Gus the Theater Cat

In a town where every arts organization is struggling to stay afloat, who would risk bankrolling an experimental, ethnocentric theater company devoted to producing the work of a single playwright? And who but a lunatic would invest in a theater company run by a man who refuses to promote the troupe's productions?

Gus Edwards, for one. "It's perverse, I know," Edwards says. "Because I enjoy doing theater, but I'm not skilled at publicity, and I don't want to learn to be. I told my actors, If you really want an audience, you guys have to go out and find them, because I'm not gonna do it.'"

Edwards is no lunatic. He's a nationally renowned playwright (The Offering; Black Woman's Blues) and Black Theatre historian; the author of several books on African-American theater as well as the feature film Go Tell It on the Mountain and a PBS documentary on the Negro Ensemble Company, which produced many of his plays; and a tenured faculty member at Arizona State University's theater department, where he teaches film and theater. And despite his aversion to publicity, his company, Pipes of Pan Theater, seems to have found its audience -- in part because Edwards' name is attached. Just don't let him hear you say so.

"First of all, it's a misconception that I'm famous," Edwards says. "Nobody wants my work. I've had a certain level of success, but I've certainly never made a living at theater. The only reason my name is still around is because someone will revive one of my plays from time to time. But mostly my work is viewed as too sour or too critical or too flaky. My name is not drawing crowds to this theater."

All the same, Edwards is hopeful that audiences will find Pipes of Pan's newest productions, which open this weekend. Snapshots is a collection of single-character plays that Edwards says "are different than monologues, because they challenge actors to fill up the stage," and Duets combines eight dialogues between different men and women, most of them regarding some kind of sexual conflict. Edwards wrote and directed each piece.

"I only do my own plays," he says, "so we don't have to pay royalties. I don't direct other writers' things because I don't want to be accused of messing up other people's plays. This is my vanity theater company, and I don't mind saying so."

What Edwards does mind is when folks refer to Pipes of Pan as an "alternative" company. "When you talk about alternative theater, you think of very extreme theater -- people lying around naked in Jell-O, things like that. What we're about is making demands on our audience, making them think with our little single-character plays and our off-center subject matter. But we're really just one step outside of mainstream theater."

Perhaps. But mainstream theater usually involves sets and costume designs, elements that Edwards believes are given too much emphasis in most productions. When Pipes of Pan presented Edwards' A Fool Such As I last year, the cast stood in street clothes before unadorned music stands, "reading" the play to the audience.

"We can't afford sets or costumes anyway," says Edwards, who bankrolls each of the company's productions himself. "Good acting, a strong script, a good directorial concept, that's what gets an audience going. Good costumes aren't all that important. Having a good time is our company's goal."

That goal has become a priority for Edwards. When ticket sales for the company's last show tapered off, Edwards canceled the final Sunday performance and booked a brunch at a swanky restaurant for his cast on that date instead. When that performance suddenly sold out, Edwards returned every ticket and kept his brunch date. "I said, Let's go eat, because that's what I like to do best.' And that's how our theater company works."

And Edwards is convinced that, despite a lack of publicity or any real organization -- Pipes of Pan has only just applied for incorporation -- the company will provide meaningful theater for people who happen to find it. If they don't, that's fine, too.

"I'm 64 years old," Edwards says. "I don't care about risks; they mean nothing. I lived my life safely for so long. If you don't like my new play, that's how it is. I'm comfortable in my poverty, and my reputation as a playwright isn't at stake. So I have nothing to lose."

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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