For followers of the Phoenix community theater scene, Ashley Naftule is a constant fixture, whether he’s organizing shows like 7 Minutes in Heaven at Space 55, performing characters such as professional arm wrestler Thunderbolt Tsunami on stage, or presenting short plays he has written at events such as Phoenix Fringe. The 32-year-old Scottsdale resident constantly comes up with creative personalities and ideas for the stage to keep audiences entertained, and you can catch him next this Thursday, December 3, when he’ll be performing at the PEP (Phoenix Educational Programming) Rally variety show at Lawn Gnome Publishing in Phoenix. The show kicks off at 8 p.m., and this week’s theme spotlights vignettes about the occult.
Naftule, who works as a copywriter for marketing agency Loud Rumor during the day, is the “Czar of Limited Engagements” at Space 55, where he runs special events at the theater. He shared why he’s so passionate about the stage and the local theater scene, and you can hear him name his five favorite reasons for loving living in the Valley in a video.
What brought you to Arizona?
I was born and raised here. My whole family is from France. My mom is from Algeria, and my dad is from Switzerland, and they moved to the States around 40 years ago and drifted here.
I was born in Phoenix, went to Horizon High School, and went to ASU for a few years.
What’s your earliest memory of being interested in theater?
It’s funny, I had no desire to do theater until around four years ago. I used to have these ambitions of being a filmmaker someday, so I went to Scottsdale Community College and took film classes. I heard about Kim Porter, who was doing a playwriting workshop at Space 55. I had no ambitions of being an actor or a playwright at all, but doing the workshop got me thinking about trying it.
I used to go see plays and shows and loved art, but I never saw myself as a writer or someone on stage because I used to get crippling stage fright. In high school, I used to ditch class whenever we had to do a book report in front of class because I didn’t want to stand in front of people and talk, because of how paralyzed I was just by the idea of it.
Now, I organize a lot of variety shows and perform at different venues, like Lawn Gnome Publishing and The Trunk Space. I organize the annual H.P. Lovecraft Birthday Party at The Trunk Space in honor of the horror writer, with performance artists. I also do a lot of things at The Firehouse in Phoenix and was in a production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show a few months back. I’ve also done some things with ASU and the Arizona Storytellers Project. Basically, if I can get on a bill, I’ll try, because I like getting in front of new audiences and trying different things.
How do you come up with your characters?
A lot of times, it’s experimentation. I have this one character who’s an arm wrestler, and the gag of that bit is that I always lose, but I never admit defeat, and I’m incredibly arrogant about it. The bit came from thinking, what if I could arm wrestle an audience – what could I do with that? It builds from there.
I’ll put things in front of an audience, and it’s the interaction with different people that builds the idea. I improvise in the moment, and that’s where a lot of ideas come from. If I think an idea is dumb, chances are good I’ll still do it to see the reaction, because it will probably translate really well on stage.
How do you think you stand out as an improviser?
I don’t think I’m really good at raw improv, where you start from scratch on stage, but if I have a vague idea of a character or situation, I can really shine with that. It’s like with Andy Kaufman – I love seeing how far I can push a situation. I think that’s one thing I’m really good at, is that when I’m interacting in those environments as a character, I can stay in that character and not drop out. I can play one character and play it for hours if I have to, and I feel right doing it.
What’s the key to staying in character?
No matter what happens, just go with it. The more absurd the character is, the easier it gets. If people don’t know you’re that person, they’re going to take your word for it. A few years ago, FilmBar in Phoenix did an “air sex” competition. I went up there and played a character named Jean-Jacques Le’Amour, a professional lover. Everyone thought I was real, even though the character was completely ridiculous and fake. That made it so much easier.
If you’re a cartoon character, and people respond to it, you just go with it. It’s not hard for me. Conventional acting, where you’re a character and know every single line, is hard for me, but taking a character and winging it for several hours is my comfort zone, my sweet spot.
How do you hope to impact people with your performances?
I want to leave people with a bit they’ll remember. If it’s a comedy bit, if people laugh, that’s enough, but to touch people with a story or linger in people’s memories is what I want.
What advice do you have for someone looking to break into the local theater scene?
Two words: just ask. From a show organizer standpoint, we’re always looking for performers and new talent. Just ask. I think a lot of people wait to be invited to things, but you should just go up and say, “Hey, I’d really like to do this. This is who I am.” Nine times out of 10, you get on bills.
Seventy-five percent of shows I’ve done have not been invites. It’s going up to show organizers and saying, “Hey, can I please do this show?” Usually, they say yes, because they need people. Show up, and do what you say you’re going to, and you’re on your way to success.
How would you describe the Phoenix theater scene? What do we have going for us, and what needs to be improved upon?
