After several months of production hiatus and an administrative makeover, Beowulf Alley Theatre is switching off the ghost light and illuminating the stage with a new show, Marie Jones' Stones in His Pockets. The Irish comedy has won several awards since its premiere in 1999, and it garnered three Tony nominations in 2001.
Last spring, insufficient fundraising led the theater's board to let go of two employees--including artistic director and founder Stephen Elton, who has since gotten a theater job near San Diego--and assign operational supervision to committees. "It's a model that's been used successfully by theaters all over the country," says board member Mike Sultzbach.
Even so, the board jumped at the chance to reinstate Beth Dell as day-to-day operations manager when a donor came forward in July to fund the position, and within a year or two, it hopes to have an artistic director back in place. First, though, the board intends to craft a new strategic plan--which could take several months--and do some heavy-duty fundraising with the help of additional board members with ties to the business community. "Our goal is to do a good job of fundraising in the next year or so, so we can get back to having an artistic director," Sultzbach says.
"Right now, we're creating a strategic plan, and we're re-evaluating everything--our mission statement, everything. Once we have that set, everything else falls into place."
Meanwhile, Beowulf Alley's artistic-development committee (made up of actors, directors, playwrights and technical people) solicited project proposals from local directors; the results will constitute the remainder of this season.
"The benefit of having that committee is that everybody has some input into how to be able to produce these plays," says Sultzbach.
"We're trying to continue in the same vein as before, filling a niche we don't think was being filled in town. On the East Coast, they'd be considered off-Broadway plays: good plays, but ones that don't have a huge commercial appeal. We'll still do that, but we may broaden the season a little bit to get people into the theater, (to) see what we're doing and want to come back."
Beowulf Alley isn't the only thing returning to the public eye with this production. Locally based English actor Jonathan Northover, fed up with local theater politics, had gotten out of showbiz for a year, but Stones in His Pockets has lured him back to the stage.
"I like very complex ideas that we all relate to that are expressed in working-class ways," he says. "This is a very charming play in that sense."
Stones in His Pockets is a satire about two down-on-their-luck Irishmen (is there any other kind in the theater?) who are cast as extras in a Hollywood movie being shot in rural Ireland. At first, they enjoy getting paid well for doing practically nothing, but disillusion grows as flamboyant Hollywood denizens trample the village, and a tragic event swerves the play in a new direction.
This is the third attempt in as many years to get this play on the boards in Tucson. First, Northover was asked to read for a role in a production being considered by Borderlands Theater, but that never came to pass. Beowulf Alley intended to open its 2006-2007 season with it, but ran into a snag getting the rights. The third try seems to be the charm, although the production is coming into being under less-than-ideal circumstances for Northover.
"The Beowulf Alley committee needed to get its first play up and running," says Northover. "It was sort of last-minute, trying to get this together, and they called me in to get it started."
The story involves 15 characters, all of whom are played by Northover and Matthew Copley. "I don't think it would be nearly as interesting casting 15 different actors," says director Susan Arnold. "But we have to make it not be a play about actors changing character."
Arnold says that it can be a challenge not to let some of the lesser characters fall into caricature. "You have to make a distinction, and do it quickly," she says.
According to Northover, "You don't have time to think. You have to be."
Looking at the broader issue of what sort of play this really is, Arnold remarks that one of the play's originators described the work as a drama in which funny things happen. Arnold says she's not approaching it as either specifically a comedy or a drama. "I'm approaching it as a story," she says simply, "being as honest as possible with each of these characters. It'll be funny sometimes, and serious other times.
"Comedy is a great vehicle for getting political ideas across. It took me four readings to get that. The first readings, I just laughed a lot."
Says Northover, "You vitally need a three-way chemistry between the two actors and the director. You don't realize until you start how difficult this play really is."