Rural community theater’s across Arizona struggle to survive

Actors from Arizona Theatre Company’s Summer on Stage program. (Photo by Arizona Theatre Company)

In a world with limited arts funding, community theaters across the state of Arizona struggle to sustain themselves.

According to Arizona Commission on the Arts, in rural areas only 52 percent of students have access to arts education programs in their school. The value community theaters bring to students and schools is being completely diminished due to lack of funding.

Over 20 nonprofit community theaters in Arizona look to Arizona Commission on the Arts, which is funded in part by National Endowment for the Arts, to help fund their programs. The agency released $2,354,500 in grants for fiscal year 2018.

In 2013, Arizona Commission on the Arts and the Department of Education conducted an arts education census that revealed that out of the 2,261 schools in Arizona, only 91 offer theater. That is only 4.9 percent.

“Fortunately, we haven’t seen a major decrease in the NEA budget in the last six years—it’s been pretty steady,” Arizona Commission on the Arts Communications Director Steve Wilcox said. “We’re still seeing the rural and smaller communities have a real lack in availability of arts education programs—they’re not enjoying the same level of access that we’re seeing in urban areas.”

With such a low percentage of schools offering theater, many children and families look to community theater. The only problem is, every theater that asks for grants from Arizona Commission on the Arts is competing for the same limited dollars.

Theaters in rural areas, such as Yuma, are not only losing money on

Students from Valley Youth Theatre’s summer camp show “The Lion King.” (Photo by Skye Fallon/Valley Youth Theatre)

shows, but are not in a financial position to have paid personnel—they are completely volunteer based.

Yuma Community Theater’s Treasurer, Webmaster, and “sometimes director” Joanne Kidd believes that passion is what characterizes their community theater more than anything and allows the theater to remain hopeful towards funding.

In the past three or four years, Kidd has recognized that the youth needs the opportunity to experience community theater. She’s seen through the theater’s workshops that the youth in the area are anxious to get onstage and be a part of something bigger than themselves.

The theater currently struggles to maintain a budget and what they allow their directors to put on—they can no longer put on musicals because the royalties are so high. The theater is “thrilled to death” if they can receive $2,000 to $4,000 from Arizona Commission on the Arts.

The theater is dependent on other buildings for a venue, which has been very tricky in a town like Yuma. The theater’s audience base is primarily winter visitors.

Kidd adds: “It’s hard to find a space that will accommodate us. We want to take three or four months out of the winter season because that’s our busiest times. Most venues around town, and there aren’t that many, don’t want to give up that much time to one organization.”

Larger community theaters, such as Arizona Theatre Company in Tucson and Phoenix, are required to have an education plan, which they submit with their grant applications.

Participants from Arizona Theatre Company’s Summer on Stage program. (Photo by Arizona Theatre Company)

“Most recently we joined the Arts Advisory & Action Committee produced by the Arizona Department of Education in partnership with Arizona Commission on the Arts,” ATC’s Director of Learning and Education Israel Jimenez said. “The hope with the committee is to learn strategy and collaborate. It’s been almost necessary to join something like that with what’s happening with funding.”

It wasn’t very long ago when Jimenez felt like Arizona Theatre Company was not going to survive, which happened during a time when a lot of theaters didn’t.

“We’re luckily past that, but the challenge is always there and I think not only in funding but also how do you educate the community and the state about how important arts are?” Jimenez said.

Kidd feels that you can educate the youth through being part of a show—you don’t need to have a special program for them. By placing children in a cast that ranges from ages 7 to 70, they learn memorization skills, how to take and follow directions, how to be committed and dedicated, and how to cooperate with an age group they may not be familiar with.

Fountain Hills Theater‘s Youth Artistic Director Ross Collins said they try to disguise the learning in “a spoon full of sugar.” The children have fun and they end up learning a lot of life lessons along the way.

Struggling community theaters stand in contrast to wildly successful inner city theaters.

Kimiko Glenn and Emma Stone in “Winnie the Pooh Christmas Tail” at Valley Youth Theatre in 2002. (Photo by Valley Youth Theatre)

Valley Youth Theatre in Phoenix is home to celebrities such as Oscar winner Emma Stone (La La Land), Kimiko Glenn (Waitress) and Jordin Sparks (American Idol!). The theater is very fortunate to receive an abundance of donations each year from various donors. Donations range from $250 to over $50,000. The nonprofit received $22,000 from Arizona Commission on the Arts for fiscal year 2018.

“For a long time, we were the only show in town,” Skye Fallon, director of Marketing and Communications at VYT, said. “We were the only valid children’s theater for a long time. Nowadays children tend to travel more—they’ll go from theater to theater to theater. Back in 2000 and 2001, children found one place and they sort of grew up there; that’s when we had Emma and Kimiko.”

It’s quite obvious that there is a certain value the community theater brings to education. Nowadays, the media and immediate access to information have limited a lot of young people in their ability to go out and find answers—they can just go on their phones. When Collins was in school, he was taught how to learn.

“I find that when they’re coming here, the phones have to go away and they cannot rely on a phone to answer the questions for them,” Collins said. “They are responsible to come in with their lines learned, know their choreography and review their songs. They’re responsible for everybody in the cast to be up to the speed of everyone so when it comes time for production they are all on the same page.

“People are locked into social media and these kids come out and reach outside of themselves and present themselves. I think that it’s just beautiful to watch them blossom during even just one production.”

Betsy Kaplan is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at

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