Is What It Is Theatre

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Tom Leveen, who co-founded the late, lamented Is What It Is Theatre is now the author of a string of best-selling books for young people.
Tom Leveen, who co-founded the late, lamented Is What It Is Theatre is now the author of a string of best-selling books for young people. (Photo by John Groseclose)



It’s been 60 years since Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland made a series of movies that involved putting on a show. Yet describe a new company as a “Mickey and Judy operation,” and almost everyone knows what you mean: a group of kids doing a play in a barn, an abandoned warehouse or some other unexpected location, usually with their allowances as their chief financial resource.

There you have Is What It Is Theatre — at least as it was six years ago.

In 1995, four Camelback High School graduates — Tom Leveen, Joel Artman, Diane Zeger and Matt Dixon — produced How to Decide What to Sell at Your Next Garage Sale in the Leveen family’s back yard.

Their audience was made up of family, friends and residents of thesurrounding neighborhood. The response was sufficiently favorable to keep the quartet producing. Today, Is What It Is Theatre is one of the Valley’s most prominent small companies.

There have been changes, particularly among the core group. Artman is in New York getting ready for his wedding. Zeger is in the Czech Republic studying at a Prague university. Dixon is pursuing other interests in Phoenix.

But Leveen soldiers on, producing and directing the troupe’s latest offering, A.R. Gurney’s comedy-drama What I Did Last Summer, which continues through Sept. 1 at the group’s home, the Studio One Performing Arts Center, 4520 E. Thomas Road.

Recently, the young artistic director showed up for breakfast at a Scottsdale restaurant. Pencil slim, bearded, with a hippie-style haircut, he looks as if he’s wandered in from a road-show production of Jesus Christ Superstar.

He also looks tired.

QUESTION: Now that your friends have moved on, is Is What It Is a one-man operation?

ANSWER: No, but I still end up doing a lot of the work. I miss Diane. She was one of those rare people who didn’t want to direct or be a star, she just wanted to help — and I haven’t found anyone who does it better.

Q: We have to ask. How did the company end up with that odd name?

A: It really came from Joel’s brother. He was an artist who didn’t like explaining what he did, so he would title his paintings It Is What It Is — A Garden, or something like that. We went through all the Saguaros, the Sonorans, the Camelbacks, looking for a name. Finally, we got tired of staying up nights, so we stole it.

Q: How did the four of you meet? You really were kids, weren’t you?

A: Diane was the youngest. She was 18, I think. Joel was the oldest, at 22. He, Matt and I were involved in theater at Camelback, and Diane was probably the most intelligent, most creative, most respected girl on campus. If you had something that needed doing, she was far and away the best person to have at your side.

Q: And you actually did your first show in a backyard?

A: My dad’s backyard. We didn’t sell tickets. We just told people to come if they wanted. We attracted 120 people over two nights. There was a reception after each show. Mom and Dad made the food. It was about as community as you could get.

Q: Obviously, the response was good.

A: It was crazy. I could see the set from my bedroom window, and every night I’d wonder, “Why are we doing this? We’re going to make great big jackasses of ourselves.” Opening night, Matt and I were doing tech for the show. We were behind a tree and couldn’t see anything. Finally, someone came and told us, “They stood up! They stood up!” That was probably the most exciting moment of my life.

Q: Did you expect to be around this long?

A: At the time, we had no idea what we were doing, so the answer to that, I guess, is “No.” To be honest, the company is a little bit self-serving. There are shows I want to direct, and it’s not likely anyone else in town is going to call me up and say, “Would you like to direct this for us?”

Q: What I Did Last Summer (the story of a boy’s coming of age in the waning days of World War II) isn’t your first play by A.R. Gurney. You’ve also done The Dining Room, Love Course and Sylvia. Gurney is widely regarded as the poet laureate of the upper middle class.

A: (laughing) Which is probably why a group of kids from Arcadia like to do his plays, right? There’s some truth to that. I did Summer in high school, and I had never done so little research on a character. I was 16. Charlie, the boy in the play, was 14 and a spoiled rotten brat. It wasn’t a big stretch.

Q: How about the other Gurney characters. Is there an empathy there?

A: Definitely. I think we (the company) know those people. But it’s more than that. Gurney takes you through the wringer emotionally, but even when the ending’s not particularly happy, he gives you hope, something to hang on to and take home when the show’s over.

Q: You’ve been quoted as saying The Dining Room was a definitive production for the company. Why?

A: It was our fourth show (after Garage Sale, The Forgotten Years and Bits and Pieces) and I think it was then that the company really took root. We accepted the fact that there was a future here if we wanted it.

Q: Is there a future, now that your partners have left?

A: We have a season planned: Orson Welles’ The War of the Worlds, Neil Simon’s The Gingerbread Lady, Tom Griffin’s Amateurs, and one still to be chosen. So, yes, I guess you can say we intend to stick around. — Kyle Lawson.


