A/C Theatre Brings Alternative Musicals to Phoenix, Starting with Murder Ballad

In recent years, the metro Phoenix theater scene has witnessed both boom and bust. Phoenix Theatre underwent significant renovations after receiving a $1 million gift from The Walton Family Foundation. But other theater companies, including Arizona Jewish Theatre and Actors Theatre of Phoenix, ceased to exist after facing financial challenges.

In June of 2014, Nearly Naked Theatre canceled its final show of the 2013/14 season, a musical called Falsettos, when funding for the production fell through. But five local theater professionals who’d been involved with that show still had alternative musicals on the brain. “We were drinking,” Kim Richard says when asked about the idea to start a theater company. “Probably at Bliss re/Bar.”

“We were having a conversation about how hurt we felt from having put so much of ourselves into something, but not getting to do the production,” Richard recalls. She founded A/C Theatre, which got nonprofit status on December 31, 2014, with fellow actors Thomas Strawser, Cassie Chilton, and Tim Shawver. Although Kristen Burkhart was also part of initial conversations, she didn’t join the enterprise until spring of 2015.

Between them, these five creatives fill a variety of roles — including actor, staff, and board member. It’s a model they’ll move away from as more people get involved, says Richard. She hopes to have a new board of directors in place before the start of their second season. For now, Richard serves as board member, artistic director, and cast member for the company's first show. Other company members also wear multiple hats.“Our ultimate goal is having paid staff to run operations,” says Richard. “But running a successful business takes time.”

For those wondering about the theater company's name, consider it a nifty bit of word play. The "A/C" works for all sorts of options, including accessibly cool, alternative commercial, artistically collaborative, and air-conditioned. 

Their first production, a musical called Murder Ballad that imagines a love triangle with a bloody twist, opened earlier this month at The Judith Hardes Theatre at Phoenix Theatre, the black box theater formerly known as the Little Theatre, home to productions of Scorpius Dance Theatre's A Vampire Tale

Richard says local theater professionals lack opportunities to do what she calls “alternative or indie” musicals. “Stray Cat is starting to do musicals,” she explains. “But there’s room for more.” Edgier musicals being performed this season in metro Phoenix include Avenue Q at Phoenix Theatre, and the touring Broadway production of The Book of Mormon coming to ASU Gammage.

“Our mission is doing musicals,” says Richard. “It’s what we like to do.” But there’s another reason they favor musical theater over plays: the opportunity to involve more artists, including singers and musicians. “It’s a cool opportunity to involve more people.”

A/C Theatre is taking the slow and steady approach, planning to do just three shows per season at this point – one each during the fall and spring season, and one during the summer months. Next up is a to-be-determined musical planned for March 11 through 27 of 2016 – then another show in July.

“Our season is pretty unconventional,” she says of their decision to perform fewer shows per season than most theater companies. Deciding which shows to perform involves artistic and practical decisions. Sometimes securing the rights to perform a show requires payment up front; others require only a deposit.

“We came across it through iTunes,” Richard says of their inaugural show. They’d been searching online for every possible musical, and stumbled onto Murder Ballad, which had a couple of things going for it. “It hadn’t been done in the Valley, and there was an option for a small set.”

“We recruited Miguel Jackson and Marshall Glass to perform in the show,” Richard says of the cast. She and Chilton are in the cast as well, but Richard says only the other two actors are receiving a stipend for their role. And she notes that a lot of the artists, including designers, have given them a discount rate.

Richard expects funding for A/C Theater to come from several sources — including ticket sales, grants, and donations. “Plus we all contribute,” she says of the company’s five members.

“We had our first fundraising campaign on Arizona Gives Day,” she says. Arizona Gives Day is a statewide online giving campaign used by non-profits in various sectors. A/C Theatre raised $4,000, surpassing their $3,000 goal for the day, according to Richard.

Next they held a July 18 fundraising party at Phoenix Theatre, where there’s a swanky bar. The 60 or so people who attended enjoyed food, music, and giveaways, says Richard. And A/C Theatre raised about $3,000. They’re also selling T-shirts that read "Support Local Theatre" online, and donating 10% of those proceeds to Free Arts Arizona, a non-profit that serves abused, neglected, and at-risk youth.

For now, she says, their financial goal is “breaking even” after doing their first production. “We had $20,000 budgeted for this show.” But finances aren’t the only challenge of starting a new theater company, according to Richard.

There’s also the challenge of finding time, since all five company members have classes and/or jobs in addition to their responsibilities for A/C Theatre. And there are the artistic decisions — which can be challenging with five people at the helm. “We all have different opinions,” says Richard. “This is a learning experience for us.”

Murder Ballad continues through Saturday, August 22, at 100 E. McDowell Road. Find more information on the A/C Theatre website.
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Lynn Trimble is an award-winning freelance writer and photographer specializing in arts and culture, including visual and performing arts
Contact: Lynn Trimble