See Yourself Onstage This Season at Arizona Theatre Company

Editor’s Note: This is the seventh 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.

Arizona Theatre Company welcomes back Sean Daniels, once a season subscriber, now the Artistic Director.

by Leigh Moyer

ATC LogoFor Arizona Theatre Company’s (ATC) new Artistic Director, Sean Daniels, this is a homecoming. His love of theatre began as a child watching a “life changing production of Our Town” at ATC. After talking with Sean over lunch at a local downtown eatery, that seems almost too perfect. Our Town addresses a lot– growing up, learning who you are, and finding community, all things clearly important to Daniels, especially in theatre. 

And that means representing the community on stage.

“I’m interested in what the conversation is with the community. American Mariachi is the best selling play in Arizona Theatre Company’s history. And so you have to ask what is that about? Was it just the timing? Was it what the play is about? Or is it that a community is finally seeing themselves on stage where they hadn’t before. I’m more interested in what are the next set of plays that help to unlock those questions,” Daniels said, referencing the 2018-2019 season production of American Mariachi. “It is so powerful to see your story on stage. Clearly it resonated with this community. So how to figure that piece of the puzzle out, for me, that is my job. Invite them in, perhaps in an easy way, in Lowell, with the company I was with before ATC, that was putting on a production by a playwright from the greater community, but then working to do other things the community might be interested in. But you have to genuinely reflect them on stage. You can’t just say, ‘Now here’s a ticket coupon and come see a show where no one looks like you.’”

The 2018-2019 season production of American Mariachi. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

The 2018-2019 season production of American Mariachi. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

This season Daniels and his predecessor David Ivers selected six shows that reflect the local community and the issues the greater American culture is facing. And they aren’t pulling any punches. This season addresses gender and racial discrimination, challenges stereotypes of masculinity and femininity, asks us to look at white privilege, and then there are the Nazis. “We have an opportunity to have six curated evenings with people. What’s the conversation that we want to have with them over time?”

While a lot of the content ATC is bringing to the stage this year covers big, heavy topics, topics that are all too familiar in 2019, these are plays that tell stories about people and what it means to live during challenging times. There may be heartbreak and struggle, but there is joy and laughter. It is important to tell stories like this not because we need the lesson, although maybe we do, but because we need to see that things get better and we keep living.

“And,” Daniels added, referencing one of the shows he selected for this season, Women in Jeopardy!, “Looking at the season, I realized we didn’t have the show that you just scream in laughter from beginning to end. And that has a value in a season. You don’t want six of those. But there is nothing wrong with being entertained by theatre.”

Daniels will be considering diversity and representation in the casting process too, You have to think about your own biases that you bring. Could anyone play this role? Do I want the best actor? Do I believe that white actors are the only actors who can play all types of roles and actors of color are the only ones that can play those types of roles? Then find the best actors to pull it off. If you start with that you don’t end up with all white casts.”

Having a season that ranges from “Master Harold”…And The Boys, a show that looks at privilege in apartheid South Africa to The Legend of Georgia McBride, a musical about a drag queen, to classics like Cabaret, this season has a lot to offer. 

“That’s the point of being a season subscriber. You get to watch shows you wouldn’t have picked. In an era of Netflix and Amazon the algorithm has you figured out. It knows that based on your buying pattern, you would like this media, this item. And you’re always like, ‘You don’t know me!’ But then you look and you’re like, ‘Yeah, I probably would like this…’ There is nothing wrong with that, but the thing I hear from subscribers is they come to shows they wouldn’t have otherwise watched and ended up liking it. If you pick only what you know, you are only going to get that.”

There is more to diverse theatre than breaking free of an algorithm. “Sometimes I chose something thing because it allows a group of people who don’t look like you to finally see themselves on stage and be invited in. As an audience member maybe this play isn’t your favorite but that’s okay because you believe in this theatre and you want it to be around in 40 years and introducing a new audience to the theatre is important.” And for someone who, some years ago, realized theatre was his dream at an ATC production, fostering the continued success of the theatre and encouraging new audiences to check out the theatre is a key driver. 

But if you can’t catch the whole season? Daniels recommends that you don’t miss the first two shows: The Royale and Silent Sky. The first tells the story of the first time black and white boxers were allowed to box against each other during Jim Crow. The second looks at women in science, following the story of Henrietta Leavitt, a brilliant astronomer who made most of her discoveries (including where we are in the universe) without access to telescopes because of gender discrimination. It would be naive to say things haven’t improved in the hundred plus years since either event, but it would also be naive to say these problems have disappeared.

