. It was a company where amateurs with very limited--if any--experience could get some time on stage with more seasoned actors, mainly with innocuous mid-20th-century shows like Father of the Bride and You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Dinner was served at most performances, adding a bit more of an incentive for the potential audience.

But this season, artistic director Leslie Miller stepped aside, and Marquez saw an opportunity to install someone who might take the group in a new direction: Bill Fikaris, who had run The Players Theatre Company in New Jersey since 1988, and had moved to Tucson in 2005 to care for an ailing parent. Although Fikaris led his company to several successes in play festivals, he had a tough time breaking into the Tucson theater community. Catalina Players invited him to direct two of its productions, and they turned out to be among the best in the company's history: The Boys Next Door in 2006, and Close Ties in early 2007.

With Fikaris taking charge artistically, Catalina Players will inevitably change. "Back East," he says, "I directed a lot of emotionally wrenching pieces. I was known as a guy who would either tear your heart out or make you slit your wrists."

Which would be rather messy at Catalina Players, had Fikaris not insisted that the company remove the white linen tablecloths and everything else pertaining to dinner theater, which Fikaris associates with lighter entertainment.

Don't expect nonstop gloom and doom, though. The production opening on Jan. 11, for example, is King of the Kosher Grocers, a warm-hearted multicultural comedy by Joe Minjares, and directed by Fikaris' partner, Ed Ortiz. The two worked together in New Jersey. For Catalina Players, Ortiz directed last season's And Where Was Pancho Villa When You Really Needed Him? (part of Catalina's America--Ojalá set of one-act plays). He also acted in that play and in The Boys Next Door.

Ortiz describes King of the Kosher Grocers, set in a threatened family-owned store, as "an homage to all the deteriorating neighborhoods in America." The main characters are Jewish, Hispanic and African American, but Ortiz stresses that "even though you can call it multicultural, what stands out in this play is that it's all American culture."

Fikaris has a taste for rather new and edgy plays, but he says that doesn't mean he doesn't like the classics--except that his idea of a classic is Night of the Iguana rather than You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Fikaris also is sensitive to the need to get audiences into the seats. "It's very disappointing for an actor to see only eight people out there," he says. "I measure success more by the audience than by the bank account. I want people to come, and to be so excited by what they see that they'll come back, even if it's to a show they've never heard of. Back East, we actually did better with the stuff nobody had heard of. If having a lot of money at the end of the year is our only concern, why are we doing theater? There are easier ways to make money."

The company's shift in direction hasn't been entirely smooth. Marquez says that some longtime patrons quit coming once dinner service was stopped. Casting has also been a problem. Fikaris intended to present A Chorus Line this past fall, but couldn't get the 19 men he needed for the ensemble. Casting King of the Kosher Grocers was difficult, too; Ortiz was surprised that Tucson holds so few Hispanic actors, and he had the misfortune of holding auditions precisely when Borderlands Theater was monopolizing most of them in A Tucson Pastorela.

Partly to alleviate casting difficulties, and partly to build a sense of a company and community, Fikaris has instituted evenings when, for a small fee, people can get together, participate in improvisation and theater games, and read through new scripts. Participants may or may not be cast in productions, but they could take behind-the-scenes jobs in the volunteer company.

And, of course, there's the test of building an audience with something other than light fare. The people behind the Catalina Players believe that a challenged audience is a loyal audience.

"Theater is more than two hours entertaining yourself," Ortiz asserts. "I want it to make me think and question my principles; that's worthwhile theater."

And that, says Marquez, is how plays can lure people away from their TVs, computers and iPods. "With everything in your life, do you really want to do theater, too?" she asks. "It's got to be worth it. That play has got to be good."

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