When I was a kid, I knew all about putting on a show.

I would round up my neighborhood pals, any parents who were free, a few dogs and the occasional pet turtle and it was “Hi-ho, Silver, away!”

It was all so … well, primitive comes to mind.

Kids today are more sophisticated. When Tom Leveen and his friends founded Is What It Is Theatre in Phoenix’s Arcadia neighborhood, they used Leveen’s back yard as a stage, but there were sound, lights, costumes, a script by Shakespeare … it really was a work of art.

Chris Danowski wasn’t quite so elaborate, but his productions for Theater in My Basement in Minneapolis were strikingly original, even avant garde, and the location represented a step up from grass stains and bug bites.

Both troupes have grown. Is What It Is now operates out of the Studio One Performing Arts Center on East Thomas Road and specializes in the classics and experimental work. Danowski, who moved his company to the Valley in 2001, has found a home at Modified Arts in the Roosevelt Street area of downtown Phoenix, where he raises the bar with pieces that blend the spoken word with visual and aural technologies.

Talk to the two men, though, and you still hear the echo of Mickey Rooney exhorting Judy Garland and the rest of the MGM gang to “Come on, kids, let’s put on a show.”

This week, the two theaters are involved in projects that are relatively rare in the Valley: They’re mounting new works by local playwrights. Is What It Is is staging Michael Peck’s Black, White & Read All Over, the story of a man struggling to raise the son of his murdered fiancee. Theater in My Basement is producing a staged reading of Danowski’s Cerdadote/Pig Priest, which recasts the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in contemporary terms.

Peck, scenic designer of Is What It Is since 1998, says there is a certain amount of autobiography in Black, White & Read All Over, although the details are fictional.

“I wrote the play with no conscious intention of having it produced,” he says. “It was really my way of dealing with some unfinished personal business and reflecting upon my relationship with my own step-father, who adopted me when I was 15.”

Leveen thought Peck’s first draft was ready to be showcased. During rehearsals, only a few changes were made, but one took the work to a new level: Mat Weddle was brought in to compose a musical score, the first time the company has used that technique. Peck was so impressed with Weddle’s music that he came up with a new character. The Guy Around the Corner is a street musician who plays the score live as an ironic counterpart to the hero’s struggles.

“At first, I just felt we owed it to ourselves and our audience to do things that challenge us on new levels,” the playwright says, “but I’ve fallen in love with the use of the music. I wouldn’t want to put this show up any other way.”

Danowski, too, is treading new ground, although he says Cerdadote is “not as complicated as some of my work” — then breaks into laughter.

“Well, it does operate on multiple levels of reality, as a metaphor of Internet online shopping infused with myth and multimedia — and puppets, too,” Danowski says — as if his public might have expected anything different.

Cerdadote is “a word I made up,” he continues. “The Spanish for ‘pig’ is cerdo and for ‘priest’ is sacerdote. The reason I was interested is that, to me, a pig is a symbol of excessive consumption and a priest is an intermediary for us between this world and the next. In my play, the cerdadote, or pig priest, ties together the online shoppers with the story of Orpheus and Eurydice and his struggle to save her from the underworld.”

“I’ve been having a lot of dreams lately about javelinas,” he says. (You never know whether he’s kidding.) “I’ve started a lot of projects having to do with pigs and abandoned them. This is the first one that’s come to fruition.”

If the connection between pigs, online shopping and Greek myth seems tenuous, Danowski says he’s using the play to “ask a lot of questions.”

“I’ve been thinking about the idea of consumption, the way we buy things — actually, the way I buy things. I’m concerned about how I’m spending my money.”

It’s possible, he concludes, that, like Eurydice, online shoppers may need to be rescued.

These are good times for Theater in My Basement.

“I’m not sure what’s happened,” Danowski says, “but things really have taken off for us. The word on the street seems to be that we’re a pretty good place to find interesting theater.”

The past few years haven’t been as good for Is What It Is, which only now is emerging from a fiscal crisis that almost destroyed it. Leveen left the company in 2003, feeling that it required a better businessman at the helm. In his absence, the company struggled, and the doors finally closed last year.

But the company’s staunch supporters wouldn’t accept that. After a “dark” period of eight months, a group of Is What It Is veterans mounted a production of The Boys Next Door and persuaded Leveen to return.

“We really did it just for old time’s sake, but we had a degree of success, so we’ve continued to stage some plays and produce a film festival,” Leveen says.

“We’ve gone back to how it used to be. We do a play whenever we feel like it, instead of having an annual season and all the pressures that go with that. We’re enjoying the process again and sharing it with the audience. It’s working for us. Based on advance reservations for Black, White & Read All Over, we’ll soon be in good financial shape again. You haven’t heard the last of us.”  — Kyle Lawson