When theater artists gathered at Black Theatre Troupe’s space two weeks ago, Brenda Jean Foley was struck by what she heard.
The head of The Bridge Initiative theater group was there to hear representatives from Theatre Communications Group, a national service organization for professional nonprofit theaters, talk about plans for its annual conference happening in Phoenix next June.
“They were thinking they had landed in this thriving, diverse theater community,” Foley says. “But that perception is different than reality.” Despite its many strengths, she says, the Phoenix theater scene has plenty of issues.
“Phoenix needs to develop a sustainable theater ecosystem,” she says. For Foley, that means decent wages for theater professionals, affordable space for creating and showing work, more funding for local theaters, and bigger audiences.
Joseph Benesh, who heads an arts advocacy group called Arizona Citizens for the Arts, agrees that more corporate, foundation, and government funding would help. “Communities with robust support have robust scenes,” he says.
Even so, funding isn’t the only factor at play, according to Steve Martin, managing director for Childsplay. “We need to deepen our talent pool and create reasons for theater artists to stay and work in Phoenix.”
“Equity, diversity, and inclusion is still a concern in this area,” says Ralph Remington, producing artistic director for Tempe Center for the Arts. “It’s still extremely white.”
Phoenix actor Alejandra Luna says theaters should be casting more artists of color. Sarah Sullivan, co-producing artistic collaborator for Rising Youth Theatre, wants to see more women and artists of color in theater leadership. And playwright James Garcia wishes there were more Latino theater companies, in part because Latinos make up about 40 percent of the population of Phoenix.
Artists of color are making some of the region’s most dynamic work, according to art producer and equity consultant Mary Stephens. “Communities of color, led by women, are doing really important theater,” she says. “They’re bringing forth narratives that haven’t been told.”
Local theater is shifting in several ways. It’s moving into more nontraditional settings, such as light rail stations and the U.S.-Mexico border wall. It’s more youth-driven, too. And it’s intersecting more creatively with dance and other art forms.
Louis Farber, the associate artistic director for Stray Cat Theatre, says he’s seen some good signs in recent years. “We’re making progress in shifting to a more local talent base, and theater companies are taking bigger risks in the shows they choose,” he says.
But there’s more work to be done, according to Kiel Klaphake, who heads Arizona Broadway Theatre in Peoria. “The major performing arts centers are mostly importing art from somewhere else,” Klephake says.
Colleen Jennings-Roggensack heads ASU Gammage in Tempe, one of the country’s largest markets for touring Broadway shows. “Local theater companies are doing some really good, strong work,” she says. “We want people to branch out and see more theater.”
Sean Daniels, artistic director for Arizona Theatre Company, is optimistic about theater’s future here, in part because Maricopa County is growing so rapidly. More people moving to Phoenix means more creatives and audience members, with perspectives that can help to expand the theater landscape.
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It’s possible that creating a local theater alliance, or another tool for strategic planning and action, could help bring more resources and focused attention to the region’s theater scene. Both Foley and Betsy Mugavero, who serves as co-artistic director for Southwest Shakespeare Company in Mesa, say it’s an option worth exploring.
As conference preparations are underway, it’s clear that local creatives are already thinking about critical issues. But they’re also mindful of the role theater plays in elevating important conversations in our communities.
“Arizona is having a lot of important discussions now about the border and other issues,” Jennings-Roggensack says. “Theater gives people a place to have that dialogue.”
Editor's note: In a previous version of this article, we used a previous title for Sarah Sullivan of Rising Youth Theatre. It has been updated and we regret the error.