Troupe 'n' Sandwich
It's Tuesday, and I'm standing outside City Hall, lying to strangers. "I'm going to the Lunch Time Theater program at the Herberger," I tell a dozen different people. "But I don't know where the Herberger is." I'm trying to determine whether people who work in downtown Phoenix know that they can attend a weekday matinee on their lunch break. As it turns out, several of them have never heard of the Herberger Theater Center.
Which doesn't worry Judy Rollings, the Herberger's Performance Outreach Director. Like the guy in that baseball flick, Rollings is convinced that, if she builds it, they will come. "Our audience has been finding us," she says of the office workers who've made the trek to the recently launched Lunch Time Theater. "In our third week of our last show, we turned people away. There are more people working downtown than when we offered this program in the '80s, and word of mouth will get them in here."
Lunch Time, which offers short one-acts and a box lunch catered by Teeter House, was formerly a project of Actors Theatre of Phoenix, back when Rollings was a principal with that company. Known then as Brown Bag Theater, the program ran from 1986 through 1993 before being shelved. "We ran out of plays," Rollings remembers. "The economy changed, and there were fewer actors available during the day. And finally, there were quality control problems during the last year. We meant to bring Brown Bag back, but it never happened."
Rollings has resuscitated the weekday play series as a Herberger outreach program, and this time she's spreading the wealth. The new Lunch Time is designed to do more than promote the Herberger to folks who generally pass it on their way to Bank One Ballpark. Once they arrive, the secretaries and receptionists who attend a Lunch Time show will be watching work by teeny local companies whose work is usually hidden away in off-the-beaten-path black boxes. That's because Rollings has offered Lunch Time's stage (in this case, the stage of the Performance Outreach Theater, a fancy name for the Herberger rehearsal hall) exclusively to non-Equity troupes.
"There are a lot of young companies out there who don't have a home," she says, "that are grateful for the opportunity to perform and for the paycheck." Rollings lets the troupes choose the play they'll present, and then sets about promoting the company and its show as if it were a resident company of the Herberger.
"That's the wonderful thing about this," says Ann Tully, who's directing Othello She Told, a play by Brenda Edwards that is Lunch Time's next production. "It will open doors to little groups that normally don't get any attention."
Not every Lunch Time denizen is an up-and-comer. The series is dotted with well-known names, like actor/playwright Michael Grady; Edwards, an accomplished playwright; and Tully, an acting instructor and local theater icon.
Tully isn't worried that audiences will be preoccupied with their smoked turkey sandwiches while her actors are emoting. "It's like dinner theater," she says. "Most people are done eating before the show starts."
Rollings doesn't care if people eat at all; she's happy to be working with aspiring artists again. "When I first started interviewing these young companies, I got very excited. There was so much enthusiasm and energy, and I was reminded of how it felt when we first founded Actors Theatre. It's great to be around so much joy and desire, to be around theater people who haven't yet become jaded.
"The response has been great, so far," Rollings says of Lunch Time Theater. "Our first two shows have been outstanding, and people have left their offices to come see them. It's all gone so well, so far. I hope the sky doesn't fall."
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