Some artists are too swamped with their own work to manage meaningful collaborations with other artists. But Ron May, founding artistic director for Stray Cat Theatre, isn’t letting his own hectic schedule keep him from the sorts of collaborations that fuel artistic growth and audience development.
By day, he works as patron relationship manager at the Phoenix office for Arizona Theatre Company, which performs in both Tucson and Phoenix. But he’s also plenty busy with Stray Cat Theatre, the company he founded in 2001 — for which 2002 through 2003 was the first formal season. They’re presenting four works at five different venues this season.
Stray Cat Theatre has long been one of the edgiest troupes in town — performing significant works from the contemporary theater canon such as Moisés Kaufman’s The Laramie Project and Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, and works by leading contemporary playwrights such as Neal LaBute and Annie Baker. Most recently, they performed Brandon Ogborn’s The Tomkat Project.
But May is also renowned for his acting chops, demonstrated most recently in One Man, Two Guv’nors at Phoenix Theatre. Through the years, he’s directed and performed with several Phoenix-area theater companies — including the now defunct Actors Theatre, where he performed the role of Mike Daisey in The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. This season, he’ll direct three Stray Cat Theatre productions — including two musicals involving collaborations with Scorpius Dance Theatre choreographers.
Lisa Starry, artistic director for Scorpius Dance Theatre, is choreographing Green Day’s American Idiot, a musical based on the band’s 2004 album with the same name. She’s never seen the show, but that’s unlikely to matter since May says he plans to mount a show far different than the touring Broadway production seen a couple of years ago on the ASU Gammage stage. Years ago Starry choreographed several sections of The Who’s Tommy for Nearly Naked Theatre, and several Scorpius Dance Theatre dancers were in the show.
Nicole Olson, associate director and choreographer for Scorpius Dance Theatre, is choreographing Heathers: The Musical for Stray Cat Theatre. Based on a 1988 cult film, it’s the tale of a teenage misfit who fights her way into a powerful clique — but doesn’t quite stick. Like Starry, Olson is experienced with choreography for musical theater, having choreographed Hair for Desert Stages Theatre, Bat Boy for Phoenix College, and Evita for Phoenix Theatre (which opens in February 2016) — and created movement for Stray Cat Theatre’s 2011 production of The Sparrow.
Audiences will see Heathers: The Musical, which is being directed by Stray Cat Theatre associate artistic director Louis Farber, first. It’s being performed December 4 to 20 at Tempe Performing Arts Center. Stray Cat Theatre’s production of Green Day’s American Idiot, directed by May, runs June 24 to July 16, 2016 at Tempe Center for the Arts. In between, Stray Cat Theatre performs Stupid Fucking Bird directed by May from March 12 to 26, 2016 at the Helen K. Mason Performing Arts Center that’s home to Black Theatre Troupe.
But another collaboration is already afoot. Stray Cat Theatre and Arizona Theatre Company have collaborated to produce Sex With Strangers, which explores love and fame in the age of social media. It’s being performed from September 24 to October 11 at Herberger Theater Center, and next February in Tucson. “Working with some indie companies is a model I’ve been looking at for a while,” says David Ira Goldstein, artistic director for ATC. Goldstein expects collaborations with additional groups to follow, but isn’t ready to reveal the specifics at this point.
This season's ATC offerings include Sex With Strangers, but also Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin, Disgraced, Snapshots: A Musical Scrapbook, Fences, Of Mice and Men, and The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord.
The Sex With Strangers collaboration came about after May learned ATC had secured rights to perform the show, and May told Goldstein it’s something he’d have loved producing at Stray Cat Theatre. After Goldstein ended up securing rights for another play called Disgraced, and found himself with a bounty of options for ATC’s 2015/16 season, they decided to collaborate on Sex With Strangers, which is being offered as an add-on show for ATC rather than a part of its season package.
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The collaboration means Stray Cat Theatre audiences will get a taste for ATC fare, and ATC audiences will be introduced to Stray Cat Theatre offerings. “For us to be at the Herberger Theater is huge,” says May, noting that Stray Cat has performed for several years at the Tempe Performing Arts Center. “Phoenix audiences may not even know we exist.”
Because ATC performs in Phoenix and Tucson, Stray Cat Theatre will be performing for the first time in Tucson. “It’s kind of wonderful,” Goldstein says of the Tucson exposure for Stray Cat Theatre. “They’ll reach an entirely new audience there.”
Starry expects a similar result from this season’s Scorpius Dance Theatre and Stray Cat Theatre collaborations. “Collaborations are really important because dance will always be struggling to get an audience,” says Starry. “It’s helpful for us because theater people can be a bit intimidated by us.” But working together helps everyone “make really great connections in the community.”
When asked why cross-sector collaborations aren’t more prevalent in metro Phoenix, May suggested it’s not for lack of interest among artists. “I think we all get so bogged down in the day to day of keeping the doors open,” he said. “There’s a really strong group of artists here, and it’s great when the resources of two organizations can come together.”