When I started performing, I had no background, no training and no ambition to be a performer, and I did it. I think one of the things I love about Phoenix as a community is that it welcomed that. One of the things I love about Space 55 is that they never said, “You can’t do that – you’re not qualified.” I found in this city, if you want to do something, you can do it. Get up there, and do it. If I can do it, anybody could. I hope people get that impression – “If that guy can do it, I can do it.”
I think what can be improved upon is more theater collaboration and communication. Phoenix is one of those cities where, if you want to know what shows are going on every week, there’s really no resource for that. There’s not a calendar, like in some other cities, that displays everything that’s happening, so it’s hard to know sometimes what’s happening.
A lot of theater troupes won’t collaborate. Bands will collaborate, and other mediums will be much better, but with theater, there isn’t so much a sharing of people and knowledge. I don’t think it’s malicious; I just think for whatever reason we’re all busy doing our own little things, we don’t reach out.
The good thing is we’re not New York or Los Angeles, and we know that. It’s like the Wild West. There’s no scrutiny. We’re in the desert, doing our thing, and I think that isolation in the community gives us the freedom to do whatever we want.
What’s your favorite place to perform at, and where’s your favorite place to see a show?
Space 55 is my favorite place to perform at. I love the space, I’ve been there for years, and I love the atmosphere. It was the place where I kind of found myself. The first show I ever saw there was a production of Ubu Roi, an old French play. It was phenomenal and weird. There was a toilet on stage the character was sitting on like a throne, and there was trash strewn about everywhere. It was like, “This is theater?” I was completely blown away by it.
That’s what kept bringing me back to that space to do stuff there. I think the thing I love about it is that it’s a professional theater, and we do work that’s really high-quality, but there isn’t a barrier up. There literally could be a schmo walking off the street that would say, “Hey, could I do something here?”, and we’d be like, “Yeah, we’ll give you a shot.”
Sometimes I go to other theater groups, and I don’t have that feeling. I’ll think, “That was an amazing play, that was an amazing production, but I don’t believe I could do that, or that I’d fit particularly well for this place.” That’s something we do differently, is that we’re an open environment, in that if you want to work with us and bring something to the stage, we’ll work with you. There’s room for anybody to come in.
For my favorite place to see a show, I’d probably go with The Trunk Space. I love the atmosphere of it. There are gumball machines and a photo booth and tons of old records and vintage toys. The variety of stuff you can browse through while you’re there is great, and I love the smallness of it and the intimacy. It’s an all-ages space, so you don’t have to deal with drunken people. The vibe is very positive there and very welcoming. The Trunk Space is one of the few places I ever felt home there and felt like I was part of a community.
What are your goals?
I personally want to write more. I want to write plays and books. As a performer, my goal is to do consistently good work and not get stuck in a rut. Every year, I think, “OK, what could I do differently to tweak what I’ve done?” I want to not get comfortable with what I do, because I want to grow not only as a person but as a performer, to be creative and not do the same thing over and over again. A lot of people in Phoenix find their zone, and they don’t really leave it. I always want to change it up. I don’t want people to come to one of my shows and know what I’m going to do. I want there to be that element of, “Oh, he might do this, or he might do something completely out of left field.”
For people who might have stage fright, what advice do you have?
The first time I did an improv class, my teacher said, “The audience wants to see you succeed. No one wants to go see a show and be bored. They don’t want to see you go on stage and fail—everyone wants to see you succeed.” If you internalize that, performing is a lot easier, because you know people aren’t waiting for you to mess up. They just want you to do the best you can so they get the most out of it. That’s very liberating.
Another way to get over stage fright is to use it on stage. You might get really scared, and don’t pretend you’re not, because that’s fake. Take that energy, and put it in your performance. That way, you’re still nervous and scared on stage, but you’re using it to a productive end. People don’t know you’re afraid – they just assume it’s part of your character and what you’re trying to do.
Why would you encourage someone to watch one of your performances?
It’s going to be something you haven’t seen before. Not to shine my own shoes, but I think I’m a very intelligent and funny person. I think when I do bits, I’m going to provide a different perspective for certain ideas. A lot of it is very interactive. You’re not just watching me perform – you get to be a part of it. I always try to make sure it’s not just a static thing. I’ll always try to get you involved in some way. I like that element of interactivity with the audience.
Why should people support the local theater scene?
You can’t get it anywhere else. Hulu and Netflix are great, but you can get that stuff any time of the week. What’s beautiful about these shows is they’re only going to happen once most of the time. There’s something that’s really unique. It’s not something you can buy or rent – you have to go experience it in person. It’s a beautiful thing to experience live art.
Plus, you get to meet people and be involved in the community. Anything that might encourage people that the city they live in is actually really interesting and not lame, that’s a good thing. Our theater community is evidence Phoenix is a lot more vibrant than we give it credit for.