Arizona Theatre Company's Tale of Two Cities
One theatre company, two theatres—that’s not too unusual, but when the two theatres are over a hundred miles apart, the problems can be more pronounced than when they are just across a lobby from each other. After all, as David A. Cap, the production manager of the Arizona Theatre Company points out, “If you left something back in the shop, it’s a two hour drive back to get it.”
Cap heads the team behind the scenes for the State Theatre of Arizona, a company that began in the traditional mode as a single-city, single-theatre operation in Tucson in 1967, and which became a LORT company in 1972. But as the 1980s dawned, they began thinking of splitting time between Tucson and the State Capitol of Phoenix. As managing director Kevin E. Moore tells it, “We were in the early planning stages when we were approached to be the tenant company in a new hall which became the Herbergre Theater Center.”
Today, they perform in the 623-seat Temple of Music and Art in Tucson, with its continental-style seating and the Center Stage Theatre in the Herberger Theatre Center in Phoenix which seats 801 with 436 in the orchestra and 328 in the balcony.
Having a hand in planning the new facility made it possible to make the two theatres at least compatible from a technical standpoint. However, since the Herberger was to be a road house hosting touring companies as well as the shows of the Arizona Theatre Company, there were sure to be differences. Most of them turned out in the front of the house and the proscenium and forestage dimensions. Cap says, “Tucson is smaller than Phoenix, and since we start most of the shows in Tucson, we know that if it fits there it is going to fit in Phoenix.”
All the company’s shop facilities are in Tucson. “We’ve had a very stable crew with no turnover in the past five years or so,” says Cap, adding that “they can spot problems since they know the spaces so well.” This is important when working with out-of-town designers who may not have seen both spaces. “We even have a line on the Tucson stage plot that shows the Phoenix fly line,” Cap says. The goal is to have a show “truck-ready” when it goes up in Tucson so it can then be driven to Phoenix with few problems.
With scenic, prop, and costume shops in Tucson, the company’s skill at creating truck-ready shows has become a specialty. Joint productions can be created in Tucson and then trucked not only to their own theatre in Phoenix, but to the houses of co-producing partners. For example Ella started at the Arizona Theatre Company and then, with sets, costumes, and props in a single trailer, went off to partner theatres San Jose Repertory, Cleveland Play House, and Asolo Repertory in Florida. It can work the other way around as well. Backwards in High Heels will start at the Asolo before making the same circuit next season.
“Sometimes we find that we are in the enviable situation of having a truck-ready version of a play that is getting considerable interest around the country,” says Cap, who points to 2 Pianos, 4 Hands and Souvenir as recent examples. “We like to work with out of town designers. I like to have at least one new designer in each discipline each year just to keep us fresh and give us new things to learn.” He says it means that they have to work with them early, “be very alert to potential problems” and “talk everything out well in advance.”
With all shops and storage in Tucson, Moore says, “Typically, we build and rehearse there, open for previews for a week and then a full two week run. Then we truck it all to Phoenix, have a couple of previews for shake down purposes and then a two-and-a-half week run there. There are times when we have shows playing in both cities. Indeed, sometimes its two shows on and one in rehearsal.”
Moore adds, “We are the only two-city LORT company. I get calls every once in a while from one of the other LORTs who are considering doing something similar. We try to give them as much information as possible ... We are almost like two companies, since we have two administrative staffs, and as a result our overhead is higher than for some other LORTs. Programming has become a really difficult area as the two cities evolve. They used to be pretty similar and our audiences at each had similar needs, but Phoenix is becoming a much younger city than most people realize, and Tucson is still an older audience.”
Moore says that “thus far, no one has decided to be as crazy as we are.” Cap points out that, for a while, the company actually was a three-house one. “We tried programming at a new Performing Arts Center in Mesa, but ended up deciding we weren’t quite that crazy. So we’re back to two.”