Thursday, August 4, 2016

A conversation with Andrea McFeely, Artistic Director of the Tuscany Theatre Company

by Gil Benbrook

Tuscany Theatre Company is one of the newest companies in the Valley. Their 2016 – 2017 season includes some interesting selections. Opening next week is Tom Stoppard’s award winning, but challenging and rarely produced, play Arcadia. That is followed by the Tony winning Best Musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood - another show that isn’t produced that often, and another somewhat challenging one in that it involves plenty of audience participation, including having the audience vote for the killer of Drood. 

They follow that in the Spring with a new play, for younger actors, You and I, as well as a New Works Festival that, instead of just accepting completed works, will pair works in progress with mentors and directors. 

I had the chance to talk to Andrea McFeely, the Artistic Director of Tuscany Theatre Company, to ask her some questions on how the company started, the challenges of being a new theatre company and how the New Works Festival came about.

Andrea, I guess the perfect opening question is, how did the Tuscany Theatre Company start?

"Have you ever seen the old American Playhouse adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s short story, “Who Am I This Time?”  It features that small town theatre club, I think it was the Wig and Mask Society, one that perhaps only exists in fiction, where folks of varying talent come together for the fun, the joy of staging a production. And an audience shows up!  That image, that idea, has tickled my brain and heart for many years.  Marcus Ellsworth, who at the time was the Executive Director of Actor’s Youth Theatre, Cheri Lundgreen, our General Manager, and I met to bounce around some ideas for using the Tuscany Theatre stage during the quiet month of August.  Out of that conversation came the idea to try a non-youth production.  We thought we would use some of the older youth performers, some of the recently “aged-out” performers, and encourage local talent and families to get involved."

Marcus Ellsworth in The 39 Steps
photo: Lisa Webb/Southwest Shots Photography
What was your first production?

"The 39 Steps!  It seemed like a natural choice for a show that was going to be staged with virtually no budget.  It wasn’t, of course - it was actually quite challenging!  But we had many volunteers and a can-do spirit and I think we created an entertaining version of it.  We had a wonderful bunch of young people from AYT come out and crew the show, the clowns were played by two young men who had recently started college, another young man designed and built the set, a friend volunteered to do the costumes.  Even Marcus got in on it and performed."

Sounds exactly like the "Wig and Mask Society!" Your 2016 – 2017 season includes some interesting selections. First up you have Tom Stoppard’s award winning play Arcadia, which is a challenging drama as it is set in the same location – an English estate – but set across different decades and with both American and English characters. This is a play that isn’t done that often. What made you decide to choose it?

"Arcadia is a play that has been in the back of my mind for many years.  My daughter read it in high school and loved it, so I had picked it up for my drama class and we read and worked with it.  While I enjoy musicals, and we certainly have produced some major musicals, I love “straight” plays.  I love the work of wordsmiths.  I love being swept away by their ideas.  Shakespeare done well is swoon-worthy.  Oscar Wilde is brilliant.  Federico Garcia Lorca is poetry and probably pulls off my favorite forays into symbolism - I’d love to stage one of his plays. Tom Stoppard, in Arcadia, has the same love of language.  When it came down to it, I wanted to do a play that elevated the written word.  Here’s a play that mixes Byron with thermodynamics and determinism, that reveals an affair through four-handed piano playing, that makes you smile just as it breaks your heart.  We might, of course, lose everything we’ve got going if nobody comes to see the play.  It’s adult, and our audience to date has been “family” - but I wanted to get it out there that we are NOT going to pick the same plays that everyone else is doing.  I did that with The 39 Steps to get us on the map - and now I want our community to know that we are trying to make some unusual or original, and still entertaining, choices."

How are rehearsals going for Arcadia and have you encountered any challenges with it so far?

