25 Highlights from 30 Years

By Kyle Lawson, The Arizona Republic, Oct. 15, 2006

In the past 30 years, Valley theater has changed dramatically. Old companies disappeared and new ones stepped into the spotlight. Actors came, made their mark and left or, in some happy cases, stayed to become local favorites. Here are 25 highlights from the changing playbill.

1 1976 Producer Mark Edelman founds Theater League, an organization that ultimately will produce a Broadway series in Phoenix and Mesa, as well as in several other U.S. cities.

2 1977 David Saar founds Childsplay, which he staffs with a group of Arizona State University actors. Today, the company is considered one of the best, if not the best, theater for young audiences in the nation. As for those actors? Most of them are still there, part of an acting ensemble that’s as highly regarded as the company itself. (Saar will retire in 2015, bringing an era to an end.)

3 1978 Arizona Civic Theatre, founded in Tucson in 1967 by Sandy Rosenthal, begins presenting a few of its productions in Phoenix. The following year, it changes its name to Arizona Theatre Company.

4 1980 Tom Oldendick arrives to take over Phoenix Theatre, founded in 1920 and the state’s oldest stage institution. In his 12-year-reign, he moves the company out of its community-theater status into the beginnings of a professional organization. He also gains a reputation for producing new and controversial plays.

5 1981 Actress Jan Rothman and her husband, producer Jerry Sickler, found Actors Lab Arizona, a Scottsdale company that is fondly remembered as one of the best theater producers in Valley history. During her run as the company’s artistic director, Rothman proves herself to be an outstanding director of American classics. The company closes in the mid-1990s.

6 1982 Ron Newcomer founds Musical Theatre of Arizona, which becomes the pre-eminent local producer of Broadway-style musicals. The company closes in the mid-1990s.

7 1983 Arizona Theatre Company begins staging a full season in Phoenix. In 2004, it adds Mesa to the list, becoming the first American regional theater to produce in three cities. (The Mesa operation is short-lived, but ATC is still going strong here and in Tucson.)

8 1985 Janet Arnold founds the Arizona Jewish Theatre Company, which specializes in works with Jewish themes or by Jewish authors. The prize-winning troupe is still thriving with Arnold still in charge.  (The company closed several years ago.)

9 1986 A group of stage artists forms Actors Theatre of Phoenix to provide work for local performers. The company, now known as Actors Theatre, is generally regarded as the Valley’s most important troupe after Arizona Theatre Company. It moved to the Herberger Theater Center in 1989. (The company ultimately left the Herberger, then closed in 2014.)

10 1987 Kathy Fitzgerald makes her debut in Niteclub Confidential at Actors Lab Arizona. She becomes the town’s biggest stage personality, then moves on to Broadway in Swinging on a Star, Wicked, 9 to 5 and The Producers.

11 1988 Actors Lab Arizona opens Six Women With Brain Death, or Inquiring Minds Want to Know, a feminist revue that becomes one of the longest running and most influential productions in Valley history. Later, Actors Lab introduces Nunsense, netting the company another long-run hit.

12 1989 The Herberger Theater Center opens in downtown Phoenix. The two-theater complex serves as home of Arizona Theatre Company, Actors Theatre, Childsplay and Center Dance Ensemble, and hosts productions by Arizona Jewish Theatre Company, Black Theatre Troupe, iTheatre Collaborative, Theater League and Valley Youth Theatre.

13 1989-90 After a season of dour productions sours theatergoers, Arizona Theatre Company announces it must raise $1 million in a short period of time or close its doors. The campaign is successful and the company remains in good financial health.

14 1990 Marshall Mason, the director who co-founded New York’s legendary Circle Repertory Company and advanced the careers of Lanford Wilson, William Hurt, Jeff Daniels and many others, directs a new play, Whispers of the Mind, at Arizona State University. He must like the way he’s treated because he later becomes a member of the ASU theater faculty.

15 1990 Jim O’Connell is forced out as director of ASU Public Events, after it’s revealed that he provided financial support to Musical Theatre of Arizona to help the group produce its shows at Gammage Auditorium. A later audit finds nothing illegal in O’Connell’s actions, but ASU demands MTA pay back $600,000. The company eventually closes its doors.

16 1991 A number of Valley theater companies form an association to honor outstanding achievements in theater arts. First known as the Zony Awards, a threatening letter from the Sony Corp. forces a name change to the ariZoni Awards.

17 1991 The now defunct Mill Avenue Theatre in Tempe opens Guv, a spoof of Arizona politics that runs for months and spawns a couple of sequels.

18 1992 Planet Earth Multi-Cultural Theatre opens with a production of Lorca’s Blood Wedding. Artistic director Peter Cirino and then-wife actress Mollie Kellogg turn the funky industrial space into a hotbed of alternative theater, providing a home for In Mixed Company, Feast of Fools, Blackball Ensemble and other significant counterculture organizations. (The company lost no time in turning the town on its ear with explicit nudity and graphic sex. Not even today’s Stray Cat Theatre and Nearly Naked Theatre go to the extremes that were commonplace at Planet Earth.)

19 1992 Helen Mason steps down after 21 years of guiding the Black Theatre Troupe. The former social worker founded the company in 1971, during a time when rioting was tearing apart American cities. She felt that theater was a healthy way of keeping young Blacks off the streets, but the company grew into an adult troupe that, today, ranks as one of the best African-American theaters in the nation.

20 1992 Colleen Jennings-Roggensack takes the reins at ASU’s Gammage Auditorium, where she turns its Broadway series into one of the most financially lucrative stops on the national-tour circuit. The first appearance of The Phantom of the Opera earns more than $10 million at the box office, a record later topped by The Lion King and Wicked.

21 1994 In Mixed Company opens with a production of Unidentified Human Remains or the Unknown Nature of Love and rapidly becomes the Valley’s most important alternative-theater company. The troupe closes in 2001, primarily due to burnout on the part of its principals, most of whom also work for Childsplay.

22 1997 David Wo dies at his desk at Peoria’s Theater Works. The 45-year-old producer-director founded the company in the mid-1980s and quickly turned it into the area’s most critically acclaimed community theater. He’s best known for his Arizona premieres of works by Stephen Sondheim, whom he idolized.

23 2001 Planet Earth Theatre (which has dropped Multi-Cultural from its titles) closes after being found in violation of Phoenix fire codes. The Valley’s first golden age of alternative theater comes to an end. (Sadly, the building, with its locally famous mural exterior, was later razed.)

24 2001 Director-performers Ron May and Benjamin Monrad launch Stray Cat Theatre, which, with Nearly Naked Theatre Company (founded in 1999 by actor-director Damon Dering), brings on the second golden age of local alternative theater.

25 2005 The Mesa Arts Center opens at a cost of nearly $100 million, providing the Valley with four new theaters and a home for Southwest Shakespeare Company and other arts organizations.