Meeting Students’ Needs While Entertaining Us – What’s Not to Love at ART?

Editor’s Note: This is the twelfth 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.

Balancing education, entertainment, and moving audiences forward with Hank Stratton.

by Leigh Moyer

ART

Hank Stratton, artistic director of the Arizona Repertory Theatre (ART) and assistant professor in the University of Arizona School of Theatre, Film, and Television, can’t overstate the importance of theatre: “The event of theatre happening in front of you is something that you can’t experience in other forms and we need to show that to younger audiences. Every time I introduce someone to theatre it changes their lives. If you can’t tell a story with a block and a white piece of cloth, you just aren’t doing the job. All the rest of it is gravy. If you don’t have the elements of storytelling, of humanity, of simple talking and listening, then you’ve already gone off the rails. That’s theatre to me.”

This isn’t just a parable; it’s a lesson, one he teaches every year at the University of Arizona. The gravy for audience members is a six-show season that transports and amazes. For Stratton, however, choosing a season isn’t only about what will most entertain the audience but what will best educate his students. He’s unapologetic about it: “You may not always love what we do, but we need to look at what the students need first.”

That said, this season at ART there is a lot to love. 

A classic such as the fall production of Pippin, the fictionalized story of Charlemagne and his son’s quest to please him through war and feats on the battlefield, told through the lense of a troupe of performers, is countered by the spring opener The Wolves, a story that follows the very different kind of warfare of teenage girlhood. The Wolves takes place during the pregame warm up routine of the eponymous soccer team and the conversations they have, experiences they share, and losses they experience on and off the field.

The season also features Shakespeare’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona, along with the two more modern pieces The Last Night of Ballyhoo and The Light in the Piazza, and one sure to test walking skills, not to mention acting: The Legend of Georgia McBride. The latter follows the story of an Elvis impersonator who becomes a drag queen. 

Georgia-McBride“Not many of our young students have experience with drag,” Stratton explained, “We’re preparing them in terms of movement, culture, and pathos of those characters. During auditions, we watched all these young men in huge, colorful heels and I had a student come to me and say, ‘You are the one in freshman year who told me that you can’t wear flip flops and get the movement of the characters right if you are in the wrong shoe.’ As a teacher, it’s a feeling of ‘holy shit, this is working!’”

But this production is about far more than seeing college students in flamboyant costumes: “One of the reasons for doing The Legend of Georgia McBride is because the drag community is one that is underrepresented. It takes subjects that confront bias with humor. It is very rare to find a play about counterculture or LGBTQ subjects that doesn’t deal with AIDS. And while that conversation needs to keep going, the great plays from the 90s and aughts were about loss. I hope this take is more relatable to audiences today. It is their differences instead of their commonalities that make them successful.”

Embracing variety is a crucial part of ART’s mission, because along with the entertainment value and teaching students how to improve their stage craft with a given production, Stratton and the ART team are teaching young people how to be human — and representing different people and different stories is key to that.

“It is our responsibility to serve as the theatre, but also as a university and community. Sometimes that means I have to explain why diversity is important. We want everyone to be heard and that means that sometimes we have to ask both the audience and our students to trust us and take chances. We need to move the dial in a lot of ways but I don’t want people to feel like they can’t speak up when and if they feel dissent. We can find common ground in the theatre. One of the things that I appreciate about this season is that we are trying to move conversations through comedy.”

The season is outlined in more detail below and online. You can purchase tickets at theatre.arizona.edu or by contacting the box office at (520) 621-1162. Season subscriptions and single tickets are on sale now. Subscription prices vary based on the series selected. Single ticket prices are $32 for plays and $35 for musicals. Discounts available for students, seniors, military and UA employee/alumni. Group discounts are also available for groups of 10 or more.

University of Arizona Repertory Theatre’s 2019 – 2020 Season:

The Legend of Georgia McBride, by Matthew Lopez
September 21 – October 6, 2019
Casey works as an Elvis impersonator at a local bar and life is good. He even has a new sequin jumpsuit for his act. But in one evening he loses his job, his landlord demands the rent and his wife announces that a baby is on the way. So when a drag show moves into his old place of employment “The King” transforms himself into a queen and with the help of his new friends, he finds a family he never expected. Filled with humor, love and more than a few production numbers, this comedy takes us on a delightful journey that will warm the heart.

