Respect for the Craft
Invisible Theatre celebrates four full decades of Tucson productionsby Sherilyn Forrester
Tucson's Invisible Theatre has something that few theaters anywhere can claim: a full four-decade history.
In 1971, with a controversial war dividing the country, baby boomers coming of age and a cultural revolution well underway, grassroots theaters were springing up all around the country, in the belief that young, new voices could change the world.
Most of those groups, underfunded and lacking experienced leadership, sputtered and died. But in Tucson, the Invisible Theatre—born to produce original plays developed by company members—is celebrating its 40th birthday.
According to managing artistic director Susan Claassen, who has a 36-year history with the group, the theater was established in 1971 as a playwrights' theater, but financial challenges resulted in several members of the group leaving Tucson for what they hoped would be greener pastures. Claassen became the artistic director "by default," she laughs. "I was willing to learn about the business side of theater. Maybe I just had the longest attention span."
With Claassen at the helm, the group moved to its current location, at the corner of First Avenue and Drachman Street, in 1976. "It was a big commitment, because it we had to bring it up to code to be able to use it as a performance space." The theater has 80 seats and a tiny stage—roughly 20 by 24 feet. The current staff includes associate artistic director James Blair and associate producer Cathy Johnson.
IT did all original material until 1980. That year, Gail Fitzhugh, who has been an integral part of the group since 1979, directedUncommon Women and Others by Wendy Wasserstein. "We had to go before the board of directors to explain why we should do a copyrighted play, which meant we would have to pay royalties," Fitzhugh says.
Playwright Janet Neipris, an internationally recognized playwright on the faculty of Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, has had a relationship with IT for 30 years.
"There is no place in this country I would rather work than the Invisible Theatre," she says in an e-mail. "Why? Because there is no other regional theater I've worked at where the level of professionalism was so high, the degree of welcome and warmth so abounding.