But it isn’t just that these are societal problems we have to face together that make Daniels recommend them but because the playwrights, Marco Ramirez and Lauren Gunderson, respectively, are interested in working here, in joining the community and learning from the Arizona audiences who will be experiencing their work. That is something special.

As a closing thought, Daniels reiterated, “I just think it is a real goal of ours to try to be more locally based. I am really focused on how this community owns us.”

Arizona Theatre Company’s 2019-2020 Season:

ATC 19/20 Season

The Royale by Macro Ramirez, directed by Michael John Garcés
9/07/19 – 9/28/19
A power-packed boxing drama. Winner of two Obie Awards, an Outer Critics Circle Award, a Drama Desk Award, and multiple other awards and sold out houses in London, New York and LA. The Royale is not your usual sports play. First of all, it is not really about life in the ring. Second, not a single punch will be thrown, at least not with fists. The play is a deeply theatrical and emotionally moving piece about the life of the outsider in American culture. Set in 1910, deep in the midst of Jim Crow, it explores one man’s struggle while reflecting a much broader one. It is also a play about a brother and his sister – his sister, who as he climbs for glory and respect, remains his greatest adversary and strongest motivation.

Silent Sky by Lauren Gunderson, directed by Casey Stangl
10/22/19 – 11/09/19
A celebration of discovery, originality, and curiosity. For the last three seasons, playwright Lauren Gunderson has proudly sat on the list of most produced playwrights in the country. Arizona Theatre Company proudly brings this brilliant and prolific author’s work to the professional stage in Arizona for the first time. Based on the true story of 19th-century astronomer Henrietta Leavitt, astonishing discoveries await as she maps distant stars in galaxies beyond our own. But this brilliant, headstrong pioneer must struggle for recognition in the man’s world of turn-of-the-century astronomy. During this time of immense scientific discoveries, women’s ideas were dismissed until men claimed credit for them. Like the recent film Hidden Figures, Silent Sky shines a bright light on women whose achievements have been too long overlooked by the telescope of history. In this exquisite blend of science, history, family ties, and fragile love, a passionate young woman must map her own passage through a society determined to keep a woman in her place.

Cabaret, based on the book by Joe Masteroff, Music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, directored by Sara Bruner
11/30/19 – 12/29/19
Wilkommen! Bienvenue! Welcome! Cliff Bradshaw, an American author working on a novel in Berlin, encounters Sally Bowles, a talented cabaret performer, at the seedy Kit Kat Klub where she sings. When she is fired by the club’s owner, also her jealous boyfriend, she moves in with Cliff and the two fall in love. As the Nazis begin taking control of the German government, the atmosphere of the Kit Kat Klub and the lives of Cliff and Sally begin to change dramatically. For all the exuberant song and dance, the most powerful aspect of Cabaret remains the political wallop that it delivers. The horror gains momentum around them, as too many characters stay locked in denial or self interest. At its core, Cabaret is a devastating critique of apathy, and a clever and terrifying look at totalitarianism. Cabaret’s powerful story remains remarkably timely nearly 80 years after Isherwood’s original stories were published, which is why the piece continues to resonate with audiences more than 50 years after it debuted.

“Master Harold”…And The Boys by Athol Fugard, directed by Kent Gash
1/18/20 – 2/08/20
A semi-autobiographical masterwork. Of all Athol Fugard’s plays, none is more personal or shatteringly honest than “Master Harold”…And The Boys; because it relates a boyhood incident which involved himself and which haunted him for years until he tried to atone by writing this play. It may take place in South Africa during the early years of apartheid, but its depiction of the ways in which people are capable of hurting even those they love transcends the political landscape of bigotry and oppression that inspired it. The play recounts the long, rainy afternoon that Hally (“Master Harold”) spends with Sam and Willie, two middle-aged African servants of his parents’ household who have cared for seventeen-year-old Hally his whole life. This particular afternoon turns into a profound and life-changing experience for all involved. A stunning masterpiece, one of the most powerful coming-of-age plays ever written, and still timely, still compelling, still profoundly moving.

