Tuesday, March 8, 2016

A conversation with the cast and creative team behind A/C Theatre Company's NOW. HERE. THIS.

by Gil Benbrook

The newest theatre company in the Valley, A/C Theatre Company, made a splash last Fall with their production of Murder Ballad. They are following up that show with the Arizona premiere of Now. Here. This. - the latest musical from the people who created the audience favorite [title of show] - which opens this Friday.

Like [title of show], Now. Here. This. is an autobiographical piece. Hunter Bell, Susan Blackwell, Heidi Blickenstaff and Jeff Bowen are the original stars of both shows and they played versions of themselves in both musicals, with their actual experiences incorporated into the stories and songs.  For the A/C Theatre Company production, Tracy Payne Black, Brenda Foley, Kevin Fenderson and Micah DeShazer play the quartet of friends under the direction by Thomas Strawser.

Now. Here. This. is set in a museum where the exhibits that a group of four friends encounter are the launch pad for the stories and songs that portray their past experiences. The title of the show refers to getting into the present moment - the intersection of the Now, the Here, and the This - in order to fully appreciate your life. 

I had the chance to ask some questions of the cast and creative team from this A/C  production during rehearsals.

Kevin Fenderson
Kevin Fenderson (Man 1):

Kevin, what made you want to audition for Now. Here. This.?

"Back in July, I auditioned (once again) for The Voice. After being rejected, my high school drama teacher, Susan Newton, sent me a very heartfelt message. In it, she encouraged me to reignite the theatrical spark she remembers me for. I took that to heart, and began looking for opportunities, but nothing really jumped out at me. One day, I just happened to see the post on A/C Theatre Company's Facebook page regarding auditions for Now. Here. This., and said to myself 'OK. Give it a shot. The worst that can happen is you don't get the part.' So I auditioned, nerves going crazy, and here we are!"

The big theme of this musical is about finding the  present moment - the now, the here and the this - in order to fully appreciate life. What is one thing you strive to do in order to fully appreciate your life?

"The biggest thing I strive to do, is surround myself with music, art, and people who impact me in a positive way. "

Do you have a favorite moment in the show?

"Of course, my answer is going to be 'The whole darn thing!,' but I especially love when we go through and share embarrassing stories of things that have happened to us in our past. They may not all be exact moments that every single person can relate to, but we've all had those super embarrassing moments. And that's what I love about this show: There's something in it everyone can relate to!"

Tracy Payne Black
Tracy Payne Black (Woman 1):

Tracy, Now. Here. This. was written by the same team behind [title of show]. The team writes very autobiographical pieces, choosing to play themselves rather than other characters. As an actor, how do you find the balance between playing Susan Blackwell (the original woman 1) and Tracy Payne Black?

"Thomas has directed us to portray these characters as extensions of ourselves. In no way am I attempting to emanate or imitate the real Susan, but rather I am finding emotional common ground between the Susan in the script and myself. There are several aspects of Susan that I can relate to, especially with regard to keeping incessantly busy, or feeling like her creative ambitions are thwarted by her looks, her upbringing, or the need to pay her monthly mortgage. So, while I am playing Susan, I can assess and confront the similar issues facing Tracy in the Now. Here. This. reality."

Do you have a favorite moment in the show?

"Golden Palace is a story that Susan shares during the second half of the show with the assistance of the other three actors portraying characters in a series of memory moments. Without giving too much away, I will just say that the story creates both a poignant and empowering moment in the show for Susan as well as the cast of actors, and hopefully for the audience as well. It is also a vulnerable moment for me as an actor."

You were just in another show that also featured a quartet of actors – I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change at Theater Works. How has this experience compared to that one?

