Plays After Dark

Two new late-night theater efforts follow in the footsteps of LTW's successful Etcetera series

Five years ago, it was an experiment by a single Tucson theater; this year, it's looking like a local theater trend: provocative performances for night owls.

Live Theatre Workshop made the first sustained effort at late-night programming with its Etcetera series, launched at the beginning of 2004 (see "Live From the Eastside," Jan. 22, 2004). Since last fall, two other groups have begun series that cozy up to midnight: Beowulf Alley launched LNT @ The Alley, and the Rogue Theatre is hosting the young artists of the Now Theatre in a series called Rogue After Curfew.

Generally, these efforts run on Fridays and Saturdays starting at 10:30 p.m., and finish by midnight. Rogue After Curfew this weekend concludes a run of Tennessee Williams' one-acts with This Property Is Condemned; this Friday, Etcetera will open Anne Thibault's I Wrote This Play to Make You Love Me; and on April 17, Beowulf Alley will open a two-weekend presentation of Brian Hanson's I'm Sorry I Liked You.

Success is slow to build. Rogue/Now and Beowulf Alley, which just launched their initiatives a few months ago, are still drawing very small audiences, even though the late-night performances follow mainstage shows that come close to selling out. Beowulf Alley's manager, Beth Dell, reports that the average audience so far for LNT @ The Alley is only 22, and attendance at Now's opening nights has been no better than that.

But keep in mind that in early 2004, Etcetera was lucky to get six people to show up for its openings; now, for many shows, it sells out its compact Live Theatre Workshop space and sometimes has to add performances.

Says Etcetera's artistic director, Christopher Johnson, "Our primary competition is bars. The kids who don't want to be there can come here. More recently, we are having people stay from the mainstage, a lot out of morbid curiosity or loyalty to the theater, and some who are tired of seeing the same old thing. A lot of the audience is younger, 16 to their mid-20s ... ."

"And we get troubled kids; some kids from a group home with drug-related family issues came to Bug, and they had a good time and have been to every show ever since. So it's a mishmash of old, rich white people and drug kids, and there are always the fetishists. If we do anything a little out of the norm, that will attract the subculture. Fat Pig got all the chubby chasers, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch got the trannies. We're meeting everybody's needs the best we can."

The other companies get different mixes in the audience. LNT @ the Alley has surprised Beowulf Alley board member Michael Sultzbach by drawing an audience so far that's about 40 percent in the traditional older demographic.

Nic Adams, the associate artistic director of Now, says that his shows attract the expected "family, friends, peers and mentors," as well as "very devoted fans" of playwrights. Like its sponsor organization, Rogue, Now focuses on highly literate material by the likes of Williams and Edward Albee, not the more plot- or joke-driven fare that dominates the city's mainstages.

Similarly, Beowulf Alley's Sultzbach says his company's late-night offerings are things you don't generally see at 8 p.m. "It might be that the subject matter is edgier, or the language is a little saltier, but it's always something that's not considered mainstream enough for mainstage production," he says.

Over at LTW, Johnson says he hates the term "edgy theater." He says, "I find things that are new or haven't been done in town, or if they have, they're things we can do in a different way. Next season, we'll do The Importance of Being Earnest, which is not an 'edgy' show, but we'll do it with an all-male cast, including the female roles."

Johnson says there's a paucity of theater in Tucson designed to appeal to people in their 20s, or, for that matter, designed to include actors in their 20s. "I audition all over town," he says, "and I can't get a role to save my life, and it's mostly because of my age."

Similarly, the Now Theatre was formed by UA drama students—as Adams calls them, "artists on the threshold of assuredness"—as a venue for work beyond school. Adams says that he and his colleagues are interested in "rich text filled with imagery and movement unbound by frivolous action, scenery or technical spectacle." Which is one way of saying that the past couple of Now shows have consisted of two costumed people holding a couple of props on an almost-bare stage. Now Theatre productions, like Etcetera's, are done on the cheap, which is one reason they can admit audiences for $10 or less.

Asked how Etcetera is doing financially, Johnson replies, "Would it be obnoxious to say 'fantastic'? My philosophy is: Do everything you can, but don't spend a dime. We get everything we can donated, and do a lot with a little. We don't spend any money, so when the shows do well, they're insane. Most of my shows pay for themselves on opening night. Even when we have a flop, like Savage in Limbo, it still made a profit.

"The big fight was: Why charge only $10 for Hedwig when we could charge $25? Well, because we're not doing this to make money. We're doing this for the fucking kids who want to see Hedwig, and they're probably having to borrow or steal that $10 to come out and see the damn thing. It still made something like $8,000 or $9,000."

At Beowulf Alley, even the series directors are volunteering their time. Michael Fenlason is in charge of LNT @ The Alley, and he has mapped out plays to put on every month at least through September. The company has a second initiative, Out to Lunch, supervised by Susan Arnold. It's a bimonthly series of 30-minute noontime productions, aimed at attracting downtown workers and visitors. Box lunches, prepared by Chris' Café, are available for $6.

Beowulf Alley's Sultzbach says these are all efforts to bring in not only new audiences, but also new collaborators. All three companies involve actors and directors not often engaged for mainstage productions, and they're doing solid work.

They're doing it, too, without the necessary financial and programming constraints of mainstage shows. Says Johnson, "No one (on the LTW staff) looks over my shoulder; they trust me. It's fun and exhausting and glorious."