Nathan Christensen wants the audience to speak up at The Matinee Show, the vaudeville-style production that's the first effort of his Seven Lively Arts company.
He got what he wished for at just the second performance, staged last week.
In Act II, following the script, actor Micah Bond asked audience members to share something about themselves. A 60-something man walked onto the stage and faced his fellow theater-goers. He was distraught, and it took him a moment to find his voice.
"I lost my 25-year-old son five weeks ago," he finally said. "I didn't think I could laugh anymore."
The audience sat stunned.
"But today, I laughed again." Then he turned and hugged Bond.
"This is why we perform," the 19-year-old Bond told him, speaking extemporaneously. "Performance is connection."
If Christensen hadn't counted on something so profound happening onstage, he was nevertheless moved.
"Part of what makes this show exciting is that we don't know what will happen," he said at a coffee shop the next day. "We're still learning what this show is and what it will be."
Christensen recently left the Tucson Weekly after a two-year stint as a theater critic to start up his own production company, Seven Lively Arts. The troupe takes its name from an old theater idea that the lowest arts—vaudeville and broad comedy—are as valid as the high arts of music and drama. And one of Christensen's most heartfelt goals is to use that wide range of arts to provide theater-goers with the kind of engagement they can't get from movies or TV.
"I'm fascinated by the way theater works that's different from film," Christensen said, "the ability for the cast and audience to interact, for a give-and-take. When you watch a movie, you watch someone else."
A longtime student of theater, Christensen is "obsessed with vaudeville," the old-timey live-action stage shows that featured music, dancing, comedy, skits and plenty of catcalls from the audience.
The Matinee Show, to be staged every Thursday afternoon through July 28, has a vaudeville structure—and the "cheesy" aesthetic of 1950s TV variety shows. Three young actors, Bond, Anthony Keech and Rebecca Sweet, perform in comedy sketches that Christensen has written to accommodate their particular skills. (Keech is a wiz at voicing Donald Duck.)
Each week, live musicians play in between the skits; on May 26, Oliver Blaylock and Paul Wright of the band The Missing Parts turned in assorted folksy tunes on violin and guitar, respectively. And every week, a different guest from the community takes to the stage for a 10-minute interview with Bond. Last week, a lively Marilyn Cresci of the Red Hat Society led a dozen Red Hatters in a conga line onstage, while the audience played "When the Saints Go Marching In" on kazoos.
Door prizes are distributed at the end of the show. There's even some Shakespeare, with Bond doing a credible Hamlet soliloquy while sporting a red clown nose.
"It's a challenge to create something that feels spontaneous," Christensen said of the mostly scripted show. "I thought it was going to be improv, but my director, Megan Mioduski, said improv is 'harder than you think.' It takes a lot of skill to make something rehearsed look spontaneous, and she was the one who helped the actors reach that point."
Christensen, 34, grew up in Oklahoma and studied at Brigham Young University before going on a church mission to Korea. He started out as a music major, but wandered into a theater class and "discovered theater was more fun."
After graduation, he went to New York University for a master's in musical theater writing. Besides accumulating $90,000 in loans, he studied with "amazing Broadway writers," including Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (Ragtime and Seussical) and William Finn, and gained entrée into the New York theater world.
A couple of lines Christensen wrote made it into Finn's 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. More importantly, he and writing partner Scott Murphy, winners of a Richard Rodgers Award and a Jonathan Larson Award, got a commission to write a musical based on the Lois Lowry young adult novel The Giver. Their play made it into a showcase in New York last fall, and this summer, it will be given staged readings at five different theaters around the county. One is considering promoting the project to a workshop, which Christensen explained is "halfway between a reading and a production."
He's hopeful that the play one day will actually be staged, but he tempered his optimism with the old saying, "You can make a killing in theater, but you can't make a living."
Christensen has long dreamed of starting his own production company, but he was stymied by the harsh economics of the Big Apple theater scene. Two years ago, he came to Tucson to study in the entrepreneurship program at the UA's Eller College of Management, with hopes of learning how to apply an entrepreneurial perspective to the theater biz and "finding a new way to produce theater."
He'd love to create a performing-arts center in a warehouse, with rehearsal and performing space for small theater companies (including his own), circus arts groups and the like. For six months, he worked on the business plan until a professor told him that a "vast chasm of money" separated him from his goal.
"He suggested I do the part of the plan that doesn't require money. That's what I'm doing with The Matinee Show."
Christensen may not be paying for that dreamed-of warehouse, but he's still paying rent at the Comedy Playhouse and paying his performers. Nevertheless, he's following the old business saw of trying to figure out what people need and then giving it to them. He's hoping his comic variety show is just the ticket for active retirees looking for a fun, nostalgic show in the slow summer season.
"I'd like The Matinee Show to become a tradition," he said, with three different productions, staged three times a year.
Meantime, for the fall, he's already planning to take theater to parties in people's homes, intimate settings almost guaranteed to trigger interactions between players and audiences. He's targeted an old comic script by Henry Fielding, author of Tom Jones, as his first home show, and he's already shortened it and "clarified" the 18th-century language.
He's also hoping to find ways to unify the many theater companies in town, "to pool publicity" and possibly to collaborate on projects.
"For right now," he said, "I feel Tucson is where I'm supposed to be."