Respect for the Craft

Invisible Theatre celebrates four full decades of Tucson productions

Tucson's Invisible Theatre has something that few theaters anywhere can claim: a full four-decade history.

In 1971, with a controversial war dividing the country, baby boomers coming of age and a cultural revolution well underway, grassroots theaters were springing up all around the country, in the belief that young, new voices could change the world.

Most of those groups, underfunded and lacking experienced leadership, sputtered and died. But in Tucson, the Invisible Theatre—born to produce original plays developed by company members—is celebrating its 40th birthday.

According to managing artistic director Susan Claassen, who has a 36-year history with the group, the theater was established in 1971 as a playwrights' theater, but financial challenges resulted in several members of the group leaving Tucson for what they hoped would be greener pastures. Claassen became the artistic director "by default," she laughs. "I was willing to learn about the business side of theater. Maybe I just had the longest attention span."

With Claassen at the helm, the group moved to its current location, at the corner of First Avenue and Drachman Street, in 1976. "It was a big commitment, because it we had to bring it up to code to be able to use it as a performance space." The theater has 80 seats and a tiny stage—roughly 20 by 24 feet. The current staff includes associate artistic director James Blair and associate producer Cathy Johnson.

IT did all original material until 1980. That year, Gail Fitzhugh, who has been an integral part of the group since 1979, directed Uncommon Women and Others by Wendy Wasserstein. "We had to go before the board of directors to explain why we should do a copyrighted play, which meant we would have to pay royalties," Fitzhugh says.

Playwright Janet Neipris, an internationally recognized playwright on the faculty of Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, has had a relationship with IT for 30 years.

"There is no place in this country I would rather work than the Invisible Theatre," she says in an e-mail. "Why? Because there is no other regional theater I've worked at where the level of professionalism was so high, the degree of welcome and warmth so abounding. "

The theater has continued to evolve, but there have been a few constants: doing new plays; a collective-like approach to decision-making; and a climate for artists to do their best work while enjoying an intimate relationship with the audience.

Oh, and Susan Claassen. It's impossible to talk about IT without talking about her.

"I think Susan is 100 percent responsible for IT's longevity," declares Roberto Guajardo, a professional actor who has worked with IT off and on for more than 30 years. "She has developed a stable audience. She attracts talented folks to work with her. And she's a really smart producer, which often, small, locally based theaters don't have."

Fitzhugh notes Claassen's energy. "A lot of us say we'd like to do something, but few have the commitment to do what it takes to accomplish those things. Susan does."

Jessica L. Andrews, who, after a 15-year stint managing Arizona Theatre Company, has returned to ATC temporarily as acting managing director, agrees. "It's amazing that Susan still has a full-out commitment after all these years."

Andrews thinks IT's presence is important to theater-loving Tucson. "I'm a big believer in the theater community being diverse. IT holds a unique niche. ATC may be the largest theater in town, but it doesn't attract everyone. I really respect Susan's conscious decision to stay small. People assume that bigger is better, but that's not always the case."

IT has nurtured numerous educational ventures over the years, but none of them have been quite as unique as the Pastime Players. A part of Catalina Magnet High School's special-education program, students age 14 to 22 with mental, physical and/or emotional challenges work with IT's staff to learn and perform music, theater and dance. "We focus on ability rather than disability," says Claassen.

Don Romano's son is still involved with the group, and via e-mail, he spoke of its importance. "Danny started in the Pastime Players program soon after he began high school. ... Project Pastime has enabled Danny and other children with disabilities to participate in activities that normally would not be available to them. ... It has been a wonderful experience for him and has been invaluable for his confidence and self-esteem."

IT is hosting numerous special events as part of the 40th anniversary. Next week, Steve Solomon is bringing his My Mother's Italian, My Father's Jewish, and I'm in Therapy! to the Berger Performing Arts Center. This is an example of a fairly recent addition to IT's producing activities—hosting guest artists, including such greats as Lynn Redgrave. IT provides all of the production elements they require, and Tucson audiences get an opportunity to experience these artists in an intimate setting.

In addition, there will be a reprise of A Conservation With Edith Head, a one-woman show developed and performed by Claassen in which she portrays the revered Hollywood costume designer, on March 3-5. "I got the idea several years ago when I was watching a biography about her on TV. I thought, 'I look just like her.'" It has been presented in cities across the country.

So what about the future? "We're addressing that," says Claassen. "We realize we need to develop a younger audience. Betsy Kruse Craig is now onboard to direct that effort."

Kruse, an adjunct professor at the UA, praises Claassen and the level of professionalism she has nurtured at IT. "Every detail of every show is carefully considered. She has such respect for the craft. We have similar mindsets, and I'm honored to have her as a mentor."

Hmmm. Does this mean that Claassen is looking toward retirement?

"Oh," she teases. "I'm never going to retire."

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