Flagstaff Shakespeare Festival has come a long way since its first show at Heritage Square, and for five seasons it’s been bringing the work of The Bard to Flagstaff, enticing the community with classic, humorous and daring plays.
Because FlagShakes does not have an official theater, the theater company chooses to perform site-specific productions, using venues such as the Museum of Northern Arizona and even La Posada Hotel in Winslow.
To begin its 2019 season, FlagShakes has been using the billiard room of the Riordan Mansion State Historic Park as the setting for its productions of “God of Vengeance,” written by Sholem Asch, and “Indecent,” written by Paula Vogel. The latter concludes Sunday afternoon.
The Arizona Daily Sun sat down with executive director Dawn Tucker and Cameron Scully, who co-directed “Indecent” with Hannah Fontes, to talk about FlagShakes’ 2019 season, directing in the Riordan Mansion and keeping the stage its own art form.
Gabriel Granillo, Arizona Daily Sun: The first two plays of the FlagShakes’ 2019 spring season are not works by Shakespeare. Why choose these plays, and how do they fit in with the Flag Shakes mission?
Dawn Tucker: To me, “Indecent” really stuck out because I wanted to do a female playwright for the first time. And it also stuck out to me because it seemed like it was very possible for us to perform. But in reading [the script for “Indecent”] I became fascinated with “God of Vengeance,” so I looked for a copy of the script and devoured that in a day. I thought, ‘These will be perfect but we have to do them both instead of just one of them,’ which is sort of how I operate. I always choose to do more than I promised I would (laughs).
Because they’re both Jewish plays I would have felt really reluctant to do them, except that we have such a strong Jewish community here in Flagstaff, and FlagShakes is really connected [to that community]. So I felt confident that we could pull this off with as much cultural sensitivity and respect as we possibly could and still do two really fabulous, meaty, interesting plays.
I think this says something about my own awareness only, but it wasn’t until after we chose them that I started to become aware of anti-Semitism in America. After my awareness of that increased, we really started talking about what else we could do to augment these shows besides just putting them up, which led to bringing Robert Skloot here, working with the Martin-Springer Institute. I’m just trying to find other ways that we could be advocating for our Jewish community members here in Flagstaff and providing some kind of solidarity.
Cameron Scully: I think Flagstaff needs to be hearing these stories. And we weren’t not going to do these because we were [thinking], ‘Are we the right people to necessarily say this?’ But I think it’s worse that it doesn’t get said. Because we were the people who would be doing this and could be doing this.
DT: That’s the other thing about our non-Shakespeare series. We’re trying to do plays that you’re not otherwise going to see in Flagstaff, plays that aren’t safe, that don’t draw in lots of audiences to laugh on a Sunday afternoon. It’s not “Oklahoma,” right?
We like doing this series and in small spaces like Riordan, like La Posada, because then we can put up intimate theater that is otherwise not going to be produced in Flagstaff because people are afraid of their bottom line.
I think the most striking thing to me [when watching “Indecent”] was how intimate everything was, how the border between the actors and audience was barely there.
DT: One of the things that happened for a long time in theater is that once TV and movies came along, the theater started trying to compete as if it was the same medium. This is directly in contrast to FlagShakes’ mission which is to perform, again, actor-driven theater [without] all of the production elements because one of our artistic principles is to do on the stage what can only be done on the stage.
So the actors rising from the ashes at the beginning of “Indecent,” all of that was movement based. If you had a $2 million TV or Broadway budget there’d be actual ash and smoke, but my theory of theater is it should be what only theater can be. We should stop trying to compete with movies. People get enough screen time (laughs), and what we’re offering is a far more visceral and immediate experience in a space with other human beings.
CS: By making it so intimate, we can put you right here and make it very emotional, which is different than what you might get in a big Broadway production. I’m sure other productions going on right now will not be in a space like this.
And specifically for these shows, this space and the intimacy really works narratively because the idea of “Indecent” is that the show is happening in the attic and we’re all here huddled together watching the show. I do think that changes the theatrical experience. It creates a greater community experience so when you walk out of the theater you walk out together.
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And that was a great moment in the play, when you realize that it’s all taking place in an attic, and then you sort of recognize the space you’re in [Riordan Mansion] and it brings you into the story. At least it did for me.
CS: Yeah, and I assume this probably is not what things look like in Poland. There’s a big buffalo head and stuff (laughs), but it’s a room with history.
DT: Well, it was being used at the same time as the show was being performed. It was occupied at the same time. The Riordans were probably reading newspaper articles about what was going on in Europe while Jewish men and women were performing this play in attics in Europe.
What was the significance to you both performing “Indecent” here at the Riordan Mansion?
DT: Last year when we did “Fool for Love” we had the opportunity to perform at La Posada. The play is set in a hotel in the Southwest, at a far jankier hotel in the Southwest, but there was something about that weekend of performances that was magical. So when we started talking about [the 2019] plays and I knew the time period, I immediately thought, they can’t go in a theater. They have to go in a space that did exist at the same time that these plays were written. I think I drive my tech team and directors crazy because I see every space as performable.
CS: Which is a benefit to the company at the end of the day. Because we don’t have a theater, but I’ve always felt like the show starts as soon as someone walks in the door. So I think by doing these plays in specific places it does bring a whole other element to the play, especially here, because you have to enter the mansion, go through the hallways and end up somewhere else so that you could be here.
I think at this point we’re in a little too deep about doing things in different spaces (laughs), but it’s also a very democratic idea. Theater can happen anywhere; you just find a space and bring some chairs.
DT: And I grew in Flagstaff, so did Cameron, so Riordan has significance to me. I remember coming here as a kid on tours. It was actually my birthday request every single year because I was a nerd, but I loved this space.
Cameron, this is the first play you’re directing outside of college (though Scully served as assistant director during “The Tempest”). What was that experience like? Did you feel any pressure bringing “Indecent” to the stage?
CS: I did feel a bit of pressure, but I’m really humbled by Dawn and everybody who is in FlagShakes and how they were willing to give me the responsibility. It’s honestly really incredible because “Indecent” is a show that not a lot of people have directed.
Right, it came out in 2015.
DT: And the rights are really difficult to get.
CS: And it was an amazing opportunity. I learned a lot even though it was challenging to put it in this space and it was a easily one of the most complicated things we’ve done as a company, logistically between the movement and the music. It was hard.
I could have gone to New York or Chicago and try to do theater there, but the fact that I can come back to Flagstaff and be in my hometown and direct a show at this level is just really incredible. It was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done, but it was totally worth it the entire time.
What’s next for FlagShakes?
DT: I’m directing “Duchess of Malfi,” which is running in repertory with “Much Ado About Nothing.” They’ll both be at the Museum of Northern Arizona, pre-monsoon season this year, which is a big announcement. Pre-mosquito season (laughs).