Pippin, book by Roger O. Hirson, music & lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
October 19 – November 3, 2019
With an infectiously unforgettable score from four-time Grammy winner, three-time Oscar winner and musical theatre giant, Stephen Schwartz, Pippin tells the story of one young man’s journey to be extraordinary. Heir to the Frankish throne, the young prince Pippin is in search of the secret to true happiness and fulfillment. He seeks it in the glories of the battlefield, the temptations of the flesh and the intrigues of political power, but none of them supply him with the treasure he seeks. In the end, Pippin finds that happiness lies not in extraordinary endeavors, but rather in the simple, ordinary moments that happen every day.

The Last Night of Ballyhoo, by Alfred Uhry
November 9 – 24, 2019
The year is 1939. While Hitler is invading Poland, Atlanta’s close-knit Jewish community is preparing for the premiere of Gone with the Wind and Ballyhoo, the social event of the year. The Freitag family hopes that the party will be a chance for their daughters to meet their future husbands–but when their uncle brings home his new employee, a handsome Eastern European bachelor from Brooklyn, everyone must confront their own prejudices, desires and beliefs. By turns heartbreaking and uplifting, The Last Night of Ballyhoo won the 1997 Tony Award for Best Play.

The Wolves, by Sarah DeLappe
February 8 – 23, 2020
The Wolves offers an unflinching, intimate glimpse into the world of a high school women’s soccer team. Nine diverse teammates navigate questions of identity, community, and society all while warming up for the last few games of their season. Playwright Sarah DeLappe’s unique, overlapping dialogue moves from moments that are deadly serious to awkwardly hilarious, but always true to life. With an ensemble of distinct female characters, this fast moving play offers audiences a window into the intense world of female adolescence. The Wolves was a finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona, by William Shakespeare
March 16 – 29, 2020
Best friends Valentine and Proteus embark on different paths in life only to run into each other again when they both fall in love with the same woman. The Two Gentlemen of Verona is one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, his first comedy and also one of the most rarely performed plays in the canon. The play centers on a host of themes that Shakespeare would spend the rest of his career wrestling with, betrayal, disguise and love. Featuring one of his most beloved clowns, The Two Gentlemen of Verona provides an opportunity to see a master playwright just beginning to flex his genius.

The Light in the Piazza, book by Craig Lucas, music and lyrics by Adam Guettel
April 11 – 26, 2020
This Tony Award winning musical whisks you away to Italy for a captivating tale of passion and romance. It’s the summer of 1953, and Margaret Johnson is travelling the Tuscan countryside with her daughter Clara. When a handsome young Florentine captures Clara’s heart, Margaret must decide if she will risk revealing the truth that could threaten her daughter’s happiness and force her to confront her own choices and dreams. The Light in the Piazza features an intensely romantic score and a heartwarming story of love.

Costumes, Set, and Technical Design Breathe New Life into a Familiar Coming of Age Tale

by Marguerite Saxton

The 1800’s brought many influential things to Germany: Adolf Hitler, Nietzsche, The Brothers Grimm and the infinite creep factor of “Der Struwwelpeter” (Google it!). This is the backdrop for Arizona Repertory Theatre’s season finale, Spring Awakening.

Michael Schulz as Melchior and Rachel Franke as Wendla. Photo by Ed Flores, courtesy of Arizona Repertory Theatre.

Spring Awakening is based on the late 19th century play The Awakening Spring, A Children’s Tragedy by German playwright Frank Wedekind. This modernized version is an austere depiction of oppression, rebellion, and sexuality, featuring maturing kids finding their bodies amongst shifting roles – girls drool over guys who don’t care about anything but are good at everything, while the guys suffer explicit fantasies about their piano teachers. Typical.

Spring is “a time to be born, a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted…” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8). In this lusty season of rebirth we find ourselves sowing metaphorical seeds for the future. Spring Awakening’s director Hank Stratton has expressed that it’s necessary to have death in order to have new life. And what is a more fitting way to celebrate Eostre, the Germanic goddess of spring, than with awkward teenage S.E.X.?