The Legend of Georgia McBride by Mathew Lopez, directed by Meredith McDonough
3/07/20 – 3/28/20
A big-hearted, FIERCE, music-filled comedy. A theatrical cornucopia of camp, country music, drag, domestic dilemmas, and larger-than-life divas awaits you! Casey is an Elvis impersonator with everything going for him, including a flashy sequin jumpsuit. But just like that he loses his gig, rent is overdue, and his wife announces a baby on the way. So when Elvis leaves the building and a drag show moves in, “The King” transforms into an all-out queen with the help of some new friends who become the second family Casey never saw coming. With snappy zingers and dance-worthy numbers, this wildly entertaining story will challenge your assumptions with extraordinary humor and depth. A valentine to the drag queens who helped mentor the playwright through his own coming out as gay while growing up in Florida, ATC is thrilled to bring you this light and fizzy comedy that’s as sweet as it is hilarious.

Women in Jeopardy! by Wendy MacLeod, directed by Sean Daniels
4/18/20 – 5/09/20
A riotous comedy! Screw the mid-life crisis; let’s solve some crimes! Middle-aged mom Liz has a new man. And let’s face it… he’s just plain creepy. When a mysterious disappearance sets the community on edge, Liz’s best friends leap to the rescue as the zany caper flings them from the ‘burbs’ to the wilds of Utah; because there’s no danger great enough to stop women from solving crimes if they want to! A riotous comedy about trading in wine glasses for spy glasses when the mid-life crisis just isn’t your speed.

Parity or Better, but Usually Better

Editor’s Note: This is the second 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. 

Coffee, representation on the stage, and really good plays with Something Something Theatre Company’s founding artistic director Joan O’Dwyer and founding director Whitney Morton Woodcock.

by Leigh Moyer

Something Something LogoSomething Something Theatre brands itself as theatre by women for everyone. Their mission is “Parity or better,” founding Director Whitney Morton Woodcock explained over coffee. “So fifty percent or better, but we usually have more than fifty percent of our season written by female playwrights.”

This mindset started with their first season – not as a fluke, but also not exactly on purpose – driven instead by feminism and the realization that there was a lot of good work that was too often overlooked. It started when three fierce women, Joan O’Dwyer, Whitney Morton Woodcock, and Esther Almazán, saw a gap in the Tucson theatre community that became their niche. “There are just so many plays written by women, and women are really finding their voice right now. And they’re young women and they’re brilliant,” Joan O’Dwyer gushed, “And they’re not just writing about homely things, they’re writing about war and injustices to women and women in different countries and their experiences which nobody has ever heard before and I just love that.”

I have to say, I agree with her. But that doesn’t make doing theatre by women easy. While it was a woman who was the most-produced playwright in the United States in the 2017-2018 season and second most-produced in 2018-2019, this is a distinctly modern phenomenon. (That playwright is Lauren Gunderson, playwright of Something Something’s first production of the season, The Revolutionists.) Historical restrictions limited women’s opportunities to write and kept women’s work from the stage for a long time, which means staging women’s plays now is often a choice to focus on contemporary work rather than well-known classics. It doesn’t faze the women of Something Something, but producing a significant amount of new or unknown writers is a risk. Women may be finding their voice now and using it to tell amazing stories, but we have ground to make up.

But boy, are we. O’Dwyer and Morton Woodcock are faced with the best kind of problem when selecting plays: there are almost too many great plays by women. Selecting the next (and next, and next) season is a process of narrowing down the choices, and then amending that list as new plays are written and produced. And if they do a play by someone of the male persuasion? “Well,” Joan quipped, “if the play is written by a man, it has to be a really good play. They have to work five times as hard if they want to get in– for half as much pay!”

Oh, how the tables have turned. And while it is important to the Something Something artistic team to have representation, like all theatres, the point isn’t that the play was written by a woman, but rather that the play is meaningful, inspiring, challenging, or simply entertaining. (The point, I would add, is that women playwrights are writing great theatre prolifically, not in isolated cases of genius.)

Morton Woodcock explains, “It is more about the story and how we think the audience will feel. What it comes down to is that it is a good story and there are good roles. And liking the characters. Like in The Aliens, those guys are so… they’re so incompetent sometimes, but they’re also so funny. They are likable.”

“They’re sexist,” O’Dwyer interrupted.

