Entering the Temple Lounge is like stepping into a display of abandoned set props. A huge Buddhist-monk figure, leftover from the Arizona Theatre Company production of Hair, looms in a corner next to wall-to-wall windows.
Makeshift fixtures—including Victorian-era hats held up with wire and hula hoops—accompany other assorted items. And what makes the lounge truly inviting is the hodgepodge of seating possibilities, including squishy armchairs, colorful couches and one stray railroad-car booth.
On the second Saturday of six out of the next eight months, this eclectic venue will be the home of Café Bohemia, during which an audience is invited to hear new works read aloud—in front of those big windows—by some of the best local and national actors.
The playwright will be in attendance, too, watching it all unfold, getting a firsthand feel for an audience's reactions to the piece, and staying afterward to join in what is sure to be a lively conversation.
Café Bohemia is meant to be the opposite of formal theater; ATC associate artistic director Stephen Wrentmore describes Bohemia as "theater-light."
The plays Wrentmore has chosen for the Café Bohemia season include works that may face a rough time at the box office, "either because they deal with adult themes, or because they are exploring ideas that are controversial," he said.
Edwin Sanchez, the winner of ATC's 2011 National Latino Playwriting Award, was chosen as the first playwright to have his work read aloud at Bohemia.
"It's an extraordinary well-crafted play," Wrentmore said about Sanchez's La Bella Familia, "It plots brilliantly, and it is written like a thriller."
Sanchez describes La Bella Familia as a girl-meets-boy story. A Puerto Rican woman falls in love with a kind man, and together, they move—and discover they have hellish new neighbors.
"It's a woman who is surrounded by this world of violence before she was attracted to this very gentle man—who in turn is someone who really wants a family, and what this family needs is to create a family," Sanchez said.
Sanchez sees Café Bohemia as an important opportunity as he develops La Bella Familia.
"I want to hear the play and discover ways to make it fully fleshed-out. A reading is good, but you need to get to the next level and sort of gauge how the show comes across to find out what is really working."
Directing the reading is Jenny Bazzell, who is in her 10th season at ATC. Bazzell says "there is something wonderful" about taking an audience to a place usually visited by only people in her position.
"It is one of the most interesting, intellectually stimulating and really joyous opportunities for me to sit and look at the page and say, 'Where does this go from here?'" she said.
She said a play—whether it's enacted in a room at a reading, or produced on the main stage—is still a play.
"It's still ultimately about the story, and the journey and the characters at the heart of that," she said.
Wrentmore acknowledged that a play-reading series in and of itself is not a revolutionary thing, but that with Café Bohemia, he can encourage people to be excited about theater by allowing them to be a part of the experience at the grassroots level.
"And the grassroots means showing the bits that used to be secret," he said. "The combination of this space, with the possibility of getting a glass of a wine—and if you want to tweet about the experience as it's happening, then tweet away—means Café Bohemia is designed to be transparent, and it's designed to be an experience of dialogue."
There won't be costumes, sets or staging at Café Bohemia, but there will be the opportunity for the public to be involved in the play-development process.
"It's a wonderful opportunity to experience something that I suspect (most theater-goers) probably never have before," Wrentmore said.