"The props for this play are beautiful and difficult.  Not in that “I had to build an army of elephants” kind of way, but in the level of research and precision way.  We are very much a community theatre in that we rely on our wonderful community to help us out.  Amy Jacobs Smyth volunteers to make some of our more demanding pieces, and I spend many an evening with a glue gun in hand.  Diane Senffner, the dialect coach, came out to ensure cohesive dialect.  Choreographer Shannon Perkins worked with our actors helping them master the waltz.  We’re almost all volunteers donating our time and expertise.  The rehearsals have been challenging and exciting.  There is a complexity to this story, a mystery of sorts, that plays out across two different time periods (1809 and current day) that we’ve had to work through.  Documents, letters, books, flowers, drawings, essays. They tell the story in a fascinating dance of reveals and assumptions and clues - sometimes the audience knows more than anyone onstage, sometimes the actors have information they still need to tell us.   And I love our cast.  We have a mix of extremely polished actors completely new to TTC, young actors still a part of AYT, the return of some of my favorite actors (look for a Lockstock and Barrel reunion) - the precise mix of community and AYT that I had hoped for.

Zack Diepstraten and Erin McFeely
in Leading Ladies
photo: Lisa Webb/Southwest Shots Photography
You also have the Tony winning Best Musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood in your season. I have to believe the intimacy of the Tuscany Theatre will make this production especially rewarding.  What made you decide to present Drood?

"Exactly that - the space itself.  The Tuscany Theatre is intimate and well suited for audience interaction.  It was constructed to house a melodrama company so it was always intended to have that interaction.  And I love Victorian era clothing!  And when you add the music hall element into the costuming, I am over the moon.  Also, I look for productions that feature opportunities for women - there simply are not enough of them."

You end your season with a newer play, You and I – what can you tell us about that play? And what made you choose a show that people may not be aware of?

"When TTC finished The 39 Steps, we discovered that the Tuscany Theatre had room on their schedule for us to do two more shows that season.  Suddenly, we were a theatre company.  We were given a name and a home.  And a logo!  So we hammered out what we would be.  A home for actors “aging out” of youth theatre, a home for local families wanting to be involved in community theatre, a home for talented folks from all over the valley looking for a safe place to perform.  What we can’t offer in facilities (rehearsal space and green room space are always a challenge), we hope we offer in welcome.  This season offered plenty of adult opportunities, but not as many opportunities for young people.  One day I was reading scripts and I stumbled across I and You - it features just two teenagers.  I realized I could do something no youth theatre would take on - I could do a two person play.  Youth theaters have a revenue stream that makes a two person play an unlikely choice.  I wondered what it would be like for two young performers to have all that dedicated rehearsal time to explore and discover complicated characters - to focus on a heartbeat instead of quickly mastering a new dance.  I also wondered what it would be like to direct such a thing.  I like to try new things - push myself.  This is definitely new for me.  As for pulling in an audience - the East Valley has wonderfully supportive theatre kids.  We’re running for one weekend (four shows) - those kids will come out to see their friends do something unique.  And it is family friendly."

the cast of Pirates: A Love Story
photo: Lisa Webb/Southwest Shots Photography
Well that sounds like a fantastic opportunity and a challenge, for both young actors in town and yourself.  But the biggest news is that your season also includes a New Works Festival. How did this come about?

"The first show I directed for AYT was Jekyll and Hyde.  Unfortunately, at the last minute, we couldn’t get the script the theatre was interested in using.  I had auditions in two days!  In a panic, I started writing.  It wasn’t the first thing I had written, but it was the first play.  A whole new world had opened up to me with that script.  I found myself writing more scripts. I had written prose, film scripts, articles, but now I was writing plays!  I made so many mistakes.  I wrote my first two plays as if they were films - but over time I began to understand the freedom of the stage.  A friend of mine is also a writer - prose - and she has yet to break through.  It occurred to me that she might be working in the wrong medium.  But how do you get someone to take a chance?  My chance was born out of desperation - not everyone is going to experience that adrenaline-fueled need to create.  So I thought we could offer a mentor-guided experience that would inspire people to take a chance, plus I'm also hoping my friend who I want to take a chance will submit a play!"

I know you are specifically asking for one act plays from Arizona playwrights, but what I find intriguing about your festival is that you aren’t necessarily asking for finished one act plays or musicals. Instead you will have the playwrights paired up with mentors, and directors, to polish their works and then cast and stage them. It’s such a great idea, but seems like a huge effort for such a new theatre company. What made you decide to present a festival with all of this behind the scenes effort, collaboration and mentorship, instead of simply presenting new, finished works in staged readings?

"Well, when you put it like that!   I got my first directing gig under false pretenses.  It wasn’t that I lied, it was that they never asked.  I had little or no experience directing for theatre, but it turns out I’m very good at doing research.  I just dove in, experienced it.  So many times I wanted to ask for help but worried that I would reveal myself.  It shouldn’t feel that way for a writer or director - help should be available!  Now that I don’t have that fear hanging over me, I am open to asking for help or information.  I’ve turned to Peter Hill at Fountain Hills with questions.  I’ve brought in a musical expert (Karli Kemper) to help me direct musicals.  I’ve relied on expert designers (Ryan Terry’s lighting) and experienced builders (Mike Smyth) to create these worlds.  I’ve surrounded myself with warm and open professionals who understand collaboration, commitment, and support.  I want to provide that to other artists and build our TTC family at the same time.  I feel like I have this amazing cabinet surrounding me - Cheri Lundgreen, Chantel Powers, JT Turner, Mike and Amy Smyth, Carrie Grief - and a pool of loyal, talented rep-style actors - looking at you Jared Kitch - and we just need to find other like-minded folks and bring them into our fold.  We cast a woman in a show once who had never done theatre - she said it changed her life.  Theatre can do that.  I guess I have a grandiose vision of TTC changing lives."

Jared Kitch, Adam Bei and Andrew Lipman
in Urinetown
photo: Lisa Webb/Southwest Shots Photography
That's a great vision to have! What do you think the biggest challenge to being one of the newer theatre companies in town is?

"Number one: getting an audience.  Number two: getting talented actors to take a chance on you."

You’re one of the newest theatres to be included in the ariZoni Awards for Theatre Excellence. What does this inclusion mean for Tuscany?

"I was very excited when the ariZoni Awards officially accepted us as a theatre company.  It was the impetus for us to offer season tickets for the first time - we attained a feeling of permanence!  But theaters in the East Valley have a tough time staying alive.  I can think of three that have failed in the past couple of years.  There aren’t enough audience members to go around.  If we are not fulfilling a very real need in the community, do we need to exist?  We spend a lot of time evaluating our role and identity, or our potential identity - a lot of existential conversations going on at TTC.  We have a big musical theatre program at MCC, a round the clock rotation of family favorites at Hale - so who is TTC?  Well, if we keep pushing the envelope, we will need some attention - a spotlight on our work - and, if we are fortunate, we may get some Zoni attention.  It’s hard to get an audience when we are competing with the Avengers and Star Trek and popcorn (which I get - I love all of those things), let alone established theaters.  My hope is that being Zoni eligible will bring out actors and audiences."

What are some future plays and musicals you’d like Tuscany to present?

"You wouldn’t be asking me that question if you had ever witnessed the agony of my team and me choosing a season!  I love classics, I love modern plays.  I’m pretty sure I know the musical we’ll be doing next season - it’s heartbreaking and beautiful and, of course, rarely done in the valley.  Plays are harder for me.  I just want to throw caution to the wind and do the plays I want to do - because if no one is going to come see them, what does it matter?  But that is defeatist talk and I usually manage to squash that and blend my desire to “direct-what-I-want” and select something that has a chance of interesting an audience.  It is my hope that Arcadia will find an appreciative audience - if it does, it opens the door to making more interesting choices.  Is there an audience in the East Valley for plays with mature themes?  I guess we’ll find out.  I know my fingers are crossed - because it means a lot for our future and our future choices."

What do you hope for the future of Tuscany Theatre Company?

"Enough success that we can become known as a destination for quality theatre and smart theatre.  Maybe a place that can offer original theatre each season.  Wouldn’t that be nice?"

For more information on Arcadia, and other upcoming productions at Tuscany Theatre Company, including their New Works Festival, which information will be available starting Monday, August 8th, CLICK HERE  You can also email Andrea directly for more information regarding festival submissions by CLICKING HERE

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