Shawna Franks has helped the downtown Phoenix theater writers’ community grow immensely, as founder and artistic director at Space 55 Theatre, which hosts theater performances, as well as writing classes and workshops. The Phoenix resident and her team opened the theater in 2006, and since it’s become a haven for new, cutting-edge works that have never been seen in Arizona. Franks, a veteran stage and film actress, also teaches acting at the Arizona School for the Arts. She helped create the hilarious character of Blanche in the current holiday musical A Bloody Mary Christmas, playing through Saturday, December 21. Read on for what drives Franks’ desire to boost the local theater community, as well as to hear her name her five favorite reasons for loving living in the Valley.
What brought you to Arizona?
I was born in Santa Cruz, California and moved to Chicago at the age of 17. Chicago is where I went to school and started acting. I also performed in Europe, then I moved to Los Angeles for a little while. After my two sons were born, I moved to Phoenix because of a job opportunity for my husband.
What’s your first memory of wanting to be an actress?
I’ve always known I wanted to be an actress. When I was 3, my mom and her friends would invite me to have coffee with them, and I would pretend I was some woman named Mrs. McGilicutty. They would give me a cup of coffee and ask me lots of questions about my life. I ended up getting a Bachelor of Fine Arts at The Theatre School at DePaul University in Chicago.
How did you get over to Europe to act?
I was doing lots of theater in Chicago, and I did a play that was a huge hit called Killer Joe that took me to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland. From there, we got picked up to be produced in London at the Bush Theatre, then were transferred to The Vaudeville Theatre in London’s West End.
How did Space 55 originate?
When I came to Phoenix, I didn’t know anyone, so I started going to shows and meeting actors. I invited them over to my house, and I would make them dinner, and we would sit around and read plays together. I told them I wanted to start a theater company with them. So, it all it all began in my kitchen.
Our new ensemble and I performed our first show, LBJFKKK, at Soul Invictus. Right before that, we had some extra time in our rental and thought of doing a variety show. We created 7 Minutes in Heaven, where anyone could do whatever they wanted for seven minutes, without auditions or restrictions. We’ve been doing the 7 Minutes series regularly since then.
We needed a space for our next play, Book of Liz, which brought us to our current location. We ended up taking over the rental in 2006 and built the theater, stage, risers, and everything else. I actually had the chairs before I had the theater and kept them in my garage for about a year until we got the theater.
What made you want to open your own theater?
When I first moved here, I saw some shows, but there wasn’t the type of theater I wanted to do or that I connected with and liked doing when I was in Chicago.
When I was in London, I had a whole new appreciation for writers’ theater, where a theater would commission new writers to come in and do original work. I really believe creating new plays is incredibly vital for the longevity of American theater – that’s the only way theater will survive. Also, the value of community support is a important component of that.
What is it about the theater art form that inspires your passion?
The sense of community, and there’s a sense of life and magic that happens in theater that doesn’t happen in other art forms. When you see an exciting or inspiring play in an intimate venue, it can’t be repeated. You could see a really moving, creative or enlightened film, and if it’s great, it’s timeless. You can’t repeat that in theater, and only those audience members on that one particular night shared that one experience. It lives in those people and is in the actors. It’s a very intimate and particular experience that is shared between the actors and the audience.
However, I will add that I’d much rather see a bad movie than a bad play. Sitting in a theater and watching a bad play is fairly torturous. However, we know it’s all worth it when you experience a great show. There’s nothing like that feeling for me.
What are the classes and workshops here like?
We have solo performance workshops and private coaching. We have a writers’ forum, which I’m really proud of, because writers can come in with whatever they’re working on and support each other. We have a writer’s workshop every month where we have a new playwright bring in their play, and we cast it for them. It’s open to the public, so everyone can share ideas, the goal being the play will be produced at Space 55 or elsewhere – that it will have a life.
What would you say makes a good actress, and what makes you a good actress?
I think what makes a good actress is the ability to be as brave and generous as you possibly can be when you’re connecting with other performers on stage, truly being in the moment. Also, allowing yourself to be surprised by yourself and your fellow actors. To be able to do that, night after night, and being able to make it fresh every time, is vital. Well, that’s the goal anyway.
For actors, you are only as good as your last performance, but if I had to say what makes me a good actress, it would be that I’ve been doing it for so long. I think I bring a lot of variety to the different roles I play, and much of that has to do with the many life experiences I have had.
Every time I do a role, it’s incredibly fun and exciting for me. Even though it’s hard work and time consuming, it’s one of the most magical things I can do in my life. When I’m on stage, I get to be someone else with different problems and experiences. I’m always learning when I’m doing theater. That’s pretty darn cool.
