In its 35 years, TheaterWorks has never embraced the concept of “taking it easy.”
Upon its September 1986 launch, the company introduced seven Main Stage productions, a high school show and a nine-week children’s musical workshop. Led by founding artistic director David Wo, TheaterWorks, within four months, secured financial backing, leased a facility and put together a board of directors with several volunteer committees.
“There was such an immense passion for theater by the founders,” says Managing Director Cate Hinkle. “David Wo had been working on theater for a while before he formed TheaterWorks. They had really sown their seeds and created a community behind them, so when it came time to have that theater company, they knew they had the demand there, the help there and they were just ready to jump both feet in.”
TheaterWorks is now the resident theater of the Peoria Center for the Performing Arts, a $13 million facility that includes a 270-seat main stage theater and an 80-seat Black Box theater along with classrooms, a set construction shop, a costume shop and dressing rooms.
Hinkle calls it “a community theater that is a theater of the community.” It boasts programs like MasterWorks, PuppetWorks, YouthWorks, AdaptiveWorks, Broadway Senior, SummerWorks Academy and Kids Alive!
In 2019, it was given the Arts Advocate Organization Award by the National Society of Arts & Letters, Greater Arizona Chapter because of its AdaptiveWorks program.
As TheaterWorks celebrates its 35th anniversary, the staff looks back and forward with pride.
Hinkle attributes the growth to three factors: fewer artistic offerings in the West Valley, a population increase there and the city of Peoria’s support.
“They really recognized that TheaterWorks added to the community and that the community needed an artistic organization to be a part of our arts and culture,” Hinkle says.
The city and TheaterWorks were bonded in 2007 through a voter initiative.
“The partnership has been instrumental in our growth in the last 13 years,” Hinkle says. “I feel that we have such a great relationship with the mayor and the council. They are incredibly supportive. The community is incredibly supportive.”
TheaterWorks’ mission is to create art for all areas of the community.
“We feel like we are there for the community so we can fulfill their needs and give them access to the performing arts,” Hinkle says. “That has been our motivating call. Anyone can have access from being a part of an education program to being on stage.”
From the beginning, youth shows were important. TheaterWorks started with four family shows and built on it from there.
Chris Hamby, the current producing artistic director, started PuppetWorks as a way of reaching out to those younger than 6.
“This program was meant to specifically target our youngest community members,” Hinkle says. “Puppet shows are 40 minutes and targeted to 3 to 6 year olds. We want to really be that first beginning theatrical exposure to young children and to spark their imagination and get them interested in the arts.”
Then they saw a need in the adaptive community. Hinkle says Hamby had been connecting with the adaptive community in his role as a teaching artist.
“We decided this is something really important to us as an organization,” Hinkle says. “We began our AdaptiveWorks to provide a genuine theatrical experience for those with disabilities. They go through the same process as anyone. It’s a no-cut program. It’s about skill building, getting that time on stage. Each of them sets personal goals throughout the process.”
Those goals might mean walking across the stage once or participating in a dance number. Goals are individualized.
Their newest addition has been Broadway Senior, a creative aging program for adults 50 and older. The program’s goal is to provide cognitive stimulation, physical activity and social interaction for those 50 to 85.
“It’s really just to provide access to people who may not think they have time in the spotlight left,” Hinkle says. “To give them something to look forward to.”
They were in the midst of their second season when COVID-19 hit and the program went on hiatus. TheaterWorks canceled its gala, three shows and three community outreach programs.
“Life as we knew it came to a screeching halt,” Hinkle says. “When you get that hamster wheel going, it takes some time to get it to stop. We had to bring our season to a close and consign ourselves that the (anniversary) season we had planned was not going to happen as we had planned.”
However, Hinkle says, she and Hamby didn’t want to wait things out. They wanted to find something to do for the community. Hamby is interested in immersive theater. So they developed an immersive version of “Alice in Wonderland” called “Curiouser and Curiouser,” which runs through Sunday, November 1.
“What we’ve done is literally taken every room in the Peoria Center for the Performing Arts and converted it to allow audience members to walk through them and experience a production,” Hinkle says.
Like Alice, the audience tumbles down the rabbit hole and has adventures in the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party to the Rose Garden, where they will paint roses red to the Ocean Room, where they will meet the Walrus and the Carpenter. They’ll get to meet Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum and the Queen of Hearts.
“It’s a really different way to experience theater,” Hinkle says. “There are still actors and designers. It’s multidisciplinary. Humpty Dumpty is a puppet—that’s one of the things we do. We’re a puppet company. We have visual artists, we have multimedia designs, set designs, props designs.”
The staff will only bring through groups of up to 10, and they must wear face coverings. The theater will provide gloves and take guests’ temperatures. They’ll clean each area between groups and do a deep cleaning each night. Everything is set up for social distancing, so people are always at least 6 feet away from others who are not in their party.
Other celebrations are on standby.
“No one knows when it will be safe to do theater again the way people are accustomed, to have people in a theater watching a show,” Hinkle says. “Who knows when that will happen. Right now, we’re celebrating the small things we have been able to get to the place where we are. This is our 35th year, and that’s a long time for some theater companies. We will do something when it is safe and when it really feels right.”
“Curiouser and Curiouser,” various times through Sunday, November 1, Peoria Center for the Performing Arts, 10580 N. 83rd Drive, Peoria, 623.815.7930, theaterworks.org.