ASU professor brings Vaudeville to Phoenix through 'Valley Variety'

From clowns to contortionists to blues singers, 'Valley Variety' is a celebration of local talent

An ASU faculty associate is filling a gap he saw in the Phoenix arts scene by bringing his experience in Vaudeville-style variety shows to the Valley.

An ASU Herberger faculty associate and ASU alumnus, Brian Foley launched "Valley Variety" on March 20, 2018 in downtown Phoenix.

Foley designed and produced the show with the support of partners including the Aside Theatre and Phoenix Art Lab. His intention is to bring a new element of the performing arts to the Phoenix area.

Foley has a rich background in the performing arts which inspired and informed his production of the "Valley Variety" in many ways.

After graduating from New York University with a BFA in acting and directing, Foley started his career as an actor before transitioning into the variety arts.

“I realized very quickly that I would have more opportunities to create my own work and make a lot more money as a variety artist,” Foley said.

He worked as a clown, juggler, magician, singer and eventually collaborated with other variety artists in developing a living statue company — a job that led to appearances in Sesame Street’s 40th anniversary season.

After moving to Arizona to continue his education, Foley noticed an opportunity for growth in the Phoenix arts scene.

“We have a very healthy burlesque scene in Phoenix and a very healthy improv scene in Phoenix, but there aren’t too many variety shows here in Phoenix — certainly not family friendly ones,” Foley said.

Foley emphasized that the variety arts mean much more than just clowning around.

“The variety arts are the popular arts — arts that are open to everybody,” Foley said. “They speak to the audience regardless of language and cultural barriers ultimately creating a vision of the world that we want to live in, one (in which) everybody is welcome.”

Foley also said that opposed to other performance art, the Vaudeville theatrical tradition is the first that the American people can truly claim as their own.

In the early 20th century, “the Vaudeville stage brought together people of different backgrounds and they were allowed to present the best of themselves which often meant the best of their cultural heritage,” Foley said.

The first performance of the monthly production included a line-up of clowns, magicians, a martial artist, ukulele player, character performer, blues singer and a 10-year-old contortionist.

With audience members of all ages and cultural backgrounds, the production brings a unique energy to the space that reflects variety arts' history of inclusivity and community.

Kristina Pagan, an audience member at the first show, said that she loved the opportunity to celebrate a wide range of local artists.

“It is just such a great mix of talent — there is really something for everyone,” Pagan said.

Foley’s students Halla Nelson, a journalism and film junior, and Travis Colbert, also a film junior, attended the show to help with the production side of the event and to check out what their professor has been working on.

Nelson and Colbert spoke very highly of the show and the opportunity to see a diverse set of local talent in one place.

Nelson said her favorite aspect of the show was that the performers were not pinned against each other like variety artists so often are in television shows like “America’s Got Talent” and “Gong Show.”

“It is cool to give performers a space to just get up there and do their thing,” Nelson said.

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