Space 55 Theatre

To be the best crappy little dump at which to see live theater, you have to present astonishing, diverse work that showcases excellence from writers, performers, directors, and designers. And if that were all that Space 55 does, it would have earned this award. However, the seven-year-old company and venue also hosts workshops for writers and performers, touring events from kitty-cat circuses to fringe festivals, and late-night encounters with sketch comedy, experimental political theater, solo performance (some vetted and coached, some fresh outta the butt), and forms of lunacy that blur the boundaries of even those already flexible genres. Meanwhile, along with popular themed series "7 Minutes . . ." and "A Bitch in Time" and holiday spectacle A Bloody Mary Christmas, there's a season of actual plays each year. Some are even recommended for children and families, like environmental puppet epic Of Plastic Things and Butterfly Wings and Charlie Steak's contemplative Woman and Girl, which starred Valley favorite Patti Hannon.

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To be honest, we're always a little skeptical of anything billing itself as "community theater." That is, we were until we saw a production at Hale in downtown Gilbert. Last year's The Secret Garden was so good that we took our family — and some family friends — to see Annie. Equally impressive. This summer, when we took the kids out one night for a spontaneous dinner in Gilbert, there was a collective gasp when we saw the sign advertising Hale's Hairspray — drat, we missed it. But we'll be back. If you can get us excited about a small-town theater production that doesn't include a single cast member we know (who hasn't sat through a dreadful show just because a fourth cousin once removed had a bit part?), you can guarantee it's gonna be good. From the setting to the sets to the dancing, singing, and acting, these people are real pros.

Theater Works

If you enjoy being mesmerized by action-packed adventures, wooed by wistful romances, or cracked up by side-splitting comedies on the big screen, imagine seeing it all happen in front of you — live and in person. There's no better place to experience it all than at the Peoria Center for the Performing Arts, in the heart of the city's downtown. The center is home to Theater Works, a theater company that thrills audiences with dramas, musicals, mysteries, and comedies. Patrons enjoy varied shows performed by talented actors in an intimate setting and against a backdrop of perfectly executed scenic design. Its simplicity is its genius. The seats in the smaller of the venue's two houses are basic banquet-style chairs, but elevated platforms make sure there isn't a bad seat in the house. With weekday matinees, dinner-and-theater packages, and complimentary coffee and desserts after the shows — along with affordable ticket prices — Theater Works is a must-visit.

Last year, we left Ballet Arizona's Topia with stars in our eyes. When the original piece by company artistic director Ib Andersen was announced to play again in 2013, we told anyone who'd listen that they had to see this beautiful ballet. This beautiful ballet that's performed in a parking lot. Yeah, a parking lot. On the perimeter of the Desert Botanical Garden, an empty lot holds the custom-made extra-wide stage on which our resident ballet bounds and pirouettes during one of the loveliest, most immersive dance performances we've ever witnessed. As the sun sets, the dancers take to the stage in fleshtone costumes, the Papago Buttes in the distance as their backdrop. Something happens, though, when the Beethoven turns up: The pavement's forgotten. You're under the sky, out in the desert, and you're part of Topia. Encore.

Irish Cultural Center

One of the last things anyone would expect to see in Sand Land — home of rocks, cactus, snakes, lizards, and more rocks — has to be a 12th-century Norman castle that looks as if it popped out of a picture book about Ireland. But damn if there isn't one on Central just north of Roosevelt Street near downtown. Well, a replica 12th-century Norman castle, anyway. Just so happens it's Phoenix's Irish Cultural Center, home to the McClelland Irish Library, which features 5,000 books on Irish history and culture, a 22-ton archway with stones imported from Ireland, a replica of an Irish cottage, and art exhibits such as one on Irish boxing or another on the Book of Kells. The site also plays home to the Irish Cultural and Learning Center, which sponsors classes in Gaelic, Irish dance, and Irish music, as well as concerts and other events. It's one of the few places in Phoenix where you can forget you're in Phoenix, as long as you're inside and the air conditioner is going full blast.

Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art

Portland artists made their own personalized deck of playing cards. Austin has a cupcake truck. In Los Angeles, you can't swing a dead cat without hitting an art installation. And Phoenix? We're just home to that grumpy cat. Around these parts, we have a tradition of spending way too much time complaining about what other cities have instead of making cool things happen for ourselves. That's changing, and Tania Katan's at the forefront. With a background as a playwright, actor, and book author (among her many credits), Katan has brought verve (and nerve) to the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art with several programs, most notably Lit Lounge. She mixes local and imported writers, gives them a theme, and puts them onstage at SMoCA each month, backed by live music and fronted by none other than the very entertaining Katan herself. The fact that she packed the almost 1,000-seat house across the breezeway at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts in May, in honor of Lit Lounge's one-year anniversary, is a testament to the fact that Lit Lounge is high-quality stuff — and that Phoenicians are soaking it up. Here's to another great year.

Cosanti Originals

You can drive more than an hour north of the Valley for a somewhat anticlimactic visit to Paolo Soleri's pie-in-the-sky Arcosanti, or you can pay homage to the late artist and visionary with a quick stop at Cosanti, his bronze bell factory tucked in the heart of Paradise Valley. Chances are, that's what Aunt Mildred from Michigan is after, anyway — one of Soleri's infamous wind chimes. All good. She can grab one or three, and you both can learn a bit about arcology and check out Soleri's original home, where he lived, worked, and died earlier this year.

If you veer slightly off the beaten path of First Friday in downtown Phoenix, you might run into Combine Studios, a new gallery located inside the former two-story Holgas building on Roosevelt Row. The building originally was a hotel in the '60s and '70s, fell into disrepair in the '80s, and was scooped up and turned into Holgas, a creative living space, by local artist Wayne Rainey in the late '90s. In 2012, local artist and fourth-generation farmer Matt Moore and his wife, local painter Carrie Marill, purchased the building from Rainey with big plans.

In months, the building became home to local creatives. Moore and Marill partnered up with ASU Art Museum to host visiting artists from around the globe, and though there's always plenty going on in the building's shared dining space, the real magic happens in the gallery. In its first year, Combine Studios was host to exhibitions by ASU art students, Italian artist Matteo Rubbi, Portuguese artist Miguel Palma, and American artist Christine Lee (to name a few). We can't wait to see who the gallery brings in next.

Lisa Sette Gallery
Andrew Pielage

When talking about the Scottsdale art scene, or the state of the art community in the state, it's impossible to leave Lisa Sette out of the conversation. The local tastemaker has a long history in the community — starting with a degree from Arizona State University and a gallery in her own living room during college. Sette's always been an art fanatic, but her passion's made a huge impact in Scottsdale, where she owns and operates Lisa Sette Gallery.

For decades, Sette has handpicked a roster of über-talented artists whom she represents and showcases to a loyal following and curious Scottsdale audience. More than two decades after opening her gallery, Sette has represented artists including Matthew Moore, Mayme Kratz, Julianne Swartz, Enrique Chagoya, Binh Danh, Angela Ellsworth, James Turrell, Anthony Velasquez, and Rachel Bess. A spot on her roster is a sure sign you've arrived.

Without illustrators, this world would be a lot less interesting. Illustrators speak in pictures and images — transforming written language into shapes and colors and translating sentences and stories into creative works of art. In February, designer and illustrator (and New Times contributor) Joshua Rhodes, who goes by Subtle Takeover, and wife/photographer Sarah Rhodes — together, they're known as Arrow and Apple — hosted an exhibition in their living room.

The show featured work by 10 Phoenix-based illustrators, including Aaron Nestor, Brock Lefferts, Doug Penick, Huilin Dai, Kelsey Dake, Rebecca Green, Mark Dudlik, Britteny Young, and Ricky Carrillo. The setting was casual and friendly and a great opportunity to drink a few PBRs and rub elbows with some seriously talented creatives — before it turned back into a living room.

Best Of Phoenix®

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