Best Do-Gooders 2011 | Arizona Coalition for Military Families | People & Places | Phoenix
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to take their terrible toll on Arizonans. So many loved ones have died while serving our country, or have been injured on the battlefield (or wherever), or simply have been separated from their families for years on end. In generations past, military veterans and their families often had nowhere to turn but to that bureaucratic nightmare known simply as the VA, short for Veterans Administration (or Very Apathetic). But thanks to this very cool public/private partnership — which includes the Arizona National Guard, the Arizona Department of Veterans Services, and a whole bunch of other folks — many services are far more readily available these days for souls who are suffering from traumatic brain injury, looking for work, or just need counseling for themselves and their families. Things are far from perfect for our nation's returning vets in this area, obviously. But this coalition is a step in the right direction, which is saying a lot in these difficult times.

Childsplay has done it again — scored another unsurpassed season of fun and fancy. And it's not as if they don't have competition; there are several other children's theater venues in town that are quite good. But no one comes close to Childsplay for a finer mix of good scripts, delightful acting, and fun times for kids and adults alike. Maybe it's because of Katie McFadzen, who plays birds and little girls and ice cream scoops with such gusto. Maybe it's D. Daniel Hollingshead's super costuming skills, or Karen Siefried's clever set designs that help transport audiences both old and young to a better place, where they can enjoy the huge talents of Jon Gentry and Debra K. Stevens and D. Scott Withers and Andres Alcala. Or maybe it's because they mix popular favorites (like Charles Way's adaptation of Mary Norton's The Borrowers) with original works, like last season's The Imaginators, written by Childsplay ensemble member Dwayne Hartford. Whatever the reason, Childsplay is your best bet for kid theater.

Detour Company Theater
Detour Company Theatre provides an arts education and performance opportunity for adults with developmental challenges — including deafness, blindness, and autism — through theater. Detour is all about fun, companionship, and celebrating each individual who makes each production happen. The end result is pretty terrific, too. Sam, the founder and creative director, leads the annual productions on a shoestring to create amazing performances.
Reviews were mixed for their season-ending Abraham Lincoln's Big Gay Dance Party, but that show — as well as so many others offered by this smart, talented troupe of community players — was sold out. So who cares what critics say? In a town overrun with little theaters (most of them a revolving door for would-be thespians that offer nothing more exciting than another rerun of West Side Story), this petite playhouse caters to a more discerning theater-going crowd. This season, artistic director Ron May and company offered up a rousing production of Neil LaBute's stunning meditation on looksism, reasons to be pretty; a naughty-but-nice look at racism called Learn to be Latina; and Steve Yockey's wet and wonderful Octopus, full of naked men and very moist special effects. While not every one of this tiny troupe's productions is a winner, most of the time they come closer than any other local troupe with a nice mix of alternative theater done up right. We're looking forward to their next season, set to launch this month.
We don't have a lot of professional theater companies here, but the handful we do have are pretty amazing. We're particularly fond of Actors Theatre, a resident company at the Herberger Theater Center and one of the most diverse theaters in the state. This past season, they kicked off another stellar season with Sarah Ruhl's The Vibrator Play (which is, in fact, about vibrators) and things only got better from there. Right now, they're presenting A Conversation with Edith Head, a comic Hollywood biography that frankly we could count on no other theater company in town to bring us. We're sorry that Actors Theatre dropped their wonderful A Christmas Carol after 19 years, but we're looking forward to its winter replacement: Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's delicious Hunter Gatherers. We've always counted on this company to bring us unusual and unusually competent productions, and they rarely let us down.
In 2004, the Arizona Department of Transportation was in the process of building the San Tan leg of Loop 202. As workers dug in the Ocotillo area of Chandler, near Alma School and Pecos Roads, the crew lowered a video camera into one of the abandoned wells on the land formerly belonging to A.J. Chandler. As the camera descended, the view of the well's dirt walls gave way to beautiful handcrafted bricks: The ADOT crew had discovered a leg of an aqueduct system 15 to 20 feet below the surface and constructed by hand in the 1910s. Because the Salt River Project had not diverted sufficient surface water to Chandler's lands, Chandler dug about a dozen wells in the area and connected them with aqueducts for irrigation purposes. Historians speculate that the system extends anywhere from 1,800 feet to several miles, as far south as Hunt Highway — a monument to a hardworking farmer.
This metallic Mont Saint-Michel, a neighborhood asset that doesn't even have a neighborhood, rises from the west end of Tempe Beach. Its parking, art gallery, and bar are primo, but the vibe, in particular, is unrivaled — from the waterfront patio, where the fountain seems to disappear into Town Lake, to the countless cozy conversation areas in the undulating lobby, lit by the outdoor fireplace's glass niches and candy-hot neon signs identifying each part of the building. If you haven't been lured in yet by a performance event, consider test-driving TCA as a classy hangout. You won't be the first.
We've seen a lot of nice plays and musical revues in this dark, compact space, once used exclusively for rehearsal by the likes of Arizona Theater Company and Actors Theatre. Its new renovation includes a Van Buren Street canopy that beckons passersby to drop in for weekday Lunch Time Theater, courtesy of drama doyenne Judy Rollings and a revolving cast of characters and playwrights. The marquee sign outside reminds us, late in the year, to reserve tickets for iTheatre Collaborative's magnificent holiday cabaret featuring Jeff Kennedy and a parade of local song-and-dance talent doing Yuletide tunes every December. Once inside, we feel like a member of the theater elite — or at least like we're enjoying entertainment in a more sophisticated city — while we sit in the dark mustiness of a rehearsal hall, watching our favorites emote and croon.
When you've been around as long as Phoenix Theatre (founded as Phoenix Little Theatre in 1920), you're bound to be haunted by something. In the case of the theater, that something is a cast of five distinct ghosts. The best-known is dubbed "Mr. Electric." He's described as an old man who sits on the pipes that hold up the theater's lights. Reportedly, there's also a spirit called "Tiny Dancer," said to be the specter of a little ballerina. She was first "sighted" during a 2005 production of A Chorus Line, dancing around the cast. Both of them seem relatively benign, unlike the "Prop Master," who's said to move things around in the prop room, as well as lock people out; "Light Board Lenny," a theater ghost who supposedly has locked people out of the lighting booth, where he's said to spend the majority of his time; and "Freddy," said to be the ghost of an actor who was killed in a bicycle accident on his way home from the theater after being fired from a production. Freddy's apparently still disgruntled, judging from the reports of him slamming doors and throwing things around in the upstairs rooms of the theater.
Shari Watts had big, dirty shoes to fill — and fill them she did. Her turn as Big Edie Beale in Tempe Live! Theater's Grey Gardens: The Musical last April was a stunner. The ability to truly enjoy this camp musical depends on one's knowledge of (and affection for) both of the women it portrays as well as the documentary on which it's based, and mostly on how well its leading ladies impersonate the famous recluses at the center of its story. Fortunately for the former Tempe Little Theatre (which scored a major coup by snagging this Arizona première), the show featured worthy impersonations of both Big Edie and Little Edie, the true stars of this show. But it's Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis' aunt, Edith Bouvier, who's harder to capture in any production of this peculiar tuner. Still, Watts nailed it. Her flawless take on owl-eyed, bedridden Big Edie is still with us, half a year later.

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