jakub | February 15, 2024

AMERICAN THEATRE | Arizona Theatre Company’s 2-City Comeback

The Tucson Temple of Music and Art and the Tempe Center for the Arts.

With the grim smile of a battle-weary general, Geri Wright recalls the “clopening night” of The Legend of Georgia McBride at Arizona Theatre Company in March 2020. Expensive and already popular in previews, the show closed and opened on the same fateful night when Covid-19 demanded that ATC—like theatres all over the U.S. and the world—shut down.

Geri Wright.

It wasn’t until June 2023 that Georgia McBride, Matthew López’s comedy about an Elvis impersonator forced by circumstances to become a drag performer, was able to reopen at one of ATC’s two venues, in Tucson, with some of the original cast back. In the time between these two dates is a story of arts and business recovery for the company, which operates two venues in the Grand Canyon state (the other was in Phoenix, now relocated to Tempe). Things are going so well for the theatre, according to Wright and new artistic director Matt August, that the theatre is about to scale back up to LORT B designation and a five-play season, after two Covid years as LORT C.

It’s a remarkable turnaround for ATC, which had repeated near-death moments after the Great Recession, including an emergency fund-raising scare in 2016 and a series of succession troubles: 2017 was supposed to mark artistic director David Ira Goldstein’s final season after 26 years leading the theatre, but he had to stick around until a successor could be found. Then newly appointed artistic director David Ivers decamped after just one year in the job (lured away by a job at California’s South Coast Rep), and his successor, Sean Daniels, was at the helm from March 2019 until the fall of 2022, followed by Matt August.

ATC started in 1967 in Tucson, but in 1977, it brought Mark Lamos’s production of Equus for a run in a small theatre in Phoenix, a roughly-two-hour drive north. After a few seasons sharing productions in this ad hoc way, Goldstein said, “The people of Phoenix got more and more jealous of professional theatre in Tucson. By the time I arrived in 1988, Phoenix was a year away from their new downtown venue, and Tucson’s remodeled downtown space would open soon.”

By 1993-94, ATC shows ran for roughly equal times in Phoenix and in Tucson, and revenues also roughly evened out: While the percentage of contributions would be higher in the big Phoenix metro area, ticket sales were higher in Tucson. The theatre’s budget in those years ran between $6 million and $8 million, and the two-city math worked.

“What people don’t realize,” said Goldstein, “is that in a $6 million budget, the expenses in Phoenix are only $1 million more. We netted close to $2 million more by being in two cities; we got two bats with only one batter. We also got an extra round for revisions and rehearsal of new Steven Dietz plays, for example.” Even accounting for the extra cost of housing and transportation, and the expense of two sets of ground plans for set and lighting designers, the two-city plan was going well.

Before the giant losses of subscribers in the Covid disaster and the upheaval years of artistic director uncertainty, Goldstein said that programming for the second city was not even a challenge. Early on, audiences in the state capital may have craved more comedies and well-known fare than more adventurous Tucson audiences, but now Phoenix “is as cosmopolitan as any big city in the country. Not counting the 74,000 and more college students there, Maricopa County helps make the average age of Arizonans lower than Oregon.”

After the crises of the 2010s, the theatre was restabilizing by the time Wright became executive director in January 2020. But we all know what happened a few months later: a whole new level of crisis. Daniels, who had only started the year before, put his focus on new plays, both in his Covid-era digital offerings and his in-person programming after the shutdown began to ease.

Aaron Cammack and Tracy N. Bonner in “Intimate Apparel” at Arizona Theatre Company. (Photo by Tim Fuller)

Sitting in the theatre’s remodeled, 23,000-square-foot warehouse space in Tucson, Wright recalled of those bleak days, “I was not sure what we could even do. We all agreed the company could not continue without a new business model.” A major part of the restructure, she said, was in increasing the theatre’s board from around 10 to 21 members who could bring “financial and business management experience and belief in ATC—they could come from the moon for all I care.”

Also crucial: The board brought in Pat Engels as vice chair. A past board chair of Lake Tahoe Shakespeare and a former board member of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, Engels’s business background meant the theatre’s new structure would be more like the arts-business model of ATC in the years before Covid—but with even more emphasis on business. Engels, now president of the board, said the board now meets now six times a year to discuss programming and serve on governance, audit, and finance committees. Business aside, Engels said, “My passion is theatre,” calling ATC “a treasured institution that has to make it through this time.”

Federal relief money only lessened the pain of the pandemic shutdown. Recalling it as “the most difficult, agonizing, awful time in her life,” Wright said she made staffing cutbacks from about 120 regular and part-time people to 27. The staff is back up to around 80 part-time and regular employees, though some departments, including education, haven’t returned.

Matt August.

How about the two-city operation? ATC continues to mount shows at the Temple of Music and Art in Tucson, a 1927 theatre that Tucsonans demanded the city save for the acoustics and beauty of its Italian theatre design. While the city saved the theatre from becoming law offices, and charges ATC next to nothing, the theatre had to sell the Glenwood Hotel across the street, which it once owned and used for staff.

Meanwhile in Phoenix, ATC had been the headline reason for the city’s new downtown Herberger Theatre Center, built in 1988. In the last few decades, though, rental costs and downtown parking became even more difficult , and so, after months of negotiation, ATC now calls Tempe Center for the Arts its second home. Matt August calls their new theatre complex “glorious,” not least because it includes a studio theatre good for trying out new work and hosting ATC’s National Latine Playwriting Festival.

The question of challenging vs. familiar programming was raised by the first two plays August programmed for the 2023-24. While Daniels’s programming had made some older audiences cranky—for instance, the musical Justice, about groundbreaking Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Ketanji Brown Jackson reportedly made some feel they were being lectured to—August kicked off his first season with Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park and an adaptation of Leslie Bricusse’s Scrooge!. Was August reverting to safe choices? He bristled at the suggestion, pointing out the more resonant themes of the Neil Simon comedy. The rest of the season includes the currently running Intimate Apparel, Master Class, and True West.

And you can’t argue with success. Like many holiday offerings, Scrooge!—on which the theatre spent more than a third of this year’s budget—was a hit, and its high initial costs will be amortized into big savings over years as it becomes their annually updated holiday show. Barefoot also did strong business, and August and Wright both hope to return to the days of full houses and deep-pocketed donors. They believe they can bring their earned-to-donated-income ratio to 50/50—or even back to the days when ATC averaged closer to 60/40 in tickets vs. contributions. (Also favoring this scenario: Like many regional theatres, the new ATC has “leaned in” to raising ticket prices.)

As before, the Tucson-to-Tempe pipeline may be the key to the company’s success. Though the new Tempe space is smaller than the Herberger in downtown Phoenix, the drive is easy and the parking easier, and it gives ATC the chance to attract students from ASU and more diverse audiences, including suburban African Americans. With donors now behind the artistic director and his guest directors, something like the good old days for ATC may be here again.

Howard Allen is an actor, playwright, director, screenwriter, and literary manager/dramaturg, as well as a reporter, reviewer, and editor.

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