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Future Uncertain For Space 55, A Home To Off-Beat Theater In Phoenix

By Stina Sieg
Published: Friday, September 15, 2017 - 6:57am
Updated: Friday, September 15, 2017 - 3:34pm

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At most theaters, the division between the audience and the performers is concrete – with auditions, vetting and often years of experience dividing the two. But for more than a decade, a tiny theater in downtown Phoenix has blurred those lines. It’s called Space 55. And its future is now uncertain.

For many people, the theater is synonymous with this question: If you had seven minutes on a stage to do whatever you wanted, what would you do?

People have responded with music and by doing Shakespeare – while eating sandwiches. There’s also one character who arm wrestles people in the audience, but never admits defeat.

The show’s called “Seven Minutes in Heaven," and it can be hilarious. It can also make no sense at all, and feature people who’ve never set foot on stage.

And that’s exactly what Shawna Franks, founder of the theater and former artistic director, had in mind.

“I wanted to have a place where everyone who wanted to make art could do that,” she said, speaking from her home in Chicago.

And Franks didn’t create that sense of permission with those “Seven Minutes in Heaven” shows, but with Chekhov, bawdy variety shows, improv and stand-up comedy – all presented on a small stage with sketchy air conditioning.

For Franks, this was about having incredible talent and not worrying about having the production value to match it.

“And that feels very unsafe and wonderful,” she said.

Now, that may be endangered.

After years on the corner of Seventh and Pierce streets, Space 55 has lost its lease. That means its current play will be its last – at least for a little while.

It’s called “Ear,” and it’s loosely based on Vincent Van Gogh’s life. The play is about a boy who loves a girl and gives her a token of his affection. Unfortunately, he cuts that token off the side of his head.

Eventually, the ear starts talking – and it gets stranger from there.

Ashley Naftule, who wrote the play, said in recent years Space 55 has built up strong audiences and cultivated so many performers and writers, including himself.

“I think we’ve kind of found our groove,” he said. "So I guess it’s a question that now that the needle is skipping off the record, like, I hope that we find a new track to land on.”

Naftule knows about other alternative theaters in the Valley – but he can’t think of another one quite so open.

“It’s the kind of place where you can go and see Virginia Woolf one night, and see a naked guy do, like, hide-and-seek magic the next,” he said.

Space 55
(Photo by Yosef Rodel)
Part of the Arcana Collective, which performed during “Seven Minutes in Heaven.”

Sometimes, these shows are absolute disasters. Sometimes, they’re masterpieces.

One of the most beloved was a seven minute, full-fledged opera, written, translated into Italian and performed by locals, based on the 1987 video game movie “The Wizard” starring Fred Savage.

Why not?

Dennis Frederick was in the audience that night, and remembers his “inner nerd boy” weeping with joy.

“Oh, Il Mago,” he said, with a wistful smile. “That was so wonderful.”

Frederick believes “Il Mago” represents what Space 55 does best. It gives people the space to express – and sometimes find – who they are.

That’s what happened to Frederick, who’s directing the current show here.

Frederick said being part of the theater helped him see outside of himself “and accept and embrace the impact and the change on our community and on the world."

That’s not going to change, even though Space 55’s address will.

“I don’t know where our next place will be. I don’t know when our next place is going to be,” Frederick said. “But I do have that certainty that our next place is going to be.”

Frederick believes all Space 55 needs to live again are some chairs and an audience. And maybe some better air-conditioning.

The play “Ear” runs through at least Sept. 24, with “Seven Minutes In Heaven” shows likely running in October.

"Il Mago" is an original opera created for Space 55's "Seven Minutes in Heaven" series.

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