First it was competition from the new sports arena downtown. Then it was the general lack of cultural sophistication that reportedly plagues all Phoenicians. Lately, it's been the "risky" material chosen by artistic directors.Every season, our local theater companies offer a different reason for their diminishing returns. And several local players say this year has been the worst ever.
As proof, thespians point to Arizona Jewish Theatre Company, a playhouse with such shallow pockets that it was forced earlier this month to cancel Romance in D, its final show of the season. While rumors that the 12-year-old company is closing its doors for good are exaggerated, it's true that AJTC is scrambling to recover from a season of lackluster sales and untried material.
Producing artistic director Janet Arnold is splitting her time between reworking the troupe's budget and dodging brickbats from colleagues who want to use her as an example of a company that got too big too fast.
"This is a theater that probably went Equity too soon," says Michael Stirdivant, president and CEO of the Herberger Theater Center, which AJTC calls home. "With no staff to speak of and limited funds, it's sometimes still operating on the level of a community company."
Timothy Smith, the L.A.-based Actors Equity agent who represents AJTC, which became a professional company in 1992, disagrees. "We don't issue contracts to anyone who asks for one, so this company must have been prepared when they applied for membership in the union."
In any case, Smith says, the union is not going to force AJTC to compensate those union members who lost potential income because of the closing.
"We're not going to punish a company for canceling a show," he says. "It happens, regardless of the size or skill of the theater company. Our interest is in protecting work for actors, not penalizing theaters for losing money."
Arnold points to rising production costs at the Herberger as one reason her company is straining financially this year. "We always have trouble with our summer show, because the cost is the same and our audience is smaller," she says. "Many of our subscribers only live here six or eight months out of the year."
When Arnold requested a modified rental agreement that would charge resident companies based on the size of their subscription base, her request was denied.
"We can't provide preferential treatment," Stirdivant says. "Every theater company, regardless of its size, will claim it can't afford additional fees or rising production costs."
The trouble, Stirdivant claims, isn't the cost of the facility but the way AJTC uses it.
"Janet's use of the space is highly inefficient," he says. "She presents only four shows a week during a three-week run. She can't add a Thursday show, or do two on Saturday, because her audience isn't big enough. I've told her -- everyone's told her -- to look into developing a capacity-building grant or packaging her shows differently, instead of being a naysayer. But she says she has no money to market, she's all alone with all the work to do, and so on. She's overwhelmed, so there's no follow-up."
While Stirdivant admits that Arnold "does the work of 10 people," he believes her approach is part of the problem. "She leaflets a show to the Jewish community, then hopes for a positive review that will hit the first week the show opens. That and word of mouth are her biggest marketing tools, and, I'm sorry, it isn't enough. You get a bad review or one that runs late, and you're dead in the water."
Arnold is unfazed by such criticism, preferring to discuss the largess of her season ticketholders. "Our subscribers have been wonderful," she says of the recent cancellation. "Most of them allowed us to keep the $15 [from subscription sales of Romance in D]. Out of 500 ticket sales, we've refunded only $500."
It's possible that subscribers were glad to skip AJTC's latest offering. Although critics were delighted that Arnold had abandoned the sanctimonious snooze of Neil Simon for more thought-provoking and enlightening fare, audiences weren't as pleased.
"Janet picked a really dumb season," according to a local actor who asked not to be identified. "Not only did she do that stupid millennium-themed thing, but she picked four shows that no one had ever heard of before. Who wants to go see The California Kid?"
"Hey, you can't do Twilight of the Golds every year," says Michelle Gardner, an Equity actor who is among Arnold's loudest supporters. "AJTC gets beaten up for doing Neil Simon all the time, then it gets beaten up for trying new stuff. There are all these great shows that haven't been produced here yet, but they're not Jewish, so she can't do them. Janet can't turn her company into the Arizona Gentile Theater for one month to do a show that she knows will sell tickets. She has a responsibility to her audience, and she takes it pretty seriously."
But the local actor who is critical of her was less charitable. "She keeps inviting back the same lousy directors that no one wants to work with," he says. "This is what you do when you're still a little company that can't afford good talent. She needs to make it more appetizing for actors to work there, and a lot of times we won't read for a part because she's hired some idiot director or the same stage manager who quit halfway through her last show. I'd rather work at Burger King."
Flipping burgers probably pays more. Because AJTC offers smaller salaries than the other three professional theaters, it tends to be the last choice for Equity players who rely on their acting for income.
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"On the other hand," Gardner says, "if you're a Jewish actor and you want to appear in plays that address that part of your life, AJTC is the only game in town. So you keep your job at Starbucks, and maybe you get to do a cool play."
Times are tough all over, and AJTC isn't alone. Tiny Theater Works and Scottsdale's Stagebrush, longtime competitors for the same subscribers, have joined ranks in a co-production of A Little Night Music. And Phoenix Theatre sustained so many flops this year that it allowed subscribers to pick the plays they'll present next season -- a ploy that resulted in a list of weary war-horses like Arsenic and Old Lace and Man of La Mancha.
Meanwhile, Arnold has scheduled Romance in D as the first show of next year and trimmed her season from four plays to three.
"You have to give her credit for single-handedly running one of the four Equity houses," Gardner says. "And the fact that she's a woman working in a boy's club is pretty impressive, too. She took this company from the bottom, where she was building sets and hanging lights, all the way to a residency at the Herberger. Where is the applause for that?"