Beowulf Alley Has a New Artistic Director with New Ideas

August 6, 2012

By Teya Vitu

A new season is about to start at Beowulf Alley Theatre, 11 S. Sixth Ave, with a new artistic director who is bringing a new professionalism to this community theater troupe.

Michael Felason is artistic director at Beowulf Alley Theatre.

First off, Beowulf Alley in its first 11 years has never had an artistic director – one person making the artistic decisions. Until now, Beowulf assembled seasons via an artistic development committee.

That all changed in February 2012, when one of those committee members, Michael Fenlason, became the company’s first paid artistic director. The committee is gone and the upcoming 2012-13 season is a product of Fenlason’s desire to bring balance across a season.

“This season I’m trying to get to a nice mix,” Fenlason said. “Before, it was what we voted for without thinking of balance. It became difficult and fractious.”

Fenlason is pairing Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler” with Jeff Whitty’s “The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler”, with both works playing in repertory Aug. 31 to Sept. 16.

David Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize winning “Glengarry Glen Ross” follows Nov. 2 to 18. Next comes “Marie Antoinette: The Color of Flesh” by Joel Gross from Nov. 30 to Dec. 16.

The new year opens with a pair of Drama Desk Award best new play nominees: “Three Hotels” by Jon Robin Baitz from Jan. 4 to 20, and “The Pavilion” by Craig Wright from Feb. 15 to March 3.

Classic Greek theater holds forth March 8 to 24 with “Lysistrata” by Aristophanes and the season closes with Tom Stoppard’s “The Invention of Love” from March 29 to April 14.

Fenlason wants Beowulf Alley to be known for producing works of relevance, not another Neil Simon revival.

“We’re doing things relevant to our society,” Fenlason said. “We’re not doing literary karaoke.”

Michael Fenlason on stage at Beowulf Alley Theatre.

Fenlason also abandoned Beowulf’s play selection process of having directors approach the artistic development committee with plays they wished to stage.

“Directors are not the only ones to suggest plays,” Fenlason said. “Audience members suggest plays. Actors suggest plays.

“While we were a community theater (before), we didn’t have a great sense of community. We’re trying to put a little more of our community into Beowulf. We want to pay our actors and directors and put a more professional feel to it. We’re definitely planning for that this season.”

Beowulf touted there was no pre-casting of plays. Fenlason scoffs.

“We acted like we were an open shop but that wasn’t really true,” Fenlason said. “It became cloak-and-daggerish and became kind of silly.”

Fenlason invited Winding Road Theater Ensemble and Sacred Chicken Productions to consider the Beowulf facilities as their home base.

“He has a very collaborative sensibility,” said Toni Press-Coffman, a founding member and company manager at Winding Road. “I think it’s good for the theater community.”

Winding Road has lived up to its name for the first three season, performing at a variety of venues, including the Cabaret Theatre at the Temple of Music and Art and the ZUZI Dance Company.

“We love the space. It’s a wonderful space,” Press-Coffman said. “We like the number of seats (95). That’s kind of perfect for us. It will be way easier for our budgeting and for our audience.”

Fenlason’s arrival at Beowulf in 2008 ended an eight-year hiatus away from theater for him. He had launched and run Unlikely Theater Company in Phoenix from 1989 to 2000 after earning an English degree and working in a series of book stores.

“I like to tell stories,” he said. “I like the origination of a story. The film industry and Broadway are lacking ideas. The whole idea of telling a new story is really exciting.”

Fenlason joined Beowulf Alley as program director of Late Night Theatre, an edgier concept than the Main Stage productions. He shelved Late Night Theatre in March but now has a similar late-night program called Next Theatre that he describes as the theater equivalent of “research and development.”

When Beth Dell stepped down as managing director, a position she had held in one form or another since 2005, Fenlason stepped in with his new approach and also new management structure.

He said season subscriptions are higher this season. He’s also tapping into the holy grail of the whole theater world, be it plays, musicals, symphony concerts or opera.

“We’re getting a slightly different crowd,” Fenlason said. “It’s skewing younger right now. All we want to do is make this a place that not just older people go to.”

On that same “younger audience” note, Fenlason wants to add multi-media elements to Beowulf Alley presentations. He is producing three dozen comedy sketches for the Beowulf Alley Web site.

“We’re starting to make short films,” he said. “We will YouTube them and show them here. We are really a source of entertainment. We’re trying to do things people want to watch.”

Fenlason is reaching for another theater holy grail: Have audiences in the theater as many days as possible. He counted just three open weekends through May.

“You can pretty much come here every Friday and find something here,” he said.

Fenlason does not want to stage the six most popular Shakespeare or Neil Simon plays.

“How do we create something fresher than that?” he pondered. “We’re trying to be that alternative. We’re not expensive and we have really comfortable seats. Are we going to make art or sing karaoke?”