Thursday, February 27, 2020

An In-Depth Conversation with David Chorley, Mesa Encore Theatre's Artistic Director

David Chorley
photo by Justin McBride
by Gil Benbrook

David Chorley grew up in Phoenix and went to school in the Valley before moving to California, where he lived for the better part of a decade. While in California, Chorley would regularly perform in improv shows but also found the opportunity to act in many productions where he preferred to play character roles in comedies.

Since Chorley returned to the Valley in 2012, he's found dozens of opportunities to act, write and direct at various theatres in town - including Valley Youth Theatre, Stray Cat Theatre, TheaterWorks, and All Puppet Players, as well as Mesa Encore Theatre -  where he has now shifted his focus to directing and producing, ultimately being named Artistic Director of MET in 2018.

This week finds MET debuting their production of Shrek, the Musical, a co-production with All Puppet Players, as well as announcing the shows in their 2020 / 2021 Season. Chorley took a few minutes in between his hectic schedule to sit down and answer some questions about his past, what being MET's Artistic Director means to him, as well as what MET's plans are for the future.

David, you're half way into your first season at MET, but let's go back to 2018 - how did you come to be MET's new Artistic Director?

"I had some success directing for MET in previous seasons but ultimately happened to be in the right place at the right time.  The first conversations about MET re-structuring their staff were happening at the same time I was directing Mary Poppins.  That production was one of the largest MET has produced and maybe they figured if I could get them through that monstrosity, maybe I could get them through the next season? I was very fortunate to have been asked."

What can you tell us about the new energy within MET?

"I have a very important rule.  We do not disrupt the creative process.  I would be lying if I told you that past MET seasons were free of unnecessary dramatics. While we still have much to learn and grow from, I can easily say that this season's energy has been more focused on the creativity needed to produce quality theatre. "

I heard that you've also made changes to the MET structure and have established some staff roles within the organization. What was the reasoning behind that and what are those roles?

"One of the biggest issues we had to overcome was how to bring consistency to our production process.  In 2018 we formed a staff of 5 people, which has now grown to a staff of 13.   In past seasons we found that designers/directors and even actors were doing too much extra work and the staff takes as much off the plate of our artists as we possibly can.  Producing theatre is only half of what we do - we are running a business and I am lucky to work with a bright and energetic staff of people. There are some staff members that I literally talk to every day."

I know you have experience in writing, directing and acting but what are some of the challenges you've found in serving in the Artistic Director role?

"Relying mostly on instinct and operating in the shadow of other wonderful Valley AD's I've worked with before (Chris Hamby, Bobb Cooper, Ron May, Shaun McNamara)  I've had to create and mold my own way through MET's production process. I know it's cliche to say, but MET did not hand me a book that said "This is how you become a good Artistic Director".  It took several shows to even understand what I really wanted from MET and what they needed from me.  Having an Artistic Director was kind of a foreign concept for many years in the organization. It's been great  learning and growing. How to pick a season? Wow to include input and pass along criticism? How to choose directors and  communicate with them while trying to uphold their visions? And most importantly of all, how to earn the respect of the artists that walk in your door and make sure they feel safe and want to return.  We get better with every show, but it's an art form and it will take years before I ultimately get it down."

Since this is your first full year as the new AD, what are some of the things you've learned this season?

"One of the coolest things to come out of all this is that I have had a significant presence backstage for all the shows.   I had to come up with a plan for our current season back in 2018. How on earth were we going to produce the shows on our season, while sticking with the budget?  This required me to jump in as set and properties designers, to learn all about costumes, sound and how band monitors work! I've been working directly with lighting designers and stage managers and have been learning the ins and outs of the Mesa Arts Center.  Plus the day-to-day duties of simply running a business and dealing with the staff. All of these things have been well outside my normal comfort levels and I am so very happy with the progress thus far. I learn so much with every show.  For example, for She Kills Monsters and Shrek I have learned how dragons works!"

Your production of Shrek opens this week. It's a co-production with All Puppet Players. How did this co-production come about?

"Shaun McNamara is one of my best friends and we go back to the days of doing shows in Southern California. When he used to do human shows.  We were out to dinner in September of 2018 and I asked him if he could do any musical, what would it be? Without even blinking, he said Shrek - and we had it all worked out about 10 minutes after that.  This is actually an ideal situation for us both.  His audience is going to be able to see a big time musical, which is something he would never be able to do in his current space.  He's also going to be able to do do a bucket list show of his.  MET wins because we get his incredible talents as a director/actor - his fantastic production team and the added bonus of having extra audience exposure for us both."

I understand you were a student of Debra Jo Davey, who recently passed away but had been actively involved with Mesa Encore Theatre for many years. When was that and what are some of the memories you have of having Debra as your teacher?

"Debra Jo was my junior high choir teacher at Rhodes Junior High back in 1992.  I was very lucky to have gone to a school with great emphasis on the arts and theatre in particular, and Debra Jo was a major part of that. The last show I did at Rhodes was The Pirates of Penzance which she musical directed.  I vividly remember rehearsals on the weekends and her helping me get the Modern-Major General ingrained in my 15-year old brain.  She also was the first person to give me an opportunity in Arizona once I returned from living in California back in 2012 - she gave me a directing job no less and she really took me under her wing.  I was lucky to get to know Mrs. Gunby the teacher and Mrs. Davey the musical director.  When she died and I was at her funeral telling stories, I decided then and there that I would produce Pirates of Penzance somewhere and sure enough just a couple months later I was promoted to AD.  Pirates was the first show I pitched and we did it this season in her honor. Also in an unexpected twist of fate, her husband Jeff ended up being cast as the Major-General, and this has warmed my heart ever since."

Jeff Davey and the cast of MET's The Pirates of Penzance
photo by Justin McBride
How did you arrive at your shows in the current season and anything you can tell us know about your plans for next season?

"I had a lot of fun in helping organize our 2019/2020 season.  The main objective was to choose shows that showed that MET was attempting new ideas and trying to go down a different path.  Reefer Madness, for example, is a show that perhaps strayed a little differently then in years past.  She Kills Monsters and Pirates of Penzance would probably also not be on past MET seasons. We are also doing an Arizona Premiere this year and also a co-production as main stage shows and that has never been done before to my knowledge - so yep - we took some major risks this season.  As far as next season, we wanted to choose shows that perhaps are a little safer, while at the same time allow us to grow and challenge ourselves.  I used all of the knowledge gained this season to tap every resource we have, we looked at our budgets and came up with 6 shows that I think will fit beautifully with our style, means & audience.  I tried to include shows for everyone, shows that I can find new and upcoming directors for and we will also be looking to improve our audition process to offer more diverse casting opportunities for all shows next season. We will be announcing on Leap Day, Saturday 2/29.

CLICK HERE for more information on Shrek, which runs February 28-March 15

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