Actors Lab Arizona


The worst disaster to befall Valley theater in my years as critic here.

In 1991, Paul Braun of the New Times wrote an excellent piece on the troubles facing Actors Lab Arizona, a company that had an incalculable influence on Valley theater. The subsequent closing of Actors Lab was, in my opinion, the single greatest blow to local theater in my 30-plus years here. But that was in the future when this article was written:

By Paul Braun
Just when we thought the people at Actors Lab Arizona were going to change their name to the Six Women With Brain Death–or Expiring Minds Want to Know Theatre Company, they closed their long-running revival of their biggest hit ever. But they announced–you guessed it–another revival. This time it’s a rehash of ALAB’s 1985 hit The 1940’s Radio Hour, and the news set us wondering, “Why?”

Well, it doesn’t take a Rhodes scholar to figure this one out. Theaters need to sell tickets to keep their doors open, and Radio Hour, a proven commodity laden with Americana and holiday nostalgia, promises to be an almost certain box office–if not critical–success. If last Friday’s opening-night performance is any indication, it should do fine.

Let’s face it. Everybody’s in the market for crowd-pleasers, and ALAB has a very special talent for finding them and doing them well, as Six Women’s broken records and Nunsense’s ariZoni awards can attest. Long runs like these are great audience-builders because the fare is light enough to bring in first-time playgoers. Besides, who in his right mind is going to close a show that’s doing land-office business?

Yes, ALAB has the right touch with comic-book and candy plays, but when, where and how does serious theater enter the picture? It’s no secret that art is not selling a lot of tickets these days, so how can art and cash flow be made to co-exist?

Until recently, ALAB honchos Jan and Jerry Sickler thought they had discovered the perfect solution. In their former two-stage complex at Scottsdale’s old Farmers Market, they milked a succession of long-running cash cows (Nunsense, then Six Women) and wisely funneled the proceeds into a second season of what Jan calls “nitty-gritty” plays: contemporary works like Laughing Wild and Three Ways Home that offered audiences a chance to broaden their dramatic horizons. In addition, ALAB operated an acting school for youngsters and adults, conducted an extensive outreach program of touring shows for schoolchildren in Arizona and New Mexico, and participated in the Arizona Commission on the Arts’ Artists in Schools program.

However, all that activity was brought to a halt last October, as ALAB was forced out of its Farmers Market location when its lease ran out and the owners of the property announced their plans to turn the place into a disco. More disappointing still, a permanent home at Scottsdale Galleria was not going to materialize. Developers of Scottsdale Galleria had originally planned their project to include a theatre for which ALAB would be the primary tenant. Later the developers changed their minds in favor of an IMAX theatre, leaving ALAB out in the cold. To soften the blow, Galleria developers agreed to pay 4 percent of their gross take to the city of Scottsdale to help put ALAB under a new roof.

In the meantime, thanks to the Westcor Partners who operate Scottsdale Fashion Square, ALAB has taken up temporary residence in an unleased retail space on the mall. Though a shopping mall is not the first place you’d look for a theatre, it does turn out to be a surprisingly convenient spot. Last Friday, I was able to do some Christmas shopping, have a bite of dinner and see The 1940’s Radio Hour and only had to park my car once. But, ALAB again faces another deadline in the form of a maximum one-year lease. What’s more, the mall location offers no possibility for a second stage and no space to conduct educational programs or rehearse traveling shows.

In fact, Jan Sickler pointed out that ALAB is able to conduct only “about 25 percent” of the group’s total operation. In any event, ALAB faces yet another move in the very near future.

There is one possible solution to ALAB’s troubles on the horizon. Jan Sickler says there have been extensive discussions with the city of Scottsdale about securing historic Loloma School on Marshall Way and renovating it to make a place for ALAB. Funding, however, is a serious stumbling block for this project, and the city has not been successful thus far in finding public or private monies to take any of this past the talking stage.

More complications entered the picture when the city announced that it intended to move the Scottsdale Artists School–another group whose location is slated for redevelopment–into the Loloma property along with ALAB. According to ALAB and SAS, these plans were concocted by the city without consulting either party, and each has said that this arrangement would leave its group without sufficient elbow room to operate effectively.

Neither Jan Sickler nor SAS’ executive director Ann Morrow is happy to seem to be vying for the same space, but Sickler insists that there are no villains at all in this particular piece. Still, with time running out on its Fashion Square lease and Scottsdale no closer to getting the Loloma School project off the ground, Jan Sickler is becoming less and less optimistic about her group’s future. Her summation: “Something has to shape up, or we’ve had it.”

No doubt ALAB’s peripatetic past, present and future have helped create the group’s reliance on tried-and-true pieces like Radio Hour, but there’s no getting around the fact that the group can do these plays better than anyone else.