Culture News

What's With the Staff Shake-Up at Fountain Hills Theater?

Fountain Hills Theater has had executive director Suzu Henderson at the helm since August 2016.
Fountain Hills Theater has had executive director Suzu Henderson at the helm since August 2016. Courtesy of Fountain Hills Theater
A firestorm of angry gossip is dogging Fountain Hills Theater after a recent staff shake-up there.

Longtime players at the theater took to Facebook and Twitter last week to complain that the company had fired loyal employees and now plans to turn its 30-year-old playhouse into a pay-for-play children’s theater.

While it’s true that a pair of office positions were eliminated, Fountain Hills Theater’s executive director Suzu Henderson says that much of the rest of the news is inaccurate.

“We’re not turning into a cabaret,” she says of one of the more persistent rumors. “We will continue to offer a children’s theater program, but we’re not eliminating our mainstage or our commitment to quality entertainment.”

According to a letter from the theater’s board of directors, the changes came after the company received a recent grant from the Piper Foundation. A consultant hired to assess the theater’s strengths recommended “new plans, policies, and procedures aimed at making the organization more efficient, effective, and financially solvent,” according to a letter issued by the board.

Last season’s slow ticket sales and an expected cash loss appear to have informed the board’s decision to restructure its business model. That reboot included eliminating salaried jobs held by IT director Todd Carrie and publicity and education director Patty Torillhon. Both positions will be replaced with more cost-effective freelance positions, according to the board’s letter. The company recently purchased the building out of which it’s operated for years, and that combined with its upkeep are expected to strain its budget in the near future.

That future includes a new artistic direction, says Henderson, who was hired in August to replace longtime artistic director Val Stasik when Stasik retired last year. In addition to what she calls the “top-of-the-line entertainment offerings that [artistic director] Peter Hill is famous for creating,” Henderson plans to also program work “that has a slightly different format, style, or genre.”

She’s likely referring to work like the company’s upcoming production of Qui Nguyen’s She Kills Monsters, which may be the troupe’s first production to carry a warning about “strong language, mild adult themes, and brief sexual situations.”

Longtime Fountain Hills Theater members aren’t pleased.

“You have set into motion feelings of anger, heartbreak and disgust in the ones that are contributing money, talent and time to this theater,” one of them posted on Facebook. “Adult fare not what FTH is all about [sic],” tweeted another.

“People are unhappy,” Stasik admits. “This is a theater team that’s been together for 30 years, and changes have been made that are not going down like chicken soup.”

Like her social media counterparts, Stasik won’t talk on the record about what those changes might mean for Fountain Hills Theater. “It’s a transitional thing,” she ventures. “This won’t be the death of our theater. But the values that made actors drive all the way from Litchfield Park to work there, those things are going away.”


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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela