A.K.A. THEATRE, THE scrappy little company that operates out of a rundown space on 125 E. Congress St., has regularly explored the dark side of life in the plays it's staged during its eight years of precarious existence. Passion, jealousy, sexual intrigue, violence and death are staples of its on-the-edge plays.
But now the company is mired in a tumult that would make a compelling production for its own stage. Right in the middle of what seemed to be an upbeat fundraising campaign, the board put artistic director Meg Nolan, the theatre's founder and guiding light, on administrative leave. Grayson Norris, the company's technical director, was fired. The People Who Do That, a comedy troupe that was playing late nights at the theatre, pulled out.
Most bizarre of all, on the evening of March 23, while a performance of Marvin's Room was taking place, Guillermo Francisco Jones, a former a.k.a. actor and employee, walked into the theatre's office with a loaded semiautomatic AK-47 rifle. He threatened Norris, who recently played Guildenstern in an a.k.a. production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Jones never fired the rifle, and he offered no resistance when Tucson police arrested him minutes later at the corner of Scott Avenue and Congress Street. Blissfully unaware of the episode were the audience members tucked into their seats in the tiny theatre and the actors strutting their stuff on the stage.
Jones was charged with aggravated assault, a class three felony. According to police records, and Jones' own account, Jones and his wife had reported to police earlier on the same evening that several items had been stolen from their home. Jones told police that he believed Norris, a former friend, was the thief. Police duly noted that accusation in their report. Later that night, after the gun incident and Jones' arrest, Norris allowed police to search his vehicle and house for the stolen items.
"The search was fruitless," an officer wrote in his report, and Norris was not charged with anything. Norris did not respond to a request for an interview. Jones, who played a heroin addict in the a.k.a. production Cuba and His Teddy Bear, could face a prison term if he's convicted.
"What I did was extremely un-levelheaded," Jones said, "a stupid move. I lost my cool, but I wanted justice."
With an incident like this pumping up the rumor mills, it's not surprising the theatre community is awash in gossip about a.k.a. An anonymous whispering campaign--which has included unsigned letters sent to arts reporters around town--has heaped abuse on Nolan and Norris, calling them unprofessional and worse. Some directors who've worked with the company are complaining openly about sloppy finances. Other theatre insiders praise the cutting-edge work Nolan has done and blame the criticisms on the jealousies wracking an insular arts community that's competing for a tiny audience.
It's true that money has disappeared from the theatre.
"We did have a theft from the box office in December," said board president Neal Eckel, a local attorney. "We made no secret of it. We lost about $500 or $600. There was another incident in June."
Acknowledging the problems, the board has taken several steps to tighten up the money trail. They've installed a new safe with a new combination and instructed employees to make nightly cash deposits in the bank. Previously, several nights' receipts were stored in the safe. The new managing director, Noel Chester, an old friend of Nolan's who began work March 1, has to request checks for purchases from the board treasurer, Brent Davis and then provide him with receipts.
Other a.k.a. financial practices have come in for criticism. Robin Aaberg, head of rival Metatheatre, said she left a.k.a. two years ago because of "bad business." A former associate artistic director of a.k.a., Aaberg said, "I thank Meg for the opportunity (for work) when I just moved here." But after a time, Aaberg spun her own company out of a.k.a., while paying rent to use a.k.a.'s stage. She says a.k.a. jacked up her rent just before she was to open a play. Since that time she stages her plays elsewhere.
Nolan said a.k.a. simply couldn't afford to keep the rents as low as Metatheatre needed. "It was beneficial to Meta," she said, "but it was bleeding us dry."
Scott Gilbert has directed and done other work at a.k.a. off and on for seven years and has also been associated with Metatheatre.
"Things have been wrong there (at a.k.a.) for a long time," he said. "Things aren't run professionally. Things were not like that at the beginning. It's been a weird transition."
As an example, Gilbert said Norris asked him to use his own money to pay for a prop chair broken during last winter's The America Play, for which he was prop director. He said the company is frequently tardy in getting rights to stage plays and then in paying playwrights their royalties. Hassan al Falak, a former a.k.a. board member, has directed and choreographed for the company over the years. He acknowledged some of the financial problems and noted the company ought to put a greater priority on paying its actors. Still, he said, "It's easy for me to criticize but they have to make the rent every month. Their financial problems say more about the state of the arts in the United States than about any particular theatre company."
Eckel is optimistic the continuing fundraising efforts will put the theatre on a firmer financial footing, though the campaign has thus far raised only a little over $4,000. The company originally was hoping to bring in $50,000 to finance major renovations, but that goal has now been scaled back.
"The $4,000 plus the profits from the current play have raised enough money to pay off our debt, including back wages, royalties and a tax bite," Eckel said. "Ideally, if we get another $20,000 we'd be in great shape."
The board decided to pull Norris from the technical director job, Eckel said, because "we wanted to have a change of leadership." Norris is still scheduled to direct an upcoming production of Titus Andronicus. "We really had no problem with his technical work," Eckel said, but other workers, such as Gilbert, complain that Norris was not qualified for the job, which requires somebody knowledgeable about lights, sounds and sets. Nolan herself believes the board removed Norris because of negative fallout from the gun incident.
"I'm very unhappy that would happen," said Nolan, who counts Norris as a friend. "But I understand their decision."
It's partly because Chester, the company's third managing director in a year, is in place that the board was able to put Nolan on leave, Eckel said. Nolan will continue to act at the theatre for the rest of the current run and will probably be scouting out new plays, but she has been relieved of administrative duties, possibly for about three months.
"What we're saying to her is, 'Meg, you don't have to be in the box office,' " Eckel said. "You don't have to be running around getting supplies.' She's always told us, 'Every time I step back it all falls apart.' We're telling her that won't happen. Meg had the concern, 'Is it a good message to have a leave in time of crisis?' We think it shows we have control of things...There is no theatre without Meg. This doesn't change that."
Indeed, some observers attribute a good part of the theatre's troubles to Nolan's burnout. The theatre, which Nolan founded with friend when she was a young grad of the UA theatre program, has been operating almost nonstop for eight years. The typical year has seen 11 productions, an extraordinary number for a small company, and Nolan herself has done much of the directing and acting.
"Meg pretty much gave up her life to get the theatre going," said Howard Allen, a friend of Nolan's who is a playwright and theatre reviewer. "If there isn't one person who does that, it doesn't happen. Anybody who manages a theatre has got to have a strong, forceful ego."
Derek Iverson said his comedy troupe, The People Who Do That, is leaving a.k.a. "because of creative differences," but he added, "Meg is difficult to work with. She seems to have a dark cloud hanging over her."
In fact, the last three years have brought Nolan a mountain of personal troubles, including the death of her father, a short, disastrous marriage and bitter divorce, and surgery to remove her gall bladder. She's taken little time off and she's still reluctant to take a leave. But she admits she's worn out.
"I'm tired, I'm burned out," Nolan said. "The doctor told me I'm exhausted. I've been worrying, smoking cigarettes and drinking a lot of coffee."
Nolan was in tears as she talked about the gun incident, the shaky finances, the anonymous letters and the negative publicity.
"All this stuff is really bad because it's so damaging to the theatre...I'm not willing to throw in the towel. There are issues that are bigger (than my problems). a.k.a. is a place where people can see plays they're not gonna see any other place. Plays that no other theatre can touch."
Al Falak agrees. "a.k.a. has been a very important institution in the city," he said. "It has presented work which might not have been presented otherwise...The important thing that we need to do is to ensure the survival of a downtown theatre, in the Arts District. I don't like to think about what will go in that space if it fails. Do we really need another T-shirt place?"
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