The last decade hasn’t been kind to Tucson theater.
The recession was marked by lower ticket sales, and the loss of government, corporate and private funds.
Nevertheless, as the 2014-15 season launches — Invisible Theatre’s “A Kid Like Jake,” which opened Wednesday, is the first of a slew of shows over the next few weeks — it’s clear things are getting better. Not great, mind you — theater companies, both community and professional, still struggle to mount shows and sell tickets. But if the number of organizations willing to take on that struggle is any indication, theater is on the way up in the Old Pueblo.
Last year, the Star’s fall arts preview listed 21 organizations offering staged plays and readings. In the spring preview, that number was down to 19.
In this year’s fall performing arts preview — out next Sunday in this section — 28 organizations are offering shows.
And that’s after accounting for the fact that Live Theatre Workshop has not announced a season for its late-night arm, Etcetera, or for the losses of Studio Connections — whose founder, Robert Encila, is returning to his home in the Philippines — and Beowulf Alley Theatre, which closed late last year.
Most local theater companies that have slogged through the recession have made adjustments for thinning budgets.
“We have altered the number of performances we do from three to two weeks,” says Susan Claassen, the managing artistic director of Invisible Theatre, which is in its 44th season.
“We had to come up with ways we could alter some costs without compromising on quality or our attention to the needs of our audiences and our actors.”
Invisible Theatre’s budget of $350,000 is unchanged from last year, as is its subscriber base, which is at about 500.
Arizona Theatre Company, which was on the brink of canceling the 2013-14 season in August of last year when its then-managing director left the company with a $1 million deficit, is co-producing half of its six plays this season with other regional theaters — a move that saves costs while securing quality.
“It’s been huge progress since last year’s major deficit,” says Jessica Andrews, ATC’s managing director emeritus, who came out of retirement last year to help the company get back its footing. The funds needed to go forward were raised and the company’s budget has remained the same over the last two years — at about $6 million. ATC is still in the midst of its subscription drive, but it has to make up for a drop of more than 1,000 subscribers it lost on the heels of the company’s financial and personnel woes at the end of the 2012-13 season.
While most theaters see some relief but continue to struggle, the 10-year-old The Rogue Theatre has found itself in an enviable position: An expanding subscriber base, increased donors and the development of a company of actors. In addition, Rogue recently signed with Actors’ Equity Association, the union representing professional actors and stage managers. It is now one of five theaters in the state boasting membership in the organization — it joins two other Equity theaters in Tucson: Invisible Theatre and ATC. The remaining two are in Phoenix. Union members get higher wages and access to health insurance and pension plans.
“We have been working a long time to pay actors as well as we could, and we decided we wanted to pay them a living wage,” says Cynthia Meier, who co-founded The Rogue with Joseph McGrath.
“We’ve had Equity actors work here, but we’ve always had them on special agreements. We ... wanted to offer a place where people can plan on working.”
The Rogue has nine in its company of actors, and private donors have stepped up to underwrite performers, directors and staff for the whole season.
Other good news for Rogue: It’s budget is up to $415,000 this year, a 15 percent increase over the 2013-14 season, and it has 740 season subscribers, an increase of 25 percent over last year.
“What’s incredible,” says Meier, “is that I haven’t made a single phone call asking for sponsors. They’ve all come forward on their own.”
Rogue moved into its own 150-seat theater five years ago, and its mission is to offer theater that is designed to challenge and provoke its audience. Think Shakespeare, Beckett, Brecht, as well as contemporary playwrights who produce scripts with intellectual weight.
“There are people in Tucson who are smart, love to learn, who want to think about theater, and we are serving that audience,” Meier says. “We feel so fortunate.”
Among the organizations that are new to the Tucson theater scene this season, or have returned after an absence, are:
- Strada Company, founded by a group of local artists. Its mission is to create and support art in Tucson.
- The Community Players, formerly the Red Barn Theatre Company. The small group of theater enthusiasts has moved to a new space on North Oracle Road.
- Female Storytellers, women who tell tales based on personal experiences.
- UApresents, which has not presented live theater since 2010, with the exception of a few co-presentations with Broadway in Tucson, is bringing in the New York-based Aguila Theatre for performances in November.
- Something Something Theatre Company will present its first production, “The Weir,” in January.
- Latina Dance Theatre Project opened its first Tucson theater production, “Jaguar!” this weekend. The company was founded in Los Angeles and now calls both cities home.
Check next Sunday’s Home + Life for a four-page pullout section detailing hundreds of fall performing arts events.