Last week, a half-dozen black-clad Hispanic actors stood on the Beowulf Alley stage, giving a reading of Gavin Kayner's Noche de los Muertos.
It was a departure for Beowulf Alley in many ways: opening a workshop to the public in preparation for a premiere, later this season, of a local play requiring a Latino cast, something otherwise found almost exclusively at Borderlands Theater. Every element of that sentence represents something new for Beowulf Alley Theatre.
It's a house that nearly closed in the summer of 2007 during a financial crisis that shed the company of its artistic director. To cope, the board started some serious brainstorming about fundraising and audience development, and assigned artistic direction to a committee that solicited production proposals from directors in the community.
Beowulf Alley is still operating with an undisclosed deficit; the tax form it filed late last year shows that, for the season ending in June 2007, the company spent nearly $38,000 more than it took in, a serious but not necessarily fatal figure for an organization with annual expenses approaching $200,000.
"We had a choice last year: Close the doors, or continue," says board member Mike Sultzbach, who heads Beowulf Alley's artistic committee. The closure would have been temporary while the company tried to get its finances in order, but the board decided that going dark would lead audiences and potential donors to assume that the company had permanently folded. So it proceeded with a season cobbled together mainly from proposals by local directors.
"The process worked, but it wasn't as efficient as it could be," Sultzbach admits. "We learned pretty quickly some things we could do better."
Lessons learned, the company is continuing with that system through this season, and by January, it will already have assembled a schedule for 2009-10. After that, says Sultzbach, the company may be able to hire an artistic director again.
"The advantage to the way we're doing it now is that directors submit plays they're passionate about directing," Sultzbach says. "The hard part for the theater is, out of these submissions, how do we make a season out of them? It's easier to control the theater's artistic vision if you have an artistic director who selects the plays and then finds the directors and casts."
The board's big concern right now, Sultzbach says, is to build the company's audience, so the coming season offers more well-known plays than in the past. Noche de los Muertos, the new play by Tucsonan Gavin Kayner, will run in November, but before that, opening Sept. 27, comes an old chestnut, Wait Until Dark, which enjoyed a popular film adaptation 40 years ago, with Audrey Hepburn playing a blind woman fending off a home invasion led by a memorably creepy Alan Arkin.
Director Dave Sewell pitched Wait Until Dark, because he felt it had popular appeal, yet was one of the better examples of the stage thriller, with truly three-dimensional characters. Noche de los Muertos, on the other hand, is something that the artistic committee decided to mount as part of its mission to present more daring and unusual material; for this, the group recruited director Sheldon Metz, a recent transplant from Los Angeles who had already sold them on a production of the Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning Proof for April.
Both Sewell and Metz, who have run their own companies, seem relieved to be able to direct plays they believe in without having to micromanage every element of the show and the theater's administration.
Metz, for example, threw himself into 96 Los Angeles productions through the course of 47 years, while also producing events in Las Vegas. "I directed plays, designed and built sets, even stepped into some roles for a weekend," he says. "Here, most of that is pretty much done for me. I'm designing the set for Proof, but I don't have to build it and do the lights and worry about the politics of the theater and fundraising. Here, I just get to direct a show."
Sewell adds, "It's nice not having to worry about all those other elements, like I did when I was working with the Tucson Theatre Ensemble. Now, I can just be excited about being entrusted with a chunk of the Beowulf season."
It's Sultzbach's committee that has to piece together the total season and assemble a design team, while building the audience and donor base. To that end, the theater is relying more heavily than usual on known quantities: Wait Until Dark, Proof and, in January, another Pulitzer winner, Dinner With Friends. "They're all solid plays," says Sultzbach. "They've all been on Broadway, and all three had movies made out of them. We knew we were dealing with good, solid material."
The other two productions, in contrast, are efforts to reach out to different audiences. Kayner's Noche de los Muertos focuses on an intense church-versus-state conflict toward the end of the Mexican revolutionary period in the town of Magdalena, not too far south of the border. It's a rare opportunity to showcase Hispanic performers (including the remarkable Angelica Rodenbeck, who isn't cast nearly as often as she deserves simply because her Spanish accent is a bit too strong) and demonstrates a commitment to new work amid the more familiar fare. In February will come 3 Guys in Drag Selling Their Stuff, for which nobody involved makes any great intellectual claims. Sultzbach says it's "come in, have a good time and leave," but also the sort of thing that could attract an alternative (unspoken word: gay) audience, some of which might be inspired to check out other Beowulf productions.
Additionally, the company is developing acting and technical workshops, a readers' theater series and a youth-oriented late-night series, plus, next summer, classes for kids.
"The mission is to open this place up to the artistic community of Tucson," Sultzbach says. "We don't want it to be this little ensemble of the same actors and directors all the time; we want to make the Tucson community of artists feel like this is the place they want to come to. Whether we'll be 100 percent on all of these projects this year remains to be seen. As our programs generate revenue for us, and our fundraising increases, which will give us more flexibility, we'll be able to enhance those programs.
"As excited as I am when I look back and see what we've accomplished in the past year, I'm even more excited as we move forward. In another year or two, this place will really be dynamic."