By Laura Latzko
During COVID-19, the Arizona Theatre Company adapted similarly to other companies throughout the country. One way that it has done this is through a digital season with readings of works by emerging playwrights.
It will conclude its 2020 digital season on November 18 with a reading of Idris Goodwin’s “The Realness.”
The digital stream will be available for free on platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Vimeo, starting at 5 p.m. on opening night and then through the weekend.
This piece, which is being directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian, follows T.O., a man who moves from the suburbs to the city to immerse himself in ’90s hip-hop culture. He ends up falling for Prima, an emcee involved in the city’s hip-hop scene.
During the digital season, the company has also presented readings of works by York Walker, Wendy McLeod and Benjamin Benne.
Sean Daniels, artistic director for Arizona Theatre Company, says a digital platform opens up possibilities for showcasing works that do not fit into mainstage seasons, especially pieces geared toward specific communities or by up-and-coming playwrights.
He says the readings allow the company to support writers from different backgrounds and to start developing that connection with them.
“I’m interested in the relationship. I’m interested in the longtime support. All of these writers are writers we are excited about,” Daniels says.
The digital readings bring together actors from different parts of the country to perform together.
The online platforms allow audience members to interact with each other and provide feedback for the playwrights.
“When you are a writer, you sit alone in your apartment. You hope your writing connects with people. You only know how well it does by going through the crucible of a reading, by either hearing laughter or people writing in, ‘This part didn’t connect,’ or, ‘I’m confused about that,’” Daniels says.
Although the theater company plans to shift its focus to live theater soon, it will continue to incorporate digital readings and events into its repertoire going forward.
Daniels says some readings have drawn audiences of up to 24,000. He hopes to continue to connect with these audience members through digital content.
“We’ll keep in touch with those people and keep offering something for them. It just may be instead of doing it every three weeks, once every couple of months we may do something. We’ve essentially created a second space online. We can keep using that,” Daniels says.
Along with presenting the final reading in its digital series, the company is ramping up for its 54th mainstage season.
Starting in January, the company will begin performances at the Temple of Music and Art. The organization will kick off its Phoenix season at the Herberger Theater Center in February.
The company plans to present a mixture of more serious and comedic works.
It will open with a piece by Charissa Bertels, Christian Duhamel and Edward Bell called “My 80-Year-Old Boyfriend.” The show delves into an intergenerational friendship between a 20-something actress and an 80-year-old millionaire.
The company will also present:
• A piece by Lauren Gunderson about the friendship between Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg called “Justice A Musical.”
• A piece by Nina Simone that pays tribute to four girls who died during the 1963 KKK bombing in Alabama called “Four Women.”
• A comedy by Wendy McLeod called “Women in Jeopardy!” that follows a group of older women who become spies to solve a disappearance in their neighborhood.
• A play by Christopher Oscar Peña called “How to Make an American Son,” which explores the topics of status, privilege, sexual orientation, citizenship and family through the lens of a Honduran father and his first-generation American son.
• Matthew Lopez’s “The Legend of Georgia McBride,” a campy piece about an Elvis impersonator who finds a new career with the help of new drag queen friends.
Daniels says all of the shows have a common thread of exploring how people aren’t so different and can find common ground.
“For me, the thing that connects the season is a sense of looking for similarities and ways that we can come together,” Daniel says.
Daniels says that is has always been important for the theater company to bring pieces that are timely and that resonate with audiences in Arizona.
The shows will feature mixed casts of local and out-of-state actors as they have in the past.
The first three shows in the season will be musicals. Daniels says the season was programmed this way because audiences will be looking for an experience they can’t have while looking at a screen.
“When we come back, there’s going to be this feeling that we are celebrating what is theatrical. … You are going to want to see something that you can’t see on TV or Netflix or in a Zoom meeting,” Daniels says.
For the first time, the programming will go through the summer. Daniels says this offers new opportunities for people who live in Arizona year-round.
During the 2021 season, the company is offering opportunities to see limited-capacity live performances or watch videos of performances from home.
Patrons can expect a 25% capacity in the two theater spaces, increased sanitation and air filtering measures, and a requirement to wear masks during performances.
“We are making sure it’s safe for our audience but also that it’s safe for our artists that are coming to work for us,” Daniel says.
Despite changes to the season, the theater company is committed to bringing the same quality of shows as in the past.
Daniels grew up in Mesa and attended Arizona Theatre Company shows with his parents. He says that these experiences helped to shape him as a person, and he hopes to provide that for someone else.
“I was a kid whose life was influenced because the arts were available in Arizona. That’s a big part of what my mission in life now is—to make sure it continues,” Daniels says.