by Ashley Naftule
Theater is a dirty word.
A month ago, I got to see first-hand just how dirty a word it can be be. I was at the Phoenix Home & Garden Expo in Glendale, promoting Space55 and The Trunk Space with fellow ensemble member Kevin Flanagan. Every time we tried telling folks about our space, at the word “theater” they would visibly recoil. They winced and retreated away from our humble convention table like vampires fleeing from a brandished crucifix. It seemed like telling random bystanders “hey, do you want to see some theater?” wasn’t too far off from saying “hey, do you want us to stick a power drill in your kidney?” in terms of eliciting a VERY negative response from folks.
The funny thing is: I understand that reaction entirely. Up until about three years ago, I would have hissed and ran from “theater” too.
I used to hate theater. HATED IT. Every time I read or heard the word, it made me flashback to high school English classrooms. It made me remember the dead voices of my class-mates, forced to read “Death of a Salesman” out loud… and reading it out loud with all the passion that one would use to read a grocery list. “Theater” made me think of all the times I had to watch bad college productions of Shakespeare. Hours of my life lost to watching narcissists in frilly shirts running around onstage and competing to see who had the most tortured English accents. And the only worse than those Shakespeare plays: modern plays, full of concerned and unhappy middle class white-people sitting in their living rooms and being moody about God knows what. I had no conception that “Theater” could be more than that, that it could be stranger and funnier and greater than that narrow playground with the Elizabethan jungle-gym on one end and the Bored-Bourgeoise swing-set on the other.
And then one day I walked into Space55 to see their production of “Ubu Roi” and theater stopped being a dirty word. I didn’t have any respect for the theater until I saw a play in which a TOILET SEAT sat onstage as the throne of a king, a play where trash littered the floor and Johnny Thunders was part of the house music. It uprooted the weeds in my brain about theater and planted new seeds, seeds that sprouted into convictions that theater can be playful and serious, thoughtful and willfully dumb, loud and crass yet inspiring and skillfully made. All this because of Space55’s “Ubu Roi”. It’s funny to think that the one thing that could make “theater” a clean word was a toilet…
And in the years that followed, I kept coming back to Space55 and saw that “Ubu Roi” was no fluke. They’ve been putting on incisive, intelligent and at times hilarious work for years. I’ve seen them do holiday shows where the main characters are three old ladies talking about vodka and how they used to bang FDR; I’ve seen them put on abstract, avant-garde plays from Canada where most of the action onstage revolves around peeling apples and drinking a glass of milk; I’ve seen them do shows about bitter family conflict; shows about were-chickens running amuck in middle schools; shows about drug-taking high school kids getting smote by the Hand of God; and I’ve seen more amazing improv shows, solo performance pieces, variety shows, puppet shows, burlesque and music at Space55 than I could have imagined possible in such a short span of time. And what struck me most about all the things I saw was the lack of of pretension. Here was a theater whose ensemble members do Shakespeare, who’ve worked in Chicago and New York and London with people like Tracy Letts, who have got all the credentials and bona fides a “proper theater artist” should have… and yet they’re cool and humble enough to appreciate a good fart joke. Or dress up as Japanese trans-sexual porn-stars onstage.
Rather than being a narrow playground, through Space55 I finally saw that theater was more like a circus.. and like all kids, I have long harbored dreams of running away and joining one. So three years after seeing that magnificent Alfred Jarry play, my adoption papers got stamped and now I’m part of this rambling circus family.
I’m Ashley Naftule, and I’m one of the humble writers of this blog. In the months to come, I’ll be writing about the exciting main-stage shows we’re producing for this season, as well as talking about our weekly Late Night Series of cutting edge, out-there programming. Over the next few weeks I’ll be posting about our season’s premiere show, “Monsters, Mutants and Other Tales Of Love” by Carrie Behrens. You’ll read some behind-the-scenes perspectives from the show’s playwright, as well as get a look into the hard and inventive work our set and sound designers are putting together for this very Halloween-friendly show. If the theater is a circus, think of “Monsters, Mutants and Other Tales Of Love” as the freak-show portion of our big tent.
And if you have friends or family who will wince at “theater” as hard and fast as the folks at the Phoenix Home & Garden Expo did, steer them our way. Let them see for themselves first-hand that theater is a dirty word… the good kind of dirty.