"I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change is essentially an old hat for me. Due to the comedic, farce-like nature of the show, and having performed it three times prior, all with other actors who have also performed the show before, some of us with each other, and all who for the most part I had already established relationships with made the experience nothing less than an extremely obnoxious good time. In addition, we basically walked into rehearsals off book and only had to learn some elemental choreography and new blocking. From a genre standpoint, Now. Here. This. is the antithesis of that show, a moment of musical truth-telling, presenting me with a responsibility to be honest and authentic. In addition, I am meeting my fellow actors for the first time, and I am tackling an unfamiliar script made difficult by a plethora of choreographed musical numbers that transform suddenly into dialogue and back again. Lest we also not forget the responsibility to A/C Theatre Company’s inaugural season and their continued success. To quote another musical, I am both excited and scared. However, I am in great company surrounded by a group of dedicated and focused artists. This plus the uplifting message of this show is nothing less than inspiring."

Micah DeShazer
Micah DeShazer (Man 2):

Micah, a predominant theme in the show is finding the elusive present moment. As a busy, working actor, do you find it difficult to "live in the now"? How do you find that place?

"Living in the now is a challenge and a beauty. It is also quite rare. We live in a world that is built on memories and driven by the ideas of the future so choosing to really revel in the moment is somewhat of an anomaly. I do find it difficult but I also believe that any moment in time where you choose to simply let go of preoccupied thoughts and immerse yourself in what you love or surround yourself with who you love. Things get a whole lot better. You are here. I am here. In this moment, together. Revel in that."

The Creative team for Now. Here. This. based the stories and songs in the show on their own personal experiences. During rehearsals for this production have you thought of any of your own past experiences that you think would make a really knock out song or story?

"I do find quite a few moments with every show I'm in where I connect with a line or character choice. For this particular show I tend to relate with my characters fantasy state of mind in an off handed way. I think a pretty pivotal song or scene could be made out of any of my post high school life moments. You're 20s really change you. I'm still very much in the midst of them and won't share specifics but you all probably know what I mean when I say they truly are the best and worst years of your life."

Do you have a favorite moment in the show?

"My favorite moment in the show is the tail end of 'Then Comes You.' Where we all, in the midst of performing such a beautiful number for the people, take the time to look within ourselves and connect by simply holding hands, letting each individual know, 'I am here with you.. It's okay.' We all need that from time to time."

Brenda Foley
Brenda Foley (Woman 2):

Brenda, you've worked quite a bit at Mesa Encore Theatre, the oldest, continuously operating community theatre in Arizona. What made you want to work for one of the newest operating community theatres in Arizona?    

"When I'm choosing projects, I look at several factors.  First, what show is it and will it challenge me and push me to grow?  I actually think I covered that at length in the Q&A I did with you last year, Gil!  Second, who's directing?  Third, the theatre company and its reputation.  At this point, I've been in the Valley long enough that I see patterns that I find a little disheartening.  One of those is the willingness to spend money, often a LOT of money, on scenic elements and costumes, and none or little on the performers.  I look at this as paying for things and not people, and it pains me.  As an AEA professional, I have worked with several smaller semi-professional and 'community' theatres in this region to get put on a union contract, and I am moving more in the direction of only working with theatres who pay stipends to all of their actors, as well as musicians and crew.  Tracy Liz Miller and I are working very hard to create a professional theatre company with The Bridge Initiative, and we are building slowly, but we paid every participant, onstage and off, (except for a handful of student interns and volunteers) last June, and I think that's important.  From conversations with its founders and having seen Murder Ballad last summer, A/C shares my values in working towards a sustainable professional theatre scene in Phoenix, and I am proud to be working with them. I should add that I find the terms 'professional' and 'community' very misleading in this market... at this point, I consider 'community' to be the theatres that don't pay and 'professional' or maybe 'semi-professional' the ones that do... It's one of my pet peeves around here..."

Do you have a favorite moment in the show?

"We have just started to run the show so this will probably continue to change, but I love many moments.  There's a sequence called 'The Golden Palace' that is stunning and Tracy's delivery is so simple and gorgeous.  I think Kevin's rendition of 'Kick Me in the Ass' is sung so deliciously I could hear it over and over and over and never tire.  Micah is charming and hilarious throughout - but I particularly adore his snail/turtle joke because, and my husband Brian Foley would vouch for this, it's a joke I would tell.  And I also love 'This Time' - it's beautiful music and a sing unlike any I've done, sitting in a different register from where I usually live, so it both terrifies and electrifies me."