This multiple-Tony winning musical features Steven Sater’s cringy, angsty songs about new ways to touch oneself. But Stratton, according to his recent interview in the Arizona Daily Star, is okay with that. He “expects some audience members to be uncomfortable.” And well, it is.

Yet, this is a show of contrasts. While hopelessness pervades, a spirit of dissent runs almost as wild as the hormones. Though conscientiously directed, the obvious opposites within the script create scenes that are confusing but, in a way, accurate to that time when seemingly everyone was mystified by human sexuality.

The motifs in the story are predictable: adults vs. kids, sex vs. chastity, pleasure vs. pain. A bit cliché. How many times have we seen this story? Girl has sex, gets pregnant, and has a terrible life while the boy basically gets to be the bad ass. Though the narrative starts out strong and funny, it unfortunately flickers out.

While the script leaves something to be desired, there are key performances that pack a punch: much of the movement is purposeful and well timed – a particularly satisfying scene features caustic schoolmasters, headbanging, and air-guitars. And there were stand out vocals by actors Jared Machado (Georg/Dieter) and Rachel Franke (Wendla).
Another gem in the script is the queer love story. Its nuanced vulnerability adds dimension to a predominantly straight tale. This was an astute detail to add to an otherwise familiar story.

Zach Zupke as Moritz and Gabriela Giusti as Ilse. Photo by Ed Flores, courtesy of Arizona Repertory Theatre.

Where this play really shines is with the set design, technical, and costuming teams. The design of the theater is such that some audience members sit only feet from a technician, but wouldn’t know it due to the team’s utmost professionalism. They execute their jobs efficiently and in perfect unison. And the design team finds new ways to tell an old story. The set explores space in funky ways thanks to Scenic Designer, Joe C. Klug. Chairs hang from ceilings and the floors become a place to take notes. Tori Mays, Lighting Designer, rounds out a visually creative production with unlikely textural choices, employing geometric gobos and infusing many scenes with disconcerting chartreuse. Costume Designer, Ryan B. Moore, goes for symbolic touches by stitching tiny crosses of Peter onto the boys’ uniforms. This cross is a common symbol in counter-culture scenes, serving as a sneaky reference to the defiant nature of the students.

Another great component of this production was the live musical accompaniment – a classy touch that fosters a multisensory opportunity to connect with the play’s ethos. In many other productions they’d be hidden in a pit, but in this production they are instead proudly displayed for the audience as an essential organ, pumping their feet in tune, plucking their fingers in a rhythmic heartbeat that circulates vital energy throughout.
The script is predictable, but the execution of the production is done with gusto and skill. It’s clear those working on Spring Awakening are truly invested in this piece. This season’s final show at Arizona Repertory Theatre may not have awakened all of the senses, but it energizes one into the next phase, however screwy that may be.

Spring Awakening is directed by Hank Stratton and shows at Arizona Repertory Theatre from 4/7 through 4/28. Tickets can be purchased at https://theatre.arizona.edu/shows/spring-awakening/.

 

Editor’s Note: We mistakenly credited Richard Tuckett as the costume designer in a previous version of this article. In fact, Ryan B. Moore, a second year MFA student, was the costume designer for this production of Spring Awakening.

ART’s Top Girls Showcases Top Female Talent

by Holly Griffith

Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls is a big play. Big personalities, big themes, big scenes. David Morden directs Arizona Repertory Theatre’s production deftly, and while the production has weak moments, this cast does an impressive job juggling a complex web of characters, navigating difficult dialogue rhythms, and bringing the evening to a harrowing climax.

The play opens with a challenging scene, where the central character Marlene, played by Rebecca Galcik, hosts a dreamlike dinner party for six women from history. Some are real historical figures, some are characters from folklore, but all arrive with stories to tell. Churchill writes the scene to be fast-paced, with many lines overlapping, as the women discuss their relationships with men and children, their adventures around the world, and their thoughts on religion and philosophy. It is a feast for anyone who has yearned for the advice and wit of those who have gone before us. Given the pacing, the larger than life personalities, the odd theatrical conceit, the difficult subject material, and the four different dialects used onstage, this is an extremely difficult scene to pull off, and a few moments were lost in the shuffle. As someone unfamiliar with the play, the scene was somewhat hard to follow, and I wished Morden had encouraged a slower pace and more demonstrative blocking where possible, especially near the beginning of the scene.

