Award-winning Dezart Performs opens it’s eleventh season in the desert with the “serious comedy” CHURCH AND STATE on November 9 at The Pearl McManus Theatre in donwtown Palm Springs. Production notes state: “Three days before his bid for reelection, a Republican U.S. senator makes an off-the-cuff comment to a blogger that gets leaked on “the Twitter,” calling into question the senator’s stance on guns and God. As his devoutly Christian wife and liberal Jewish campaign manager try to contain the damage, this look at how religion influences politics and how politics has become a religion is simultaneously funny, heartbreaking, and uplifting.” I had the opportunity to catch up with Artistic Director, Michael Shaw, to talk about this production and all things “Dezart”. Here are some excerpts from that conversation:
DG: How does it feel to be kicking off an eleventh anniversary season in Palm Springs?
MS: It’s hard to believe that Dezart Performs has been here in the desert for ten years. Never did we think we’d grow to where we are today! But, we figure we must be doing something right, and that’s what keeps us going. Five years ago, on our fifth anniversary, I commented on a promotional video for Dezart that I couldn’t wait to see where we’d be in five years. Well, here we are. It’s rewarding to look back and see our growth over the years.
DG:What would you consider to be the highlight of your first decade?
MS: There were so many highlights during our first decade! We started in an art gallery where we considered ourselves a success if we had an audience of 15. We did primarily play readings, which were easy to produce and didn’t require a set. Now, we do semi-professional plays that involve everything from sets, props, costumes, hair and make-up, to lighting and sound. And for our 11th season, we’ve expanded to four productions, which presents new scheduling challenges. But I would have to say that the highlight over these past ten years is the continual support that we get from the community. Without this support, we wouldn’t be where we are today.
DG: On the converse, what would you consider to be your biggest challenge of the first decade?
MS: Their are two main challenges for all theatre companies, including Dezart Performs, and they are funding and finding and maintaining a loyal audience. Some people don’t realize that ticket sales alone aren’t enough to provide the income theatre companies like ours need to survive. So, we rely on the generosity of our patrons to support us with the additional funds needed to do what we do. As far as our audiences go, we’ve seen amazing growth over the years. Just in the last four years, ticket sales are up 1100%. We believe that this a combination of two factors: one, the type of plays we do that would not be seen unless you travelled to a larger city like Los Angeles, Chicago or New York. And two, we strive to keep our production values and the quality of our shows at the highest levels.
DG: Do you have a favorite production?
MS: There are several productions stand out to me. Our first show when we moved to our current location, the Pearl McManus theatre, was “The Old Bird,” which was incredibly successful and won a Desert Theatre League Award for Outstanding Drama. More recently, The Legend of Georgia McBride (which just last week won a Desert Theatre League Award for outstanding comedy), was our best-attended production to date, and presented me with the most challenges I’d ever faced, including several dance numbers, 27 costume changes, licensing 18 musical numbers and the most complex lighting cues ever. But I would have to say that, personally, performing in “Rabbit Hole” was certainly a highlight, not only because I was very proud of the production, but because the director and my dear friend, Scott Smith, who did an amazing job, passed away shortly after the show closed. And just last week, he was honored by the Desert Theatre League with Outstanding Director and Outstanding Drama awards, along with four of the cast members receiving outstanding performance awards as well.
DG: What is Dezart’s mission, and has that mission changed or developed over the years?
MS: Dezart Perform’s mission is to produce bold, thought-provoking plays that engage the audience. We take great pride in presenting plays that are relevant and make people think, while at the same time be entertaining. Originally, or mission was to seek out and produce new, non-published works. Over the years, this presented a marketing challenge to promote a play that had never been done before and had no history. We now find that we have greater success producing plays that I have found that originate from Broadway, Off-Broadway or Chicago.
DG: Who is your primary audience and what would you say are the things they expect from a Dezart production?
MS: We find that our audience is primarily a blend of both younger and older patrons who like to be entertained with plays that engage them and make them think. We go to great lengths to produce the best quality productions we can, and our audiences appreciate that.
DG: How did you make the programming selections for this tenth-anniversary season?
MS: My programming selects have always been based on a few fundamental elements. First, is it well written and does it keep me engaged to the very end? Do I care about the characters and what happens to them? Second, is it timely and does it deal with the events and concerns that our audience cares about in the world today? And third, can we physically fit the production in terms of set and number of cast members on our stage. But I have to say, the very first thing I look at is the title. If the title doesn’t peak my curiosity, I probably won’t even read it.
DG: Talk about Church And State, in particular. What made you select this play and what are you hoping audiences take away?
MS: Church and State is a great example of an engaging play that deals with current events and issues of the day. The topics it deals with, from politics, to gun control and religion, are all on everyone’s mind. And considering that my first play of the season would open three days after the midterm elections, I couldn’t have asked for a more appropriate opening show! What’s great about this play, however, is that it’s a well-written comedy. From the moment I started reading it, I couldn’t put it down.
DG: How do you cast your shows, and who are the cast and creative team for Church And State?
MS: My goal, as always, is to draw upon the rich pool of local talent that exists here in the Valley. But, that’s not always possible for a variety of reasons, including the fact that sometimes an actor I want has already committed to another theater company and there’s a scheduling conflict. If I can’t cast locally, I go to Los Angeles and hold auditions there. I couldn’t have asked for a better cast for Church and State. Beau Marie plays Senator Whitmore, and Kelley Moody plays his wife. Tammy Hubler and James Owens round out the cast. Included in my creative team is Tom Valach, Set Designer and Production Manager, Phil Murphy, Lighting Director, Clark Dugger Sound Designer, and Frank Cazares Costume Designer.
DG: You are an actor, director, and producer. Any preference?
MS: All three rolls present their own unique challenges, and rewards. But I would have to say, as director, I get to lead the cast and creative team with my vision, and I find that very satisfying.
DG: We all get to make a wish on our birthdays? What is your biggest wish for this tenth-anniversary season?
MS: Although we continue to have great successes at the Pearl McManus Theater, I wish for a day when Dezart Performs has its own permanent theatre.
CHURCH AND STATE runs from November 9-18 at The Pearl McManus Theatre located at the historic Women’s Club in downtown Palm Springs. For tickets and information visit www.dezartperforms.org.
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