Center Stage: Ron May on the individuality of indie-theater in Phoenix

Ron May came to ASU with no intention of staying in the state after graduation. He didn't plan to start his own nonprofit theater company in the Valley, nor did he intend to make a name for himself as one of the community's most prominent and well-received directors.

In his 15th year as founding artistic director of Arizona's Stray Cat Theatre, however, it has become clear that what started as a degree in directing and theater management from ASU has turned into something much greater than a diploma.

"Everyone (I went to school with) wanted to leave, to go to New York, LA or Chicago," May said. "I was like, 'They don't need you! They have enough people. Arizona needs you.' The state doesn't have as robust a theatrical menu as it should."

May grew up in Chicago and started acting in junior high. He graduated with his associate's degree in arts from a local community college. However, he was dissuaded from pursing a career in the arts when he saw other talented performing artists unable to find work after graduation.

Instead, he went to work as a psycho-social director for nursing homes, evaluating residents and putting them in group therapy-esque programs based on their moods and past experiences. May said speaking with the elderly about their regrets was what drove him to follow his own passion.

Center Stage is a weekly series profiling distinguished performing artists in Phoenix and Tempe and their impact in the community.

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"After a couple years of hearing resident after resident, towards the end of their journey, saying that they regretted not trying to be ballerinas, wished they had gone to law school, regretted not writing that book, wished they would have tried to become a singer, I said, 'This is stupid. I'm too young to not at least be trying,'" May said.

When May found out that one of his most influential role models, Marshall W. Mason, was a professor at ASU, he said he decided to move to Arizona to study directing and transform his own dreams into reality.

During his time at ASU, May took a class on how to start a nonprofit theater — not because he was planning to branch out on his own, but because he liked the professor and thought it would be a good experience.

"He walked you through the whole process to become a nonprofit," May said. "It was all theoretical, but I walked out with a complete template of how to make it happen."

Inspired by the class, May moved to California to start a theater company with some friends. When it became obvious that they had different ideas of how the company should be run, May moved back to Arizona and contacted some friends, asking if they wanted to try to make it happen.

"I told them, 'I've been to the nursing homes. You really don't want to be that person saying they wish they had tried it!'" May said.

He told them that if they tried it, the worst thing that could happen is that they would fall on their faces, go their separate ways and find something else to do. But if they succeeded, they would be able to create the artistic environment in Arizona that actors and audiences sought in bigger, brighter cities.

He also said the environment of the state made it a rewarding place to set goals and be able to achieve them.

"In Arizona, more than anywhere else I know of, the entrepreneurial spirit can take you just about anywhere," he said. "If you're in Arizona and you say you want to do something, you can pretty much do it and be relatively successful at it, whereas in other places the competition is so insane."

Thus Stray Cat Theatre was born in 2001. May describes it as an indie-theater with more R-rated content than a typical large-scale theater. He said the content often reflects his own obsession with the dark impulsions of human nature, but the organization's main goal is to bring fresh content to Phoenix audiences.

"The Stray Cat aesthetic is a hunger to put on the most vital contemporary work," May said. "We're champing at the bit to find the best new plays that are out there, then bring them here before anyone else gets them. We look for material that tells the stories that aren't being told, stories that resonate in the community."

Brooke Unverferth is the box office and house manager at Stray Cat Theatre, as well as the president of its board of directors. She said she has thoroughly enjoyed the past six seasons working with May.

"He's one of the smartest people I know," she said. "He is incredibly insightful, and he's not just intelligent, he's emotionally intelligent. He is also incredibly perceptive, and it very much informs how he directs and how he chooses the theater. It also makes him an amazing friend."

Playwright Steve Yockey said he met May when Stray Cat Theatre produced his play "Octopus" in March 2011. Since then, the organization has performed and workshopped several of his other works.

Yockey said May's style of directing is different from other directors he's worked with to transform the written script into live performance.

"He really meets the play on its own terms and figures out how it wants to live onstage, rather than trying to force anything," he said. "That's not the case with all directors. He has great intuition about where the play wants to go and he helps you get there."

May is currently busy working on Stray Cat Theatre's upcoming production of "Stupid F---ing Bird," which describes itself as a "bold and cheeky sort-of update" on Anton Chekhov’s "The Seagull" and opens at the Helen K. Mason Center for the Performing Arts on March 12.

Stray Cat Theatre presentsSTUPID FUCKING BIRDby Aaron Posner directed by Ron May March 11 - 26Helen K Mason...

Posted by Ron May on Monday, February 22, 2016

Stray Cat's 2015-16 season ends with the first local production of the two-time Tony winning musical "American Idiot," which adapts Green Day's album into a rock opera. The Stray Cat production runs June 24 through July 16 at the Tempe Center for the Arts.

Related Links:

Center Stage: Tracy Liz Miller on empowering women in theater

Center stage: Bonnie Eckard on diversity in the theater


Reach the reporter at skylar.mason@asu.edu or follow @skylarmason42 on Twitter.

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