This didn’t slow Morton Woodcock down for a beat, “But likable.” And so goes theatre. So goes storytelling. You don’t always want to be friends with the characters in a good show. She continued, “We pick plays about humans, humans who should be represented on the stage, but also humans who are flawed. We choose scripts that address those flaws, call out the bad behavior, but sometimes you just have to let the characters be the characters. I wouldn’t do a play that portrayed someone who was really horrible in a positive light and of course we aren’t going to do plays that endorse problematic people.”

“You have to feel empathy for these people,” O’Dwyer added. “But it is going to have to be handled delicately.” That is, after all, what good theatre is: showing people new perspectives and challenging them to reflect and take new perspectives out of the theater and into the real world. A lot of characters are morally gray.

While some plays this season present characters that force the audience to consider a new view point, others take on issues that are often overlooked or downplayed in a male dominated culture, like the decision to become a mother, go back to work, breastfeed in public, or seek help for postpartum depression. Cry It Out focuses on women connected by the experience of new motherhood and the challenges that come with it, something that struck close to home for Morton Woodcock as a new mother. She is also the director of Cry It Out and can relate to the women. “It isn’t sexy or fun to discuss,” she admitted, “Like, maternity leave, ohhh. But it has to be discussed. They talk in the play about how people judge the choices you make, about deciding to have a baby at all. Everyone, other moms included, has an opinion and everyone feels like they are right and if you do it differently, you are a monster. I cried when I read the script.”

I asked both if they had a show they were most excited about. Without hesitation O’Dwyer answered, “I’m really excited about Cry It Out. It has something we don’t often see on stage: new mothers and they are all different.” Cry It Out goes beyond the stereotypes of never getting enough sleep or complaining about changing diapers.

Woodcock Morton also has a favorite: “The one I think is important for people to see it Martie’s play Transformations. This topic, the concept of transgender and gender fluidity, is something that has been growing in the public eye in terms of celebrities and media and people talking about it more but a lot of people still don’t understand. Martie is not giving a lecture or sharing what can be googled; she is sharing people. She is funny and it is well written and she gives each character she plays their own persona that you can relate to. I’m not sure that people realize that representation matters. The types of stories you see, the types of characters you see, impacts your world view. We consume stories to explain our lives, or who we are, but it also normalizes new or different perspectives.”

The 2019-2020 season, Something Something’s fifth, brings five plays, all written by women, to the stage. And Joan has a point, they aren’t just writing about homely things, they are writing about revolution, being human, pride and pain, motherhood, and even boys being boys.

This season is a lot about people you think you know, but are presented in a different way that makes you question yourself and those notions. Confront what you think you know at Something Something Theatre. The season is listed online and below. You can become a season ticket holder now and catch all five performances for $75.00 or purchase single tickets for $25.00 each by calling their box office at (520) 468-6111.

Something Something 2019-2020

Something Something Theatre’s 2019 – 2020 Season:

The Revolutionists by Lauren Gunderson
September 12 – 29, 2019
Set during the height of the French Revolution, four women – a playwright, an assassin, a spy and an empress – bond to tell the story of their turbulent times for future generations. It’s a comedy. Guillotines may be involved. 

TransFormations by Martie van der Voort
October 31 – November 17, 2019
Local actor and playwright van der Voort performs all twelve transgender characters, their close relatives and significant others at a group therapy session. TransFormations’ has been performed to acclaim in Tucson and in cities around the nation, but this will be its first full run!

Apples in Winter by Jennifer Fawcett
November 27 – December 15, 2019
We are with a woman baking a small pie in a kitchen not her own. The room is bare, institutional. There are no chairs, and a knife is attached to the work table with a wire.  This is the story of a mother’s deepest love and most grievous pain.

Cry It Out by Molly Smith Metzler
February 13 – March 1, 2020
Metzler’s sympathetic yet brutally honest play brings characters to the stage not normally seen. Three women, diverse in all ways… except hat they have all recently given birth and are coping with everything that comes with being the main caretaker. Funny and uniquely insightful, written by a young mother.

The Aliens by Annie Baker
March 26 – April 12, 2020
Something Something Theatre produced Body Awareness, another of Baker’s ‘Shirley, Vermont plays’ in our second season. Dramatists Play Service describes The Aliens so darn well that we’re simply forced to run their synopsis here: “Two angry young men sit behind a Vermont coffee shop and discuss music and Bukowski. When a lonely high-school student arrives on the scene, they decide to teach him everything they know. A play with music.” – Dramatists Play Service