The ins and outs of 'Jeffrey'

By Jon Roig
Arizona Daily Wildcat
November 21, 1996

"Theater is rock 'n' roll," says Anthony Runfola. He's kidding, of course, but it's a useful anology for what the Upstairs Theater Company is trying to do. The cast and crew all laugh. "It helps to act like a bunch of rock stars, like we're in a band together... and that's part of the fun, too."

They certainly look like they're enjoying themselves, but the stress of running a non-profit theater company in Tucson lurks quietly underneath the surface. Nobody gets paid for their work, but they have a mission, a dream to make theater a viable entertainment option in Tucson. Oh, and they'd someday like to be able to live off the profits from the two year-old company.

I asked them about the origin of their name - the current venue resembles a church and, more importantly, only has one floor.

"Well, going back a few years... We have done this once before: Ari (associate producer), Evan (stage manager), Mike (managing director), and myself all went to high school together," says Runfola, artistic director for "Jeffrey." "We did a show in a little art gallery in downtown Phoenix. We called it the Upstairs Theater Company because it happenned to be upstairs. We found three hundred bucks and went out and did it."

I must admit, I'm a not a theater person. I've always associated the T word with extreme boredom and pretensiousness, and I'd rather rip out my own spleen than participate in that high-culture tomfoolery. But for some reason, the UTC draws me in; this production of "Jeffrey" feels alive. Of course, it is alive - that's the nature of the art.

"Theater can be as exciting as a film or any other art medium," explains Michael Toubassi (You might recognize his name; he manages various bands around town - again, the rock 'n' roll connection). "We like to go after a younger crowd because they don't realize that it can be something exciting. We only charge five bucks, so hopefully that'll make us competetive with the film industry."

But comparing films with theater is like comparing alligators to zombies. I guess they both eat people and feast on their brains, but their method of doing so is inherently different. The alligator lives, it breathes, you never know what it's going to do next - this is what a good stage production is like. The actors are right there; you could reach out and touch them if etiquette allowed. The zombie, on the other hand, has already been programmed by some mad scientist - its behavior has been set in stone, not unlike a film. It's been edited to make it as "perfect" as the budget and script allow.

"There's one thing about theater that's different than video or film or anything else, and that's the connection between the actors and the audience," illustrates director Cori Brackett. "The stage is something very different than any other medium, and you can create a certain sense of magic, a connection. The audience can feel like they're a part of something that's very dynamic, something that's happenning right now."

"So have you had any disasters yet?" I ask. Laughter.

The show must go on, and stage manager Andrew Lasseter is ultimately responsible for dealing with any last-minute crisis. "There's all sorts of things that can go wrong with a play, that's why I like doing them. I always have to be paying attention to every line, every word, every little thing. If something goes wrong, something changes, if the lights blow - things beyond our control happen. We just have to figure out how to cover for that."

The production I saw went flawlessly, at least as far as I could tell. But one question remains unanswered... why "Jeffrey?" "It actually says something beyond a happy-go-lucky comedy," says Brackett. "It deals with a subject that I feel very strongly about, and I think more important theater needs to be done. It can be entertaining, enlightening, and can really move people."

"Jeffrey" continues its run 'till Sunday, November 24th. All shows are at 8PM, except Sundays at 2PM. Regular tickets are $9, while student tickets are $5. Call (520)791-2263 for more details. UTC @ the Tucson Center for the Performing Arts, 408 South Sixth Ave.