Why Alternative Theater Is Flourishing in Metro Phoenix

In the first scene of this three-act play — call it Who’s Afraid of Alternative Theater? or maybe Revenge of Master Ronald and the Boys — we find thespian game-changer Ron May standing in the dusty courtyard of a big, shiny, downtown playhouse. Circled by a small group of well-wishers, he is smoking a cigarette and rocking gently from side to side. May is not wearing a suit; he is not holding court on this opening night of the latest play he has directed. In blue jeans and shirtsleeves, he appears to be just another youngish theatergoer, chumming with friends at intermission. He does not look like someone who may have done something once thought impossible: elevating alternative theater in Phoenix. Making it past Year Three. Excelling. Selling out performances of shows with the word “fuck” in the title.

May’s stage manager approaches, and whispers something into his ear. “Okay,” May mutters. A moment later, the front door of the theater bangs open. “Ron!” barks the board president of Stray Cat Theatre, the company May founded 15 years ago. “Five minutes!” May stubs out his cigarette and heads into the venue past an expectant audience who’ve already been charmed by the first half of a complex and excellent homage to Chekhov.

“You can’t predict what people are going to like,” May had admitted a few days before. “You get in there and you have a hit and the question is ‘Is this ever going to happen again?’ It’s theater, and it’s Phoenix, and at any moment the rug could be pulled out from under us.”

That rug appears to be firmly nailed into place these days, for May and a handful of likeminded colleagues: Damon Dering of Nearly Naked Theatre and Christopher Haines and Rosemary Close of iTheatre Collaborative, specifically. This quadrangle, a pair of best friends and a husband-and-wife team, have beaten the artistic odds in Phoenix in recent years. Their trio of theaters produce the kind of plays once referred to, with no apology, as “avant garde.” Other small companies have come and gone over the past several decades, sometimes lasting only a season or two, particularly those that dared to present anything risky or risqué. If people were barely buying tickets to the latest Equity production of Guys and Dolls, the thinking went, how could we expect them to pony up for something called Poona the Fuckdog, presented in an abandoned warehouse in the shady part of town?

But just lately, things are changing in the Valley for what we used to call “alternative theater.” Ticket sales are steady, or climbing. Critics’ reviews of alt theater productions are consistently more positive. Prize-winning East Coast playwrights have been heard to ask Phoenix’s former underdog theaters to please debut their latest plays. Small companies that have traditionally resided in what Dering refers to as “those filthy little electrocution boxes that were all we could afford” are taking up residence in the city’s best professional theater venues.

Why now? A recent National Endowment for the Arts report claims that nationally, theater ticket sales are 6 percent lower than they were a decade ago. Yet our small, local companies, who routinely bring us work by provocative young playwrights — plays in which naked people appear, in which topical issues are discussed over coffee, and women exchange the occasional tongue kiss — are thriving.

It doesn’t hurt that theater is suddenly everywhere: over here, the cast of Hamilton on the Grammys, over there, another cosplay convention, arguably a form of theater itself in which people dress as their favorite fictional characters. The Tonys, once television’s biggest award show bomb, is hosted by TV sitcom stars and rivals the Oscars for primetime ratings. Jennifer Lawrence tweets “#IloveTevye!” and the next seven performances of the Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof sell out.

“Theater is like sushi,” says Stray Cat board president Brooke Unverferth. “For a long time, a lot of Americans were like, ‘Raw fish? Um, no!’ Now, sushi is a cuisine that’s cool. And everyone likes to be cool.” 

If social media has raised awareness of theater in general, then cable television, with its more adult fare, has also punched up alt theater’s appeal. After armchair viewings of vampire massacres on American Horror Story or Lena Dunham masturbating on Girls, we’re less likely to be shocked by an in-the-buff Frankenstein’s monster over at Nearly Naked.

But when David Ira Goldstein ponders why alt theater may have come into its own, he mentions neither sushi nor TV shows. The longtime artistic director of Arizona Theatre Company says the secret is in how one defines alternative theater. “What we consider alternative here is mainstream in New York City,” Goldstein says. “In the truest sense, we don’t have alternative theater here in Phoenix. We’re not seeing Richard Maxwell plays. This play, Stupid Fucking Bird, started out in mainstream theaters. What we’re really seeing is a flowering of diverse voices and styles, here and everywhere. It’s the quality of what’s being done by small companies like Stray Cat or Nearly Naked that’s changed.”

