Mesa Encore Theatre announced last week that it will receive the 2014 Twink Lynch Organizational Achievement Award from the American Association of Community Theatre on Saturday, June 21, during AACTWorldFest in Venice, Florida.
This is a pretty big deal. Though only a few Valley theaters are members of AACT, the organization has more than 7,000 member theaters in the United States, its possessions and territories, and on military bases. MET (formerly known as Mesa Little Theatre) has been pumping culture into the community since 1937, and that statistic is in itself noteworthy, because many volunteer arts groups in the U.S. were compelled to cease operations during World War II.
Having not just survived but thrived in recent years, Mesa Encore is a logical choice to be honored for making strides organizationally, not merely creating excellent work but expanding its operations and strengthening its community engagement. Kiki Plesha, the company's director of public relations, told New Times that "with so many theaters going dark right now, we're proud. We've been blessed."
Plesha says that some of the criteria AACT gave for MET's selection are "we give back to the community -- scholarships -- and we have our own venue." That would be the Black Box on Brown, an upgraded rehearsal space that MET operates on its own dime, presenting a supplement to its mainstage series at Mesa Arts Center. The Black Box has premièred some brand-new plays in the past two seasons, including last month's co-production with All Puppet Players of Top Gun: Live, Abridged, and Completely Underfunded.
"At this point," Plesha says, "there's nobody [from MET] on the agenda to actually attend the conference in Florida," which is understandable, given packed production schedules and finite budgets.
Today's community theaters are not what you might remember from 20 years ago. And 100 years ago, community theater blossomed in part as a reaction to the overly commercial, superficial cheesiness of the American professional stage at that time, believe it or not.
The movement was meant to foster new dramatic works with relevance to audience members' lives and reinject artistic expression into the practice of play production. Today, the diversity of noncommercial stage companies has left the "every city has an official Little Theater" model in the dust -- although municipal arts agencies frequently provide valuable support, such as grants, administrative assistance, and subsidized rehearsal and/or performance space, to many groups.
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Metro Phoenix community/alternative/independent theater offers everything from the skanky to the glitzy, and although there's no lack of mainstream musicals and worn-out comedies on season schedules, the volume of new work nurtured and presented by smaller companies has become truly impressive. This body of dramatic literature, though a "trickle-up" effect, will generate new content for the commercial stage, TV, and motion pictures for decades to come.
Local and regional professional theaters also host competitions and festivals to develop new plays, but it's in the trenches where many of these writers get started. We've talked with a number of playwrights who had set their early works aside only to get a call from a community theater to arrange the rights for a production. Along with discounts, how-to's, and moral support, AACT membership fosters the kind of networking that sparks collaboration and innovation in the cultural landscape.
Mesa Encore Theatre's strong suit, in my opinion, is the presentation of edgier musicals (often featuring profanity, serious issues, and rock scores) and contemporary American drama, two genres that are generally neglected by most other community theaters. One thing that enables a company to schedule shows like Proof, Next to Normal, Spring Awakening, and August: Osage County is the ability to market such productions to a loyal yet adventurous audience base. And it's that audience's reliance on MET's meticulous production values that keeps them happily in the seats, while the company's unofficial motto -- "We don't require experience, we provide it!" -- makes volunteers feel welcome to get involved and make art a part of their lives.