‘Theater for Anybody’

By Laura Latzko

Theater companies often stay around by being versatile and keeping with the times. This is what the Gaslight Theatre has done to stay relevant in Tucson.

During its upcoming season, the company will present comedic melodramas that are funny, heartwarming and relevant.

The 2020 season will follow a similar format as previous seasons, including western, fantasy and holiday shows.

Heather Stricker—who handles media relations and PR for Gaslight and is also an opening actress, general manager and concert booker—says the company offers something for people of all ages.

“The No. 1 thing that makes us so successful is we are theater for anybody,” Stricker says.

“There isn’t a demographic who wouldn’t enjoy the shows here because they are funny and because we don’t take ourselves too seriously.”

The company usually puts on five shows each year, as well as concerts at its Tucson and Oro Valley locations. Audience members can not only see a show but get a bite to eat and something to drink. Each table has popcorn, and the theater is attached to a diner and pizza shop.

Anyone celebrating a special occasion, such as a birthday, graduation or anniversary, receives ice cream. The company also tries to make the experience interactive by offering cutouts of past shows and a photo op.

Gaslight recently expanded its adult beverage options to include cocktails, beer and wine.

On stage this coming year, Gaslight will open with the new western production “Showdown in Tucson” and close with its holiday production “A Smalltown Christmas.”

A number of company’s shows, including “Buccaneers of the Caribbean,” “Henry Potter” and “Ghostblasters,” are spoofs of popular films or TV shows.

The storylines and characters are often adapted but retain essential elements that audiences expect. The production of “Ghostblasters,” for example, will feature two men and a woman in the lead roles. The shows often incorporate songs from different decades or parodies of popular songs.

Some productions, including “Showdown in Tucson,” take place in Arizona and present Southwest characters, scenery and costumes.

All of the shows are written, cast and directed by Peter Van Slyke, who stays up on trends to prepare for upcoming seasons.

“He’ll research what movies are going to be coming out in the next year or if there’s anything in pop culture that’s significant,” Stricker says.

Each production relies on the expertise of a talented creative team, which includes musical director Linda Ackermann, set designer Tom Benson, choreographer Katherine Byrnes and costume designer Renee Cloutier.

All of the costumes and sets are made in-house. A live band adds to the quality of the performances.

Along with its mainstage shows, the company presents olios, a term used to describe vaudeville-style variety acts with music, dance and/or comedy. In the spring, the company will present a “Friends”-inspired olio. In the past, the company has done “The Brady Bunch,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “The Gong Show” and musical superstars olios. The olios often have Easter eggs, including ongoing jokes, for longtime Gaslight fans.

“A lot of people say the olios are their favorite part of the night because they are so excited to see what crazy thing is going to happen, what jokes are going to be told, what musical will be featured,” Stricker says.

Some audience members have been attending shows since the beginning. Stricker says company members often get to know these devoted followers.

“Our clientele, they are kind of like family. We know so many of them by name when we see them because they come so often, and they bring their out-of-town guests during the holidays, and they do their corporate parties here,” Stricker says.

The theater company’s history in Tucson dates back to 1977 when CEO and owner Tony Terry, a former UA student, and a group of friends created it after trying unsuccessfully to do theater in Alaska.

Gaslight’s productions were initially presented in a barn at Trail Dust Town, but they soon outgrew that space. It has moved several times.

The company’s current saloon-style theater is located at Broadway and Kolb, at a former Jerry Lewis theater.

Over the years, the actors have helped to make the theater company successful.

Many of Gaslight’s actors have been with the company for a decade or more, and some have an even longer tenure of 20 to 30 years. Stricker started with the company in 2000 as a UA student and performed with Gaslight even after moving to New York for a period of time. She returned to Arizona in 2013.

“It’s one of those dream jobs. Once you get it, you don’t want to let it go,” Stricker says.

The company holds auditions four times a year and regularly brings in emerging actors, who often start out in swing roles.

The actors are from Shakespearean acting, opera, standup comedy, musical theater, straight play and pop music backgrounds and range in age from 18 to their 60s.

“We all come as audience members and fall in love with it usually that way. Because of that, we’ve all ended up there,” Stricker says.

Throughout the season, actors stay busy, often rehearsing for one show while performing in another. The company has three days of tech between each show.

Armen Dirtadian, the leading man in the upcoming production of “Showdown in Tucson,” has worked with the company for more than 35 years. He has also acted with Arizona Theatre Company. 

Over the years, he has played different heroes and villains with Gaslight. It all started with his portrayal of a pirate king. He comes from a musical family and growing up, he did theater and speech team.

When he started with Gaslight, it only had piano accompaniment and floor mics. As technology has gotten more advanced, the shows have also evolved.

There were also no understudies, so actors performed in all of the shows. He says because of this, he has grown as an actor.

“You learn by doing it. That’s one of the ways you can learn. It was absolutely great for me to be on the stage every night,” Dirtadian says.