The remaining scenes of the play, however, are worth the wait. The play shifts time, place, and theatrical style, and we get a glimpse into Marlene’s life as a successful businesswoman, and the challenges that come with being a woman at the top. Six of the seven actors play entirely new characters, some of them multiple new characters, and Morden’s casting is masterful. Each actor slips into the skin of someone new, while retaining thematic vestiges of the dinner party scene. Elana Richardson’s Pope Joan character transforms into Joyce, the working class sister of Marlene. Richardson remains stoic, like her papal counterpart from scene one, but adds a downtrodden jadedness more appropriate for Joyce’s socio-economic situation. Eavan Clare Brunswick portrays the Scottish explorer Isabella Bird in the first scene with a proud earthiness, and later becomes Mrs. Kidd, a woman who tries to protect her husband’s job by desperately attempting to unseat Marlene from her high-powered position. While the earthiness of Isabella vanishes, the boldness and sense of pride remains. It was a joy to watch these shape-shifting women command the stage with ever more nuanced performances.

Perhaps the most exciting transformation is in the hands of Maggie McNeil. She arrives at the dinner party as the folkloric Dull Gret, a nearly-mute spud of a woman dressed in battle armor, who seems primarily concerned with getting more to eat. McNeil, with few lines, becomes a highlight of the scene, radiating with childlike curiosity and coarse table manners. The scene ends with an engrossing description of Gret’s brutish invasion of hell. In the following scenes, McNeil plays the devilish teenager Angie, who resents Joyce’s tough love approach to parenting. She captures the feverish energy of teen life without too much wackiness. McNeil’s Angie is magnetic, radiant, and frightening. McNeil plays two characters whose humanity is interrupted by violence, and she strikes that balance beautifully.

The final scene of the play between Marlene and Joyce is also stunning. Galcik and Richardson know this scene inside and out. The two sisters argue over the central problem of the play—Angie is really Marlene’s child, but was raised by Joyce. The two navigate the would-have, could-haves of their past, unearthing resentments and illustrating the nearly impossible situation that Womanhood has put them in. Their dialogue flows like a river, hitting high points and low points, splashing against barriers and overflowing with rising tension. The two perform the scene with an excellent handle on the rhythms of the language and the vulnerability of their characters.

A word on the technical elements of this piece. Allison Morones has a huge job costuming 7 actors as 16 characters, all of whom change clothes, and most of whom change hairstyle. With few missteps, the costumes fit seamlessly into their world. Even the myriad wigs, which can be distracting if not used well, are consistent in their strangeness. They function similarly to masks in this production, giving a tongue-in-cheek nod to the double-casting in the play. Additionally, director David Morden achieves an almost impossible feat of coaching at least four dialects, ranging from Scottish to Japanese. While some actors handled dialect more naturally than others (Eavan Clare Brunswick has executed 3 different dialects this season, all masterfully), I was impressed with the consistency and range of dialects onstage.

I want to take a moment to praise ART for producing not one but two plays this season with all-female casts. The technical and design team for Top Girls is also a majority of women. It is empowering to watch women hold space onstage for an entire evening, and it gives female artists a chance to work together in ways that are rare in the performing arts. At the same time, I wish the University had more female directors. While I applaud Morden’s work on Top Girls, it also occurred to me that white men will direct almost all the main stage productions at ART this season. I hope that the University will consider diversifying their staff, especially when it comes to faculty with directing qualifications.

Top Girls runs at Arizona Repertory Theatre through Sunday, February 24th. Tickets are available online through the ART box office: 520-621-1162 or theatre.arizona.edu.

 

Editor’s Note: While Holly is an adjunct instructor in the School of Theatre, Film, and Television, she has no relationship with any students involved in Top Girls, personally or professionally. Additionally, Holly has worked professionally with David Morden. While this does not impact how a performance is reviewed, we feel it is important to disclose any potential biases.