This musical is set in a museum where the exhibits in the museum spur stories and songs from the character's lives. What type of museum would best portray your past? 

"Wow.  Probably some kind of art museum.  It would need to be colorful and eclectic.  Full of warmth and love though - I've been very blessed in my life and haven't had to endure too much hardship, lucky lady that I am.  It would need to include some of the Impressionists - I've always been drawn to that movement  - my father raised me on Monet, Manet, Renoir, Chagall... Though pastels and that dreamy sense is only one piece of me, and it would definitely need to move through to more post-impressionist work like Van Gogh - I find 'Starry Night' hard to top and so evocative of how I see the world.  We might need to throw in some Picasso and Matisse to exemplify bold strokes and quirky, upside-down life choices that I make sometimes.  And I also am brought to my knees by Pollack - the chaos and order simultaneously speak to me in a way I can't articulate.  You know, I was dreading this question when you first asked it but thinking through it, it was actually fun!"

Thomas Strawser (Director):

Now. Here. This. is not typical musical theatre faire. What can audience members expect from this piece?

"They can expect to see a lot of themselves in this show. The moments that the characters go through in the musical are ones we have all experienced, or are still experiencing, or will experience. Moments of confusion, regret, insight, judgment, embarrassment, and then how we handle (or don't handle) these moments based on the person we currently are. Audiences will find this production deeply personal and extremely intimate."

Is it challenging directing a piece that is so unconventional in structure and theme? How do you overcome those challenges?

"Memory plays are always challenging. We jump memory to memory with no real linear plot other than the fact that each memory happens (or is recollected) within a single trip to a museum. But you pick out the words or phrases that spark a memory and bring them to the forefront so the audience will be able to join in on the stream of consciousness that is taking place."

Kim Richard (Artistic Director):

What made A/C Theatre Company select Now. Here. This. for their second ever production?

"We really wanted to pick a show with artistic integrity that had never been produced in the valley. Our inaugural show, Murder Ballad, was a thematically dark rock musical and we wanted to choose something that contrasted that. Now. Here. This. is a very unique and nontraditional piece, but it's full of very relatable moments and themes that we felt a broad audience would be able to connect with. It's a great show for bridging that gap between alternative and commercial theatre audiences. Additionally, we thought it was a great vehicle to showcase some of the incredible local talent we have in here in Phoenix."

What sets A/CTC apart from other theatre companies? What we can expect to see next from you?

"There are a lot of amazing theatre companies in the valley and we feel very fortunate to be a part of this arts community. Obviously, as a new company, we have a lot of growing to do and a lot of hard work ahead of us, but it's all very exciting. We're focusing on contemporary stage musicals underrepresented in Phoenix. That alone sets us apart from the majority of musical theatre being produced in the Valley; we are really looking for special shows that audiences in Phoenix haven't had the chance to see. We've also made it one of our goals to work exclusively with local artists, on and off stage. We have such a wealth of diverse talent here, and it's important to us that we're providing opportunities for growth and exploration to help make Phoenix a more sustainable place for working artists. We're also working very hard on our community outreach by partnering with various local businesses, like Urban Beans CafĂ©, and by participating in community events, such as AIDS Walk Arizona. Every show, we donate 10% of our SUPPORT LOCAL THEATRE t-shirt sales to a different nonprofit organization that’s making a difference in the Valley. This show, we’ve chosen Best Buddies Arizona, an incredible organization that offers really amazing summer arts programs for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Being out in the community is so important if we want to have a thriving arts scene in Phoenix. If we're going to cultivate support and find new patrons to fill the seats, we have to demonstrate the importance of the arts in the community by being active and giving back. As far as what we have coming up next, we can’t ruin the surprise, but you can bet we’re going to be producing high quality work that is new and exciting, for artists and audiences alike."

CLICK HERE to purchase tickets for Now. Here. This. playing March 11th to March 26th at the Hardes Theatre at Phoenix Theatre 

Photo Credit: Laura Durant; Show Poster: MASC Designs; Photo Design: Christi Dace

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