Just a Stage?

It happened again the other day. I was asked what I do for a living and, when I confessed that I'm a theater critic, I got the same response I've been getting for years.

"Is there enough theater in Phoenix for you to cover?"

That's the polite version. I've also heard, "Well, you can't possibly be making a living writing about theater in Phoenix," and my personal favorite: "Phoenix has live theater?"

I suppose it's not unfair for out-of-towners or recent transplants to assume that our entertainment consists solely of tractor pulls and coyote races, baseball games and crafts fairs. That, aside from the occasional bus-and-truck of Les Mis and maybe a junior college production of Our Town from time to time, we rarely see anything up onstage. I mean, this is hardly a theater town; one doesn't often hear of a bound-for-Broadway musical having its out-of-town opening here, or that Tony Kushner is dying to workshop his next four-hour epic in the Valley of the Sun. In fact, one almost never hears of such things, because they rarely happen here.

On the other hand, people who've been here for more than a little while, even those who think theater is a place where one goes to see a movie, should know that our entertainment options aren't limited to cactus jelly eating contests and the Miss Senior Arizona Pageant. I'm more troubled by the notion that Phoenix has no theater when it's voiced by locals. Most of us could find America West Arena blindfolded, and some of us visit Scottsdale Fashion Square in our sleep. But ask most Phoenicians to find the front door of the Herberger Theater Center and they'd have to hire a search posse, who -- if the group was made up of Phoenicians -- would need help from MapQuest.

Yes, Virginia, we do have theater here. Lots of it. Not all of it is spectacular, but it's here. According to my most recent count, Phoenix boasts upward of 80 different theater companies, both Equity and non-Equity. (And that's theater troupes, folks. If you're old enough to be reading this, you're old enough to know the difference between a theater company and a theater venue. Count this parenthetical note as a warning: The next time one of you tells me you saw a show "produced by the Herberger," I'm going to smack you.) All told, these companies produce more than 200 shows per season, and while some of them are quite awful (certainly some of you saw Phoenix Theatre's production of Amadeus a couple of seasons ago), most can at very least pass for entertainment.

My friend Laura says that people have to want to know that there's theater here before they go looking for it. I told her I thought she was wrong. I'd rather have hemorrhoid surgery than attend a live sporting event, but I know that they're here and where they take place. I even know the names of the teams, although I can never recall whether the Diamondbacks is a football team or not. But the opposite isn't necessarily true. When one of my oldest friends called me last year to ask where Phoenix Theatre is located, I had to lie down for an hour with an ice pack on my head. How can you not know where Phoenix Theatre is? It's been in the same spot for 85 years.

The most baffling assessment of theater I've heard is one that compares our theater with New York City's. I'm telling you, if one more person uses the phrase "Broadway caliber" in my presence, I'm going to start packing heat. Broadway is the center of the American theater universe, a city with 39 professional theater companies compared to our four. Comparing our theater scene -- or Cleveland's, or Chicago's, or Los Angeles' -- with New York City's is like comparing Paula Abdul to Aretha Franklin, or the Chrysler Building with that ugly high-rise on Central that's shaped like a computer punch card.

It's this thinking that leads people to only see road company productions of big shows that were on Broadway two years ago. They buy tickets to the Valley Broadway series, see Hairspray and Phantom (for the third time) at Gammage, and call it theatergoing. And miss out on things like the teeny production of Jean Genet's The Maids that I saw last week, where Madame was played by a man and one of the leads was a former '80s punk diva turned actress. Or the amazing production of Angels in America mounted by Actors Theatre a couple of seasons ago. Or, ironically, the latest work from Broadway legend Dale Wasserman, author of Man of La Mancha and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, who occasionally workshops his newest plays here before taking them to New York.

But maybe that's it. Maybe Phoenix will never be anything more than a way-off-the-beaten-path theater spot, where shows come for a visit after they've done their time on the "real" stages on Broadway. A place where a legend can try out his new play knowing that no one from the "legitimate" theater community will ever see it before it's ready to be seen. A place where theaters continue to wither and die waiting for us to find them, or to care that they're here in the first place. Maybe theater will always be a mirage in this desert.

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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