Published author, actor, and director Tom Leveen prides himself on being edgy when it comes to art. He co-owned the now-defunct Chyro Arts venue, where he tackled issues of child molestation in The Woodsman and debuted the stage version of Closer (the Oscar-winning film that starred Natalie Portman as an adulterous stripper). Leveen's first young adult novel, PARTY, includes drunken sexual encounters and a racially motivated fistfight.
So when the leaders of First Baptist Church in Scottsdale approached him about reviving their theatrical program last year, Leveen was understandably amused. "I asked them if they'd been to Chyro and seen some of our shows. They said, 'No, but we've heard good things,'" he says. "They just didn't know what they were getting into."
After some discussion, the 20-year acting veteran created a new company called Story First Theatre, with Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet as its first production. Suicide, murder and revenge aside, the historical context and the play's regular use in schools made it a perfect choice. The fact that it could be used royalty-free didn't hurt, either.
"It was exciting for me, because it was the first time I got to pay my actors," says Leveen. "Actors should get paid — at least once in a while." The show garnered positive reviews, with at least 50 people in the audience on slower nights. "I would've killed for that at Chyro," he quips.
An Arizona native, Leveen started his acting career in eighth grade in a production at Phoenix Children's Theatre. He loved entertaining kids on the playground, and theater gave him the chance to perform without being called to the principal's office. "While I'd always been play-acting as a kid, that's where I got my first big audience laugh," he recalls. In adulthood, Leveen tried other performance outlets, from stand-up and filmmaking to playing guitar in a rock band. He eventually returned to his first love — the stage.
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Like most actors, Leveen isn't in it for the money. He freely admits that since he began directing and acting professionally, he hasn't even made enough cash to pay his phone bill. Until he tried his hand at fiction, Leveen often supplemented his theatrical endeavors with boring day jobs editing and writing for nutritional supplement publications. But, hey, at least he wasn't waiting tables.
Leveen is on hiatus from theater pending the birth of his first child, though he continues to work on writing projects. After he suffers through a few hundred dirty diapers, he plans on continuing Story First Theatre and potentially turning PARTY into a script to be produced in high schools. He plans on offering two versions: one that's true to the book and a censored version for the Mesa crowd.
Whatever the outcome, Leveen can't imagine ever giving up theater. "I can see myself putting it on hold if I'm able to get my writing career and speaking gigs up to the level I want," he says. "But sooner or later, I'll be in some low-rent pseudo-auditorium directing, and probably for free. I guess I like telling people what to do."