Writer Joseph J. Airdo // Photography by Mark Gluckman
Over the nearly two decades that she has had the privilege to collaborate with Theatre Artists Studio’s community of actors, directors, playwrights, producers, singers, dancers, musicians, designers and technical wizards, Debra Rich Gettleman has learned one valuable piece of insight that upstages all others.
“The wisdom of the group is always better than the wisdom of the individual,” Rich Gettleman says. “I have directed, produced, acted in and written plays for the company; so I have done almost everything there is to do at the theater. As artists, we come into things with really strong, passionate opinions. But collaboration and team effort are always the things that bring us to the top. It always comes out brilliantly when we work together.”
That was the initial intention behind Theatre Artists Studio when it was founded 18 years ago, and it is the intention that continues to drive and help the nonprofit performing arts company thrive today.
Theatre Artists Studio was founded in 2005 by Carol McLeod, Judy Rollings, Steven Mastroieni, Judy Lebeau and other performing arts professionals who aspired to create a cooperative space for actors, directors, playwrights and tech designers to work.
The idea behind the effort was to give theater artists an opportunity to explore and present projects about which they are passionate — be it a play they have always wanted to direct, a role they have always wanted to play or an entirely original work they want to workshop, read or produce.
“I remember coming to the first meeting where they explained the concept,” says Rich Gettleman, noting that — as with any new organization — Theatre Artists Studio initially struggled with some production growing pains.
“I moved away about eight years ago. My husband’s job took us to Seattle, where I was the managing director of a theater. Then I moved to Oklahoma City and ran a theatre company there. But I have come back every year to do a show [at Theatre Artists Studio]. We moved back here in December.
“And when I came back, I realized that we have really got it now. I believe that we do better performances than any other theater [in the Valley]. I have even spoken to people who have said that our shows are better than anything they have seen in New York or Chicago. And we are so proud of that because we work really hard.”
As a nonprofit, Theatre Artists Studio does not have the budget that some of the larger professional theaters around Arizona have, instead relying on its artistic members’ creative ingenuity to stage its shows to widespread acclaim.
“We believe in ‘real’ theater,” says Rich Gettleman, noting that Theatre Artists Studio is much more interested in producing unique, interesting plays about which its members are passionate than the same old musicals that you might see over and over elsewhere. “And we have an audience that really loves us. The New York and Chicago theatergoers — the ‘real’ theatergoers — love us.”
Each season, Theatre Artists Studio’s artistic members present potential projects that they would like to see staged. A committee then considers each of the proposals based on cost, funding sources, artistic significance and the likelihood of pleasing audiences and makes its selection that ensures a varied season of professionally crafted productions.
“We are not in a big, black box in a really bad neighborhood,” Rich Gettleman adds. “We are in a gorgeous, 8,000-square-foot building in Scottsdale with plenty of parking. A lot of people are tired of having to drive downtown, fight for a parking spot and pay $100 for admission. Our tickets have remained extremely affordable — at about $25 — for 18 years.
“And the fact that we have managed to not only stay alive but thrive for that amount of time — especially through COVID — is amazing; because nearly every other small theater in Arizona has not made it. We have a cadre of theaters here, but not very many. But we have made it and continue to produce a nice mix of classical and really cutting-edge, contemporary theater.”
Among the plays the company staged this season were Edward Albee’s “A Delicate Balance,” Lucy Kirkwood’s “The Children,” A.R. Gurney’s “The Perfect Party” and Jen Silverman’s “The Roommate.”
One of the most unique aspects of Theatre Artists Studio — and one that fulfills the nonprofit’s mission to foster collaboration and mutual growth among its membership — is First Look, readings of original works that take place once each month on a Monday.
“Those are really cool because every year we develop a new play to do as a full production,” Rich Gettleman says. “So one of our playwrights gets their original work fully produced — which is pretty exciting.”
First Look events are free of charge and open to the public, who is then invited to share their feedback with the playwright and cast during post-reading discussions, further satisfying Theatre Artists Studio’s goals to engage audiences, encourage emerging talent, educate the community and promote a deeper understanding of the power and imagination of theater.
“Our opportunities for our playwrights are amazing,” Rich Gettleman adds. “If you write a play, you can sit in your house and send it to a million publishers to try to get it produced. But where else can you sit down with a group of professional actors and have them read it aloud while you and an audience are all sitting there listening? It is a wonderful place that gives us so many opportunities.”
Those opportunities are especially plentiful during the summer, when Theatre Artists Studio presents its annual short play festival, filled with “a fresh confection of new tales from talented, local storytellers, offering unique perspectives on our human foibles, fallibilities and feats of amazing resilience.”
Rich Gettleman says that a committee reads blind submissions of 10-minute plays from its playwrights and selects eight that are then fully produced on Theatre Artists Studio’s stage.
“The summer shorts are usually a nice mix of funny and smart,” says Rich Gettleman, whose “Regurgitated Pearls” is among the eight short plays selected to be produced for this summer’s festival. “There may even be a serious one or two in there, but if you do not like one of them, it will be over in 10 minutes. It is sort of like a smorgasbord. It is a fun way to dip your toe into theater.”
Rich Gettleman adds that 30 playwrights submitted works for this year’s short play festival.
“That is a huge number of submissions for one company,” she says. “And I am really proud of that because it means that we are growing playwrights. Over the years, we have built a huge group of playwrights and they have all grown stronger.
“If you have the chance to come see our summer shorts, you will have so much fun; and you will get a sense of the warmth, the camaraderie and the talent that I think makes people want to join us. Theatre Artists Studio is a homey place. It is certainly my artistic home. It is my happy place. We are sort of a family. And it is a nice feeling.”
Summer Shorts Play Festival
June 8–18 // The Theatre Artists Studio // 4848 E. Cactus Road, Suite 406, Scottsdale // $25; senior, student, military and group discounts available // 602-764-0120 // thestudiophx.org