Contemporary audiences are interested in new and more stimulating plays, Goldstein says. “Because we’re the big guy,” he says of ATC, the state’s largest professional theater, “we get first dibs on plays. But more and more, I’m getting calls from rights houses saying, ‘There’s this little theater in Tucson that wants to do this play. Will you release the rights, please?’”

“Things are changing,” agrees Mollie Jo Kellogg, an actress who’s often mentioned as a founder of local alt theater. “Big theaters are doing plays about transgendered people; little theaters that do risky stuff are moving into big professional spaces. The whole idea of alternative theater is sort of vanishing. Today, if you wanted to do something really alternative, you’d have to have Nearly Naked do a straight production of Hello, Dolly!

In an Act Two flashback sequence set in Chicago (the playbill might read “A hospital room in the Illinois Bible Belt, mid-winter, 1994”), we see a 20-something Ron May seated beside the deathbed of an old woman. He turns to the audience and announces, “I went to school for acting. But I was a fat kid, which meant I was a character actor who would probably never get cast. So I went into social work for a while. I was a psychosocial worker in nursing homes. And after listening to a lot of dying people tell me, ‘I shouldn’t have listened when they said I’d never be a ballerina,’ I figured I should at least try to be an actor. If I sucked, I’d get to find out.”

At the College of DuPage, a community college in Glen EllynIllinois, May had his own “You’ll never be a ballerina” moment when a professor told him he should consider focusing on directing. “I thought she was trying to tell me I was a shitty actor,” he remembers. “I was kind of insulted.”

The setting of our story may be Phoenix, but one cannot overlook Chicago. That toddling  town figures here, an unseen, offstage presence looming over this desert melodrama. It’s Captain Ahab’s Pequod in this story, or perhaps, too obviously, it’s Herman Hesse’s Magic Theater, where one’s fantasies become onstage reality. May came to us from Chicago, as did Grease, a raunchy musical about teen troublemakers before it became a sterile middle-school staple. It likewise birthed the Organic Theatre Company, from which sprang David Mamet premieres and collaborative writing productions overseen by an as-yet-unknown Joe Mantegna, including E/R Emergency Room (later reimagined as a television monster) and Bleacher Bums, eventually a TV movie and community theater essential; and the legendary Steppenwolf theater, the jewel in Chi-town’s crown, founded in 1974, whose ensemble includes Gary Sinise, Joan Allen, and John Malkovich.

“Chicago theater is very ensemble-driven,” May explains. “When we first started Stray Cat, that was the model I wanted to emulate.”

May came to Arizona in 1995 to study with Tony-nominated director Marshall Mason, then teaching at ASU. “Marshall fucking Mason!” May says today. “His name got me to move to Arizona. The plan was to come here, study under this genius, and head back to Chicago to do theater there.” Instead, May met an exciting group of like-minded people who convinced him to stay. The journeyman director corralled his new thespian friends, borrowed a theater space, and in November of 2001 launched Stray Cat with John C. Russell’s Stupid Kids, an unqualified hit for the company.

The troupe’s first season included Laurel Haines’ The Dianalogues (in which Mother Teresa complains that Lady Diana’s death overshadowed her own) and Moisés Kaufman’s The Laramie Project, about the 1998 murder of gay student Matthew Shepard. Plays by David Lindsay Abaire and a Greek tragedy version of the film Fatal Attraction followed, and in its seventh season, Stray Cat hit its stride with a pair of smash hits: Columbinus, a collaborative piece inspired by the 1999 massacre at Colorado’s Columbine High School, and A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant, which found children performing songs about L. Ron Hubbard and “going clear,” which received rave reviews. 

In 2007, May and company took up residence in the Tempe Performing Arts Center, where they stayed until last year. By then, the company had racked up a pile of hits.

Stray Cat’s superpower, Unverferth says, is Ron May. “He can see things other people can’t,” Unverferth believes. When May presented Annie Baker’s The Flick in 2013, some of his board were scratching their heads; several months later, Baker’s play was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for drama. 

“He can read a play and see something new, but also what an audience will like,” Unverferth continues. “I read Stupid Fucking Bird and thought, ‘This is nice, but maybe a little too smart.’ Ron read it and went, ‘I love this, people will get this, I’m gonna do it!’ And everyone is loving it.”

“I started out looking for hard R-rated shows that were as in-your-face as possible,” May explains. “Back then, our average audience was in their 20s. Now they’re in their 30s and early 40s. In order to grow with them, I needed to shift the company’s focus without changing its mission. Now I’m looking for plays that are more than just provocative. And, you know, as a result we’re also getting a lot of open-minded older people, too.”

