Writer Rebecca Zaner
[dropcap]F[/dropcap]or more than 20 years, Desert Stages Theatre has called Scottsdale home. In 1995, auditions for its first production, “The Ugly Duckling,” were held in the parking lot of Scottsdale Fashion Square. Gerry and Laurie Cullity, co-founders and executive directors, auditioned 13 young hopefuls, all of whom were cast in the first of what would become more than 250 productions.
Gerry was a classically trained musician holding a master’s degree in fine arts from the Mason Gross School of Fine Arts. His career included jobs as an actor, director, playwright, lyricist and musician. Sadly, Gerry passed away a few years ago, leaving Laurie to continue the success of the theater alone. Laurie holds a bachelor’s degree in dance from Rutgers University and spent the majority of her life owning and operating dance schools.
“Gerry was a humble actor when we met in New Jersey,” Laurie shares of their beginning. “I was passionate for dance and musical theater. After a few years together, we decided we wanted to expand our art. Gerry had a wonderful plan for a theater, so we moved to Arizona with his mother and thus began our adventure.”
Desert Stages is a unique title. Most believe it to be stages, as in the physical platforms actors perform on; however, the stages in the name are meant to represent the stages or phases of a performers’ life.
Desert Stages became a nonprofit organization as it continued to grow in popularity. In 2004, the theater moved to its current location in downtown Scottsdale. This is where they host their Children’s and Mainstage Theatres, the Academy, as well as The Actor’s Cafe, an intimate setting that showcases long-running productions. The mainstage theater consists of 136 seats in the round, which means they circle the stage rather than face only one direction toward the stage — not your typical theater arrangement.
“Theater in the round is much more intimate for our audience,” says Laurie. “I absolutely love the concept.”
Alongside musical productions, Desert Stages also dedicates their priorities to education through their Academy of Theatrical Arts. This program provides young actors with the skills necessary for stage performance.
“It’s wonderful because children will start with us at age 3 and continue well into their teens,” Laurie says. “Performance at our theater has become multigenerational. We are all family.”
Desert Stages has come a long way since “The Ugly Duckling” in 1995. From 13 actors to more than 300 young performers, the organization has certainly grown and continues to share music with the community.
“When it was just Gerry and me, we did it all — the musical directing, stage directing, choreographing, marketing, etc.,” says Laurie. “When he passed away in 2005, I felt empty. I have since hired others to help me staff and run the theater and I am so grateful for them all. The theater has not felt empty again since.”
After every show and every bow, Desert Stages stays true to Gerry and Laurie’s dream of sharing the love of performing with the community.
“We just have a special love and passion for performing and sharing joy,” Laurie said. “I always tell my students that we are giving the audience a gift and in turn, that gives us joy. I like to think we invite the world and see what happens.” She hopes to see new and returning faces in the audience at every show.
Because of Desert Stages Theatre’s enormous growth, the time has come to find a new location to put down roots. Recently, the former Harkins Theatres at Scottsdale Fashion Square closed, and the venue was put up for sale. Laurie saw this as a perfect opportunity to grow their theater company and immediately started their current fundraiser, the Next Stage Campaign, which she hopes will help raise the funds necessary to purchase this new theater of their dreams.
“It is a huge undertaking for us, but we feel this is the right decision and the right time,” Laurie explains. “Harkins left it to us in perfect condition and they even donated all of their theater chairs! We are so grateful and excited to begin this next chapter.”
Next Stage Campaign is focused on promoting the future of Desert Stages Theatre to gain support during this large venture. The purchase includes many renovation projects that are needed to convert the former movie theater into a functional performing arts theater. Laurie hopes to incorporate the “theater in the round” concept, complete with a second level of seating. She hopes to also include two separate theaters, classrooms, dance and green rooms for rehearsal and teaching space. They plan to relocate in the fall.
“We are delighted to be moving into such a prominent location within Scottsdale Fashion Square,” says Laurie. “Our beautiful new space will be more modern and much larger, featuring 12,500 square feet compared to our current 6,500. We are looking forward to the wonderful experiences this will offer both our audiences and our actors.”
There are many ways to support this endeavor. Some fundraisers within the campaign are the Future 500 ($500) and Look Into Your Heart ($100) donations, which give supporters an opportunity to purchase a plaque in their name with full proceeds going toward the campaign.
Supporters can also purchase seats in the theater — one seat for $600 or two seats for $1,000. Naming opportunities are available for large donations of certain spaces within the venue. Online and phone donations can be made directly through the theater.
Those who may not be able to donate but are still interested in supporting the theater can volunteer for many available positions, including ushering, promoting, stage hands and more.
“This is an opportunity to give our audience a better theatrical experience, and we know that our walk-in interest will increase with our new location in the mall,” Laurie shares. “I am mostly excited for the new space and the idea that we will continue to bring great theater to the Valley and enable the community visiting Scottsdale Fashion Square to have a choice with the performing arts — a viable option in the place they shop. We hope to see a thriving new business and share our gift with many more people within the community.”