100 Creatives

Ron May of Stray Cat Theatre on Why Artists Shouldn't Leave Phoenix

Every other year, New Times puts the spotlight on Phoenix's creative forces — painters, dancers, designers, and actors. Leading up to the release of Best of Phoenix, we're taking a closer look at 100 more. Welcome to the 2016 edition of 100 Creatives. Up today is 94. Ron May.

Ron May remembers why he chose theater. 

As the founding artistic director of Tempe's Stray Cat Theatre, an actor, and a director, May is a fixture and innovator in the Valley's alternative stage scene, presenting oddball works that larger companies don't take on (this past season featured Aaron Posner’s Stupid Fucking Bird and Heathers: The Musical) and crafting collaborations with such major players as Scorpius Dance Theatre and Arizona Theatre Company, where he also works as patron relationship manager. 

He studied acting in Chicago, and says that it was "very aggressively" drilled into students that if there was anything, anything else they could do with their lives and still be happy, then that's what they should do instead of pursuing the arts. 

"I tried an 'anything else,'" May says. "I worked in nursing homes for several years. And I liked it." 

But after hearing one too many patients launch into deathbed "monologues about their Rolodex of regrets and how they wish they could go back in time," May hit a wall. 

"I don't want this to be me," he recalls thinking. "I need to at least go try. If I fail, I fail ... but ... at least I won't harbor some kind of lifelong regret of not trying." 

Lucky for Phoenix, the trying certainly panned out. Today, Stray Cat is gearing up for a summertime presentation of American Idiot and moving from Tempe Performing Arts Center to Tempe Center for the Arts, where the Green Day musical will be the troupe's first show, opening June 24. 

Which has May busy as ever — Facebooking, working, answering e-mails, taking phone meetings, rehearsing, and going home to his cat, whom May describes as "kind of my everything."

Despite the unending runaround, for May, it all comes back to the art.

"I make plays," he says. "I don't write them, but I cast them and schedule them and do my best to turn a bunch of inert pages of dialogue into a kind of living, breathing thing with blood coursing through it. And hopefully people will have a good time seeing these plays, or cry, or get the wind knocked out of them, or not be able to speak, or laugh harder than they remembered they could.

"I think it's very difficult to change the world," he continues. "I think it's a little less difficult to change how we look at it. Hopefully whatever I'm involved in is at least more often than not doing ... that and not ... not."

I came to Phoenix with my car I had at the time, my clothes I had at the time, my boyfriend I had at the time, and a whole lot of not understanding of what "dry heat" really meant. All those things are gone now.

I make art because it's the closest thing I have to any kind of religion.

I'm most productive when I'm under a deadline. I think it's part of why theater and I get along so well. There's always an unforgiving opening-night deadline. Without a deadline, my brain allows too many possibilities in the room.

My inspiration wall is full of nothing. I don't have a wall. It's either in my head or I try and surround myself with them.

I've learned most from fucking up. Badly.

Good work should always not be the goal. Everyone has a different definition of "good." Don't worry about "good." You'll drive yourself fucking nuts.

The Phoenix creative scene could use more investment. Resources. Investment from the government. Investment from our voters to ensure we have people in office committed to making the Phoenix arts scene the best it can possibly be. Hopefully some of this would help the problem of migrating artists. It's hard to convince creatives to invest their time and energy here. New York doesn't need you. Los Angeles doesn't need you. Phoenix needs you. But it's hard to convince someone of that when the place seems to just shrug their shoulders at them.

The 2016 Creatives so far:

100. Nicole Olson
99. Andrew Pielage
98. Jessica Rowe
97. Danny Neumann
96. Beth Cato
95. Jessie Balli

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Becky Bartkowski is an award-winning journalist and the arts and music editor at New Times, where she writes about art, fashion, and pop culture.
Contact: Becky Bartkowski