Jean LaShelle is one of those open-minded older people. LaShelle, a retiree who began attending Stray Cat shows after seeing the company’s 2014 production of The Whale, attended the opening-night performance of Stray Cat’s Stupid Fucking Bird. In the playbill, she spotted a full-page ad for Wonderland Wives, Nearly Naked’s next show. “Now, see?” she said to her companion, pointing to the ad, which depicts Snow White lifting her skirt past her mostly-naked derriere. “I see this and I think, ‘That looks like soft-core porn. I’m not going to go see that.’ But then I remember The Whale, and I think, ‘Maybe I should start going to Nearly Naked plays.’”

The Whale is often mentioned as a game-changer in local alternative theater, both by theatergoers and the people who make plays for them. Directed by May for Stray Cat’s 2013-2014 season, the play starred Dering as a morbidly obese, dying man attempting to reconcile with his daughter. Critics went nuts for the production; KBAQ’s typically guarded Chris Curcio called Dering’s performance “marvelous” and praised May’s “masterful staging.” Ticket sales soared.

The Whale busted Stray Cat’s box office in its 12th season. But the year before, its star, Dering, had produced a remount of Peter Shaffer’s 1973 drama Equus as part of Nearly Naked’s 14th season. Its sold-out performances and nonstop adulation from regional critics marked the real turning point in alt theater, according to Curcio.

“We’d certainly had alternative plays that did well before,” Curcio says. “Every once in a while some little company would do something that people who go to traditional theater would notice and want to go see. But this was a real moment in time, for Damon and for theater here locally.”

The year before, Nearly Naked had staged another unheard-of coup when it collaborated with Phoenix Theatre, easily the most conservative professional theater in town. Dering and Robert Kolby Harper co-directed Spring Awakening, Steven Sater’s rock musical about teen sexuality, on a stage more accustomed to retreads of Gypsy and Man of La Mancha. It was a partnership that sounded like a joke that went, “Who are the last two theater companies on earth you’d expect to find in bed together?” The punch line was a signpost of good things to come for alternative theater.

Dering tends to discourage talk about who did what first. Point out that he was the first to bridge the bedrock between mainstream and alternative theater audiences, and he’ll likely say something in praise of May. “Well, Ron did a collaboration last year, and it was with a bigger company,” he’ll tell you, referring to Stray Cat’s boffo partnership with Arizona Theatre Company on Laura Eason’s randy Sex with Strangers. Mention that Nearly Naked is the only alt theater resident at a local Equity house (the company performs out of Phoenix Theatre’s Hardes Playhouse), and he again demurs. “In Mixed Company was there before we were,” he’ll remind you. “I heard IMCO was closing, and I practically ran to the theater to ask if we could take their place.”

Dering is clearly Ron May’s costar in this story. He refers to his and May’s professional friendship as a “sisterhood.” They eschew competition for cross-promotion, reserving free full-page ads for one another in their playbills and touting one another’s work in curtain speeches. “It’s too easy to compete, or try to be rivals,” says Dering, who was raised in small-town Jerome. “It’s not my style, and it’s not Ron’s, either.”

Like May, Dering was inspired by the deaths of others who hadn’t achieved their creative dreams. Also like May, he worried about being the fat kid who never got cast.

“Right out of college, I had a big, character actor’s body, but I didn’t have a character actor’s age yet,” he sighs. “While I was auditioning, three of my friends died. They were all young and talented and healthy. And I thought, ‘What am I doing? I said I was going to own a theater company before I was 30!’” Dering cashed his 1999 tax return and used the money to mount the Arizona premiere of Michele Marc Bouchard’s Lilies.

More premieres followed — gorgeous plays that no other company dared to touch, including critical hits with Joe Calarco’s Shakespeare’s R&J and Take Me Out, the sexy baseball story by Richard Greenberg. After the 2013 remount of Equus, which the company had successfully produced 10 years before, everything changed.

“The mayor came to Equus,” Dering says. “We had full houses every night. The critics loved it. And I kept thinking about how everyone begged me not to do it, the first time. They were saying I’d kill my company, no one would come see this play about a crazy boy with a religious obsession. I kept saying, ‘I don’t care. I have to do this play.’ I did it, and everything changed.”

The Act Three curtain rises on longtime leading man John Sankovich, wearing a bespoke suit and brandishing a foot-long cigarette holder. “We would have been lynched in 1962 if we had tried to do the stuff they get to do today,” he bellows in a silky baritone that needs no amplification. 

Back then, alt theater was all the rage in big cities, but Phoenix playhouses mostly dabbled. For a few years in the late 1960s, Actors Inner Circle did Pinter and Sophocles and Jean Anouilh’s The Waltz of the Toreadors, sometimes featuring a young actor named Nick Nolte. Circle 16 Playhouse offered longhair versions of plays by Edna St. Vincent Millay and William Saroyan. Arizona Repertory Theater tried mixing Noel Coward and Maxim Gorky plays with a Volpone featuring Broadway actor Victor Thorley. None of these were what other big cities would call experimental and, by the 1970s, avant-garde theater was beginning to feel faddish, anyway.

“There might be little experimental one-acts at ASU,” Sankovich says. “If you wanted alternative theater, you went to New York and off-off-Broadway. Here, it was Neil Simon and Charley’s Aunt, all the time.”

For a while, Tom Oldendick ran a black box at Phoenix Little Theatre, into which he snuck the odd Charles Busch comedy. But alt theater’s long hiatus didn’t really end until the mid-90s, with work from In Mixed Company, a troupe that camped out in Phoenix Theatre’s children’s playhouse in between productions of Winnie the Pooh. In the late ’90s, a troupe calling itself Blackball Ensemble surfaced briefly with a production of David Greenspan’s Dead Mother, while not far away the Ensemble Theater was offering Christopher Durang’s staccato monologues, a novelty in the desert. 

Later, the financially beleaguered and now-defunct Actors Theatre edged close to alt borders with productions such as Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) and Edward Albee’s The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? By then, the foundation for today’s alternative theater, everyone pretty much agrees, had already been cemented by Planet Earth Multicultural Theatre, a surrealist company that worked out of a bombed-out warehouse in what is now Roosevelt Row. The company’s founders, Peter James Cirino and Mollie Jo Kellogg, were married at the time and determined to turn live theater on its head. They succeeded, for about five years beginning in 1992, with a voodoo-themed Medea, a post-modern The Tempest, and an overtly gay take on Christopher Marlowe’s Edward the Second.

May and Dering and Haines all worked at Planet Earth, as did most anyone the Cirinos could get their hands on. “We had no money,” recalls Kellogg, now a successful portrait painter in northern California. “We had to get creative, and we had friends who worked hard. We made some amazing theater, but even creative geniuses have to pay the rent.”

There were others, all of them now long gone: Ensemble Theatre Company, Is What it Is, Feast of Fools, Chyro Arts. “If we had stayed, we’d be gone, too,” Kellogg admits. “That building got torn down, and we wouldn’t have been able to afford any other place. It was already hard enough to get people to come see what we had done to The House of Bernarda Alba.”

Even as recently as 2000, when Sankovich appeared in Quills, a play about the Marquis de Sade produced by In Mixed Company, it was tough to get butts in seats. But then, all at once, Nearly Naked, iTheatre, and Stray Cat pulled ahead, made it past the 10-year mark. Haines reports that iTheatre broke even last year — good news for any small company. The troupe’s permanent residency at the Herberger Theater Center, the city’s premier performance venue, signals yet another shift in the credibility of alt theater.

Stray Cat is also headed for a larger sandbox. Its move to the upscale Tempe Center for the Arts in June will mean a higher profile and a genuine marketing budget, courtesy of the venue, for its shows. Other perks include better seats and guaranteed parking. “And, you know, there’ll be a bar,” May jokes. 

There will also be more overhead, Unverferth amends. Stray Cat, Nearly Naked, and iTheatre are all nonprofit companies, and all rely on grants. “But our grants cover about 10 percent of our expenses, which are about to go way up.” she admits. “Our ticket sales are really good right now, but it’s still scary. No matter where you are, theater is always an uphill battle.”

Near the end of our little melodrama, we find Ron May sitting in a darkened theater, watching a tech rehearsal of Stupid Fucking Bird. Up on the stage, in a play within a play within an imaginary play, the actor Phillip Herrington is performing a monologue by Aaron Posner about why new forms of theater are important.

“We need new kinds of theater!” Herrington hollers. “New forms! I mean, fuck, do you have any idea what’s passing itself off as theater these days? Christ, what they’re doing to Shakespeare these days to make him accessible! And the tiny, tepid, clever-y, clever-y, clever-y little plays that are being produced by terrified theaters just trying to keep ancient Jews and gay men and retired academics and a few random others who did plays in high school trickling in their doors … Good Christ, we need new forms, new passion, new ideas — something real, you know? Something real! Or what the fuck’s the point?”

In the dark, Ron May leans quietly closer to his companion, his eyes still on the stage. “Wanna grab dinner after this?” he whispers.

“Yes,” she replies. “How about sushi?”