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.

Students of All Ages Are Invited to See Themselves in Any Role at PCC Arts

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

Pima ArtsIt 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.”

Adrian Hinojos as Dionysus, Veronica Hernandez as Persephone/Semele, and Rene Gallego as Orpheus. Photo courtesy of Pima Community College Center for the Arts.

Adrian Hinojos as Dionysus, Veronica Hernandez as Persephone/Semele, and Rene Gallego as Orpheus in the 2018-2019 season production of Polaroid Stories. Photo courtesy of Pima Community College Center for the Arts.

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.