Editor’s Note: This is the eleventh in a series of interviews with creative decision makers and artistic directors at all of Tucson’s theatres as we look forward to the 2019-2020 season.
A theatre education for all audiences with Pima’s Todd Poelstra and Chris Will.
by Leigh Moyer
It should come as no surprise that Pima Community College Theatre Arts’ advance program coordinator Todd Poelstra and theatre faculty member Chris Will took the opportunity to teach me when I sat down with them a few weeks ago. They are, after all, professors. It struck me as very likely that they see almost every moment with an audience, from an interviewer to a classroom to a theater full of people, as an educational moment. Each season is structured to contain a children’s show in the fall, a musical in the spring, and either a contemporary piece or a classical piece rounding out each semester for a total of four productions per year. While chatting, though, they quickly moved past these nominal constraints to the boundlessness of what theatre offers.
“We could do Disney or something very popular but we don’t,” Will said, explaining why they are producing The Sun Serpent, the third installment of a bilingual (or in this case, trilingual) series by José Cruz González. “We’re doing Sun Serpent because it is culturally important, and because the kids who see this show, who come on field trips, probably wouldn’t come to theatre otherwise. Those kids need to see this work. Kids should have the very best theatre because they’re the future of theatre.”
“And it isn’t just the grade school students, it’s our students, they need that too,” Poelstra added, “We really want to change the dynamic; we want students of color to see themselves onstage and see stories that might be their story on stage and have opportunities to imagine themselves on stage.”
But if a mixed media story about the conquest of Cortez isn’t your thing (but really, it ought to be), don’t worry: the season is very eclectic. After Sun Serpent, audiences will be treated to Baskerville, a stage adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes mystery The Hound of Baskervilles. Then they change direction again, with the musical Singin’ in the Rain. The season wraps up with Shakespeare’s As You Like It, the origin of the oft-repeated line “All the world’s a stage.”
While many theatres have a theme tying the season together, Will pointed out that that can be hard or even inappropriate in an educational setting: “We need a balance, because we need to give these students a variety of pieces since we don’t know where they’re going to be heading. It’s our job to give them the experiences that will be good on a resume and get them roles in local theatres. We’re the training ground for them.”
There is one unifying trait among this season’s plays, although it might be more obvious to a director than to audiences. Each show is an ensemble piece, so while there will be a Sherlock and a Watson, for example, there will be a whole cast of characters that don’t have to fit a specific type. Casting is done based on who is excited, who is a promising young actor, and who gets what the directors are trying to create.
Poelstra had a number of examples: “For all our shows this year, the idea of casting can, for the most part, go in any direction. We’re already making changes. The Sun Serpent is written as two brothers, now it is a sister and a brother. So as far as gender, and certainly any other category of identity, almost anything could happen in almost any of the shows. It is challenging with a dance-heavy musical; we have a student who is an amazing singer and in a wheelchair. I don’t know if she’ll be in the show before auditions, but I’m interested in the idea conceptually. And Watson could be anybody. Or, so could Sherlock. Anything could happen. It depends on who shows up and what they bring to auditions.”
It is exceptionally refreshing to see a company adopting this mindset. When Poelstra and Will choose plays, they are looking at the story and how it is best told. Casting is a secondary consideration, focusing on which actors bring the works most vividly to life, rather than seeking to fill the roles with a specific type of person. For me, Will summed it up best: “A lot of people become actors because they they think they want to play all these different characters, but in reality it’s the opposite, you find all those characters within yourself.”
Check out the whole season, whatever it might bring, at the West Campus (2202 W. Anklam Road). Contact the box office at (520) 206-6989 for tickets and information or shop online. The whole season is outlined below.
Pima Community College Center for the Arts’ 2019 – 2020 Season:
The Sun Serpent, by José Cruz González, directed by Milta Pinate
September 28 – October 6, 2019
When young Anahuac’s family meets the newly arrived Cortes, they believe he is the Sun Serpent come to usher in a new and better world. Anahuac’s brother eagerly joins Cortes’ grand march to the capital, Tenochtitlan. But while Cortes promised a world of peace and plenty, the soldiers he left behind soon engage in a ruthless search for gold. Orphaned during one of their raids, Anahuac sets off through the jungle to find and warn her brother. Along the way, she meets the omnipotent Aztec ruler, Motecuhzoma and discovers that he is unable to protect his people against the Spanish. She comes to realize that neither leader is divine.
Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery, by Ken Ludwig, directed by Chris Will
November 7 – 17, 2019
Comedic genius Ken Ludwig transforms Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic The Hound of the Baskervilles into a murderously funny adventure. Sherlock Holmes is on the case. The male heirs of the Baskerville line are being dispatched one by one. To find their ingenious killer, Holmes and Watson must brave the desolate moors before a family curse dooms its newest heir. Watch as our intrepid investigators try to escape a dizzying web of clues, silly accents, disguises, and deceit as five actors deftly portray more than 40 characters. Join the fun and see how far from elementary the truth can be.
Singin’ in the Rain, Screenplay by Better Comden and Adolph Green, songs by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed, directed by Todd Poelstra
February 20 – March 1, 2020
Adapted from the 1952 movie, SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN captures the waning days of the silent screen era as they give way to new-fangled talkies. Set in Hollywood, the studios are forced to suddenly change all the movie-making rules at once to accommodate sound. The plot focuses on Monumental Studio’s romantic lead Don Lockwood, his sidekick Cosmo Brown and Lockwood’s leading lady Lina Lamont who can’t sing, and can’t even really talk. Lina’s voice sounds something like nails on a chalkboard. Enter Kathy Selden, whose dulcet tones are able to cover Lina Lamont’s—calling into question what it means to act, how credit is distributed, and what it means to get a fair shake in the movie business. Singin’ in the Rain includes some of the best-loved comedy routines, dance numbers and love songs ever written, including Good Mornin’, Make ‘em Laugh, and the show-stopping dance number, Singin’ in the Rain.
As You Like It, by William Shakespeare, directed by Mickey Nugent
April 16 – 26, 2020
The story follows its heroine Rosalind, accompanied by her cousin Celia, as she flees persecution in her uncle’s court to find safety and eventually love in the Forest of Arden. In the forest, they find Orlando, Rosalind’s love. Disguised as a boy shepherd, Rosalind has Orlando woo her under the guise of “curing” him of his love for Rosalind. Along the way they encounter a variety of memorable characters, notably the melancholy traveler, Jaques, who speaks many of Shakespeare’s most famous speeches—such as “All the world’s a stage,” “too much of a good thing” and “A fool! A fool! I met a fool in the forest”. Jaques provides a sharp contrast to the other characters in the play, always observing and disputing the hardships of life in the country.