As the summer heat rolls in, the Phoenix Theatre Company is taking its season indoors and welcoming back its audience with three small-cast shows.
Several things have made this possible, says Michael Barnard, the company’s producing artistic director.
“A good portion of the population in Maricopa County is vaccinated, and the artists are now fully vaccinated as well,” Barnard says.
The Phoenix Theatre Company has also gone above and beyond the call of what the Maricopa County Department of Public Health and the stage union, Actors Equity, are asking for. It replaced air filters, cleaned air ducts and added special filters in the rooms that will house patrons and artists.
The system removes the air from inside, draws in fresh air from outside and circulates it around the room.
The artists have also been kept in their own bubbles as they rehearse the shows that will be brought indoors:
• “Becoming Dr. Ruth” runs through June 27.
• “Daddy Long Legs” runs from June 23 to July 18.
• “Pump Boys and Dinettes” runs from July 23 to August 22.
Barnard says the plan was to start small for the first shows indoors, so he went through many one-person and two-person shows that the theater hadn’t done before.
Focusing on positive, small shows
The first show, “Becoming Dr. Ruth,” attracted him because of the talk show host’s fascinating life. When Dr. Ruth Westheimer, born Karola Ruth Siegel, was 9 years old, her mother and her aunt put her on a train in 1939 so she could escape Dusseldorf. She never saw her parents again; both were killed in concentration camps.
“That’s just the beginning of an amazing, colorful story,” Barnard says. “I was looking for powerful heroines and heroes in our everyday world that had a positive ending, showed strength of character and strength of integrity. I felt like we could all use a breath of positivity.”
Westheimer is America’s most famous sex therapist. The one-person show tells her journey from her flight from the Nazis in the Kindertransport to her joining Haganah in Jerusalem as a sniper and her arriving in America as a single mother.
“Daddy Long Legs” is a two-person musical about an orphan who is sent to college by a benefactor who chose to remain anonymous.
Directed by Robbie Harper, it follows Jerusha Abbott’s college experience as she learns to be a writer. The benefactor, whom she affectionately calls “Daddy Long Legs,” requires that she write him monthly. The audience watches her become a fiercely independent, intelligent woman.
“‘Daddy Long Legs’ has a great message of caring for someone you did not know and the amazing places where love can be found,” Barnard says.
Directed by Barnard, the third show, “Pump Boys and Dinettes,” is a country music fest. L.M. and Jim run a filling station in Grand Ole Opry country. They are the eponymous Pump Boys. Across the way is a diner operated by Rhetta and Prudie. Together, they deliver a toe-tapping evening of country-western songs on guitar, piano, bass and even a few kitchen utensils.
“‘Pump Boys and Dinettes’ is for fun,” Barnard says. “It’s just a joyful ride. It is great summer fare that is highly entertaining, and you don’t have to think about it.”
Barnard says he put a lot of thought into the shows that might give the audience hope.
Recovering from the pandemic
Barnard says reopening first outdoors and then in the building has been important to the organization. He says that during the past year they tried to maintain the staff as much as possible and to take care of their employees the best they could.
“Reopening means a great deal to us,” Barnard says. “It allowed us to bring staff back. Even when we had to furlough, we paid for everyone’s health insurance, so no one had to worry about their health insurance during COVID.”
He says new protocols designed to keep everyone safe have been implemented. If actors are two weeks out from their full vaccination, they can rehearse without a mask if the filter system is in the room. The director and stage manager wear masks during rehearsals.
Phoenix Theatre Company will also continue to ask audiences to wear masks and have temperature checks when they arrive. There will be social distancing in public areas, but not in the theater seats.
“We felt like from everything we could read and see, that it is a good time to try to safely go back inside,” Barnard says.
He thinks it may take time for everyone to feel comfortable about returning. However, people will be more apt to wash their hands and wear a mask when they have been ill.
For now, he is happy to invite theater lovers to see shows by the 102-year-old theater company.
“I’m excited about seeing people again,” Barnard says. “I’m excited for the artists. It is part of their DNA to entertain, to communicate, to educate or just to provide an escape. That’s what they do, and it has been very difficult to be able to do that. I think it will be exciting — and maybe a little taste of normalcy — as we ramp up and grow back.”
The Phoenix Theatre Company’s 2021 summer season
“Becoming Dr. Ruth” runs through June 27
“Daddy Long Legs” runs from June 23 to July 18
“Pump Boys and Dinettes” runs from July 23 to August 22
Where: The Phoenix Theatre, 1825 N. Central Avenue, Phoenix
Cost: Tickets start at $41