Out, Out, Brief Candle

The closing of Beowulf Alley Theatre is a blow to the performing arts downtown

Downtown Tucson is undergoing dramatic changes. But one dramatic change is the loss of actual drama—and comedy and farce and original scripts and various experimental takes on what it means to be a theater company.

November saw the last flash of Beowulf Alley Theatre Company on South Sixth Avenue. The remaining shows of the 2013-2014 season have been canceled and there is at this time no plan for the company to reinvigorate itself at another location.  The essentials of theater production—sound equipment, light board, even the seats—have been auctioned off. 

So what happened?  The entity was well-established, having been around since the beginning of the millennium, and had been housed on South Sixth for 10 years.  There had been the usual ebb and flow of personnel whose jobs involve oversight as a whole, as well as both the maintenance and the evolution of an artistic ideal and identity. In a not-for-profit theater, this is usually the board of directors, which traditionally endorses an artistic director and general manager who are the hands-on creators and operators.

Artistic personnel also come and go, their energy divided between mostly unpaid positions at the theater and full-time jobs elsewhere.

But this is not uncommon.  It makes running a theater and consistently producing plays of fairly high quality difficult, but not impossible. However, it is easy to find dedicated participants who bow out because they are burned out.

The general consensus from the Tucson theater community is great disappointment and sadness that a theater company exists no longer.  There is also a sense of anger in some, due to perceptions of how things have come to pass.

Mike Sultzbach, president of the board, issued a statement that cited several reasons the decision to close the theater was made.  "Difficulty with trying to maintain attendance during prolonged downtown construction" and "declining revenues" were mentioned, as was the property owner's desire to "re-purpose" the site, which includes three buildings and a large courtyard.

Steve Gibson is the owner, and by all accounts the relationship between theater and landlord has been cordial over the years. 

Gibson's re-purposing idea includes a vision he calls Gibson Court, an entertainment complex that includes restaurants and an outdoor performance space. In other words, more of what downtown seems to be breeding in this new phase of redevelopment—restaurants and bars.  There is no animosity toward Gibson for his plans—he needs to do what seems right for the Gibson family's interests. 

Until September, Michael Fenlason had been Beowulf Alley's artistic director since 2011.  He left because of what he felt was the board's "passive-aggressive suicide," even when the year had been successful financially. "I'm disappointed that the board didn't support the idea to work together with other arts groups to sustain that space."

The truth is that the theater had been flailing for a few years pre-Fenlason, with no primary artistic leader and vision. During that time there was an administrator, Beth Dell, who left about the time Fenlason came on board, but the two events were not related, according to Dell.  Family issues demanded her attention.

Fenlason, who was not paid, had some interesting ideas, both artistically and about ways to supplement the theater's income while providing a much needed service.

One idea was to rent the space to other groups, including theaters that are desperate to find affordable, viable places to present their shows. In fall of 2012, Sacred Chicken Productions, headed by Carrie Hill, thought this sounded hugely promising, particularly because it signaled "a sense of community and collaboration within the theater community."  She signed on to use the space to produce Becky's New Car.

It was not a happy venture, according to Hill.  There were two other productions in rehearsal as well, and because of an untimely enforcement of fire codes that required the demolition of a wall, the space essentially lost its rehearsal room and Hill's group ended up in the lobby, where it was 90 degrees.  She had to move her rehearsals to someone's living room.  Beowulf Alley did refund part of the fee, but there were other issues. "Almost every day I had to confront someone about something. It was one of the most stressful productions I've ever done."

Winding Road Theater Ensemble signed up to do its 2012-2013 three-show season at Beowulf's space.  But there were similar problems.  "It was just chaotic," said Glen Coffman, a founding member of Winding Road. "And it was hard to find where the buck stopped.  There was no one on site or on call. They were very generous about our using their props and equipment, but we were promised the use of a projector, which turned out to be broken.  We had to have it, and they absorbed the cost, of course."

 Winding Road is producing its current season at the upstairs Cabaret Theatre at the Temple of Music and Art, which is about the only venue available for such groups, downtown or elsewhere.  It's a much more expensive rental and the demand for the space creates scheduling issues for these and other groups like Borderlands Theatre, Arizona Onstage and Studio Connections. 

There seems to be little interest in finger-pointing and assigning blame.  Theaters come and go. People burn out. If there is not a strong institutional structure in place, if financial burdens overwhelm, it happens. Interestingly, what is most mourned here is the actual physical venue that Beowulf Alley's 95-seat theater provided. 

Perhaps Beowulf Alley's disappearance carries symbolic meaning as well.  Where lies the heart of downtown?  Now there are streetcar tracks, veins that will carry denizens throughout the area.  And there are bars and restaurants, the organs needed to keep a healthy body functioning.  But downtown also needs the performing arts—and a suitable venue for them to function—to provide the muscle to circulate ideas and unique experiences with the steady regularity of a heartbeat. That is what will create, and continue to invigorate, a true and lasting sense of our community.

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