Who says you can't change something old into something new and fresh? First, the seven-year-old classical music series, American Bach, changed its name to the hipper-sounding Arizona Bach Festival. Then, the weeklong concert program, dedicated to performing the cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach, decided to add even more members of the Phoenix Symphony and the Grammy Award-winning Phoenix Chorale to the festival's signature concert. The series, which typically takes place every winter, also showcases organ and violin recitals by professional musicians in intimate and acoustically conscious churches in Phoenix's central core.
Scorpius Dance Theatre
Courtesy of Lisa Starry
Most contemporary dance companies are either boring to watch or so bizarre that you practically need subtitles to interpret a performance. That's why we love Scorpius Dance Theatre, a local troupe known for mixing graceful moves and humorous interludes in a way that makes dance accessible to the average Joe. The company was founded by choreographer Lisa Starry in 1999 and has won numerous awards including a few of our "Best Ofs." We won't pretend that Starry's sexy A Vampire Tale has nothing to do with Scorpius winning in this category, but it's certainly not the only reason we noticed them. This annual Halloween production brought the sex appeal back into modern dance, an ideal that continued this season in Catwalk. The fashion-themed show highlighted one major difference between Scorpius and the other modern dance troupes we've seen: Few dancers in this company look like Kate Moss. Starry breaks with longstanding tradition by hiring the best talent, regardless of whether a dancer is bald and broad or short and curvaceous.

Best Funky Arts Space in Town That Never Changes

Kerr Cultural Center

ASU Kerr Cultural Center
Patron of the arts Louise Lincoln Kerr was the daughter of real estate tycoon John C. Lincoln, which may be what inspired her to buy 47 acres of land south of Lincoln Drive in the 1950s. She started an artists colony there, with a performance hall/studio made of natural adobe bricks (formed and dried on the property), and doors hand-carved from sugar pine. The building's main doorway was adorned with empty beer bottles set right into the plaster; the well-worn earthen tile was made from local clay. And it's all still there, bequeathed to ASU in 1977 and home these past several decades to musicians and other artists who come together to perform for our enjoyment. And no matter who's performing in this cozy, wood-beamed sanctuary, the evening always feels like an informal gathering of friends in someone's living room — which we suspect is exactly what Louise Lincoln Kerr had in mind.
Tempe Performing Arts Center
Okay. So they stank up the stage with Twelfth Night of the Living Dead, the Shakespearean zombie tragedy that ended their 2009-10 season. But that bomb was a rare dud in the eight-year history of this small, quirky theater company. Their tough, terrifying columbinus last year was utterly mesmerizing, and their holiday offering, A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant, was unlike anything that Phoenix audiences had seen before — or will likely see again. What could have been just another weird little black box has grown quickly into a smart-minded, smart-mouthed home to intelligent and thought-provoking plays that, frankly, no other company in town would touch. Artistic director Ron May, who will be directing three of Stray Cat's four plays in its upcoming season, is to blame for this marvelously oddball addition to our local theater scene.
Herberger Theater Center
A quick lesson in professional versus non-professional theater: Actors' Equity Association is the labor union representing American stage actors and managers. "House" is, in this context, another word for troupe or theater group. A professional union theater company is referred to as an equity house, while a smaller, non-professional company that pays neither dues to the union nor wages to its actors is called, in polite company, a community theater. And, in our state, Arizona Theatre Company is the best equity house around. Founded in Tucson in 1967 as the Arizona Civic Theater, this company — our state theater, headquartered in Tucson — has been presenting the best local and national performers to a combined audience of more than 150,000 patrons since 1983. ATC's trick seems to be mixing a well-known favorite (like 2008-09's Hair, or the upcoming production of Neil Simon's Lost in Yonkers, to be directed by the company's artistic director, David Ira Goldstein) with "important" plays (many ATC fans are still recovering from the beauty of the company's production of A Long Day's Journey into Night from a few years ago). Brilliant.
No one quite knows what Phoenix did to deserve her, but there she is, playing everything from kids to birds, in any number of plays and musicals. Katie McFadzen has been cooking with gas on local stages for what seems like decades but may be only, like, 15 years. Her turn as a butch debutante in Five Women Wearing the Same Dress got our attention in 1996, and people are still talking two years later about her Viola Swamp in Miss Nelson is Missing! at Childsplay, where she's been an Associate Artist (read: acting ensemble member) for a very long time. Audiences loved Katie even before she wowed them as Mayzie LaBird in Seussical, and they're still recovering from her cool comic turn as a Mexican hoochie-mama in Teatro Bravo!'s Little Queen last year. ¡Y guy!
Stephen Scally, perhaps the single most underrated actor in town, knocked our socks off last season in iTheatre Collaborative's vaguely futuristic commentary on American morals. The actor literally burst onto the stage, biting off brittle dialogue in a jangly Jersey accent and scaring us to death with real violence and lusty invective about everything he liked about being alive. By the end of Act One, we were both terrified and delighted by Scally, who had morphed into a genuinely terrifying monster — a tough transition to make in little more than an hour, but one that this excellent actor handled expertly.

Best Coffee House to Run Into Local Actors

Urban Beans

Urban Beans
Rosie Torrez
We saw Katie McFadzen there once, staring into her latte. Another time, it was Rusty Ferracane, eyeing a tray of bagels. And then we spotted Sean P. Donnelly at the pastry case, and we knew: Urban Beans is the Phoenix equivalent of Sardi's, where actorly types quietly commingle and we, the lowly laypeople, are expected not to stare at them.Fortunately, there's plenty to distract us at this, one of our town's newer coffee houses. We love the Joyous Almond Smash, an iced coffee drink like no other, and the wheat-free snickerdoodles, which vie for our attention with the cranberry scones and the pretty palmiers. We keep hoping, if we go there often enough, we'll one day spy Jon Gentry eating a baklava. We can dream.
Leading+the+blind%3A+Carlisle+and+company.
We love pretty much everything this super-hip playhouse presents, but our hands-down favorite bit belongs to Nearly Naked's artistic director, Damon Dering. La Dering's curtain speeches — especially those given on opening night — tend to go on, but we don't care, because he's so charming. We suspect that what makes these homey homilies so very enchanting is that Dering so obviously loves his theater company. Often he speaks of a play as "a show I've wanted to produce for decades," and always he compliments the cast and crew of the production we're about to see. Trust us — no one else in town is chatting up a show with the same gusto as this guy. Bravo!
Tempe Center for the Arts
Is it possible that Childsplay has just completed its 32nd season? That (gasp!) Childsplay is practically middle-aged? It's true. Founded in 1977 by artistic director David Saar, the company started out playing to small groups at places like the Phoenix Zoo and rather quickly morphed into one of the best and best-known professional theater companies in the southwest. Creating plays and musicals for kids — sometimes new and original works, like Saar's much-lauded The Yellow Boat — Childsplay has delighted kids at its home space in Tempe and in touring productions that visit Valley schools year-round. Here's to 32 more years.

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