For nearly six years, Matthew Watkins has run Orange Theatre, a Phoenix-based experimental performing arts company. But the Valley native's artistic career stretches back much further.
"I’ve been making art since I was a super-little kid," Watkins says. "I directed my first play in kindergarten, which was an adaptation of Charlotte’s Web."
He wrote scripts and cast and staged the play, holding rehearsals during recess. The production grew to include his entire class, and the teacher organized a performance for their parents.
Later, Watkins would spend six years with the Phoenix Boys Choir. There, he says, "I learned what artistic excellence was there and the amount of work that’s needed to obtain it."
Then he went on to play drums in a hardcore band, which came with its own lessons. "The scene taught me how to find passion and intensity in my work, and how to appreciate roughness in art," he says. "If I hadn’t been around that scene, I don’t think I would be running a company right now."
There was a particular openness to creativity that came with playing in the band that deeply influenced Watkins. "If someone had an idea, the attitude was always, 'Let’s just do it.' Nobody ever thought about feasibility. If it was’t feasible, you’d figure that out when it tanked," he says. "And everybody was pretty much okay with that."
Watkins has taken that openness with him — and it ended up bringing him back to his theatrical roots. "I got into theater because someone found out I could run a sound board and asked me to do sound for a play," he says. "It took me a while to fully make the transition, and I still work in music venues as my day job."
Now 31, he serves as the artistic director of Orange, which has six members and whose "work has focused extensively on the interaction between computer technologies and live performance, but [is] in the middle of a gradual shift towards thinking about design rather than technology."
Besides the meeting and melding of seemingly disparate entities, Watkins and his troupe are preparing for another collaboration. This fall, they'll work with Scottsdale Community College theater students "to create an original work loosely adapted from Gertrude Stein’s novel, Ida."
The piece will be presented in mid-October and be very choreographic, Watkins says, while incorporating music by Mario Yniguez of Harrison Fjord and Sounds of the Mouth, and film. "The cast is going to create the whole thing themselves in rehearsals," he says. "I’m not going to do much, just give them prompts and see where they go with it."
Which for those unfamiliar with Orange's vibe might sound a little odd. But "experimental" aptly describes their mission.
"Most people think of theater as primarily or exclusively telling a story. Experimental work tries to find other ways of thinking," Watkins explains. "We spend a lot of time learning how dancers, painters, filmmakers, musical composers, architects, and other artists think about their work and then try to apply what we learned to theater. The pieces that result are often choreographic, musically driven, and visually stimulating. My particular taste has tended toward the fast-paced, dynamic, roughshod, tense, and cacophonous; though, that’s changing as the company and I mature."
I came to Phoenix with nothing. I was born here. I guess I just sort of showed up.
I make art because nothing else in life requires as much of me.
I'm most productive when I have many obstructions to overcome. Obstructions are an idea from the filmmaker, Lars Von Trier. They’re requirements for the project that must be dealt with in some way. I set them up right at the beginning of a process, even if I don’t know what I’m going to do. The best thing an artist can do for themselves is to severely limit their choices early on. I learned this by making a lot of bad, unfocused art. Having obstructions, even (especially?) if they’re completely arbitrary, gives you something solid to push against.
My inspiration wall is full of the work of great directors and writers: Pina Bausch, Liz LeCompte, Jay Scheib, Tadeusz Kantor, Reza Abdoh, Paul McCarthy, Heiner Müller, Elfriede Jelinek, Gertrude Stein, and Chris Danowski, to name a few.
I've learned most from fucking up. I’m incredibly lucky to have had the privilege to fail. We’ve lost an entire generation of brilliant artists to financial insecurity. Too many people are not able to keep working long enough to learn from their failures.
Good work should always be rigorous, articulate, deliberate, embarrassing, generous, and insatiable. It should never deny or ignore its history, rest on its laurels, play cheap tricks, or accept half measures. It should avoid treating the audience like it’s stupid or trying to sell it anything. And it should always punch up, never down.
The Phoenix creative scene could use more financial and political support. Metropolitan Phoenix and Arizona as a whole don’t seem to care for or encourage artists in any substantive way, especially when compared to other cities our size or even smaller. Many artists decide moving is the only way they’ll find the resources to live up to their potential. Those who stay give up a lot in exchange for whatever keeps them here. I say this in total deference to the amazing work the AZ Commission on the Arts and other arts agencies are doing to change this picture; but even they are being starved by a political culture that ranges from indifferent to openly hostile.
The 2016 Creatives so far:
100. Nicole Olson
99. Andrew Pielage
98. Jessica Rowe
97. Danny Neumann
96. Beth Cato
95. Jessie Balli
94. Ron May
93. Leonor Aispuro
92. Sarah Waite
91. Christina "Xappa" Franco
90. Christian Adame
89. Tara Sharpe
88. Patricia Sannit
87. Brian Klein
86. Dennita Sewell
85. Garth Johnson
84. Charissa Lucille
83. Ryan Downey
82. Samantha Thompson
81. Cherie Buck-Hutchison
80. Freddie Paull
79. Jennifer Campbell
78. Dwayne Hartford
77. Shaliyah Ben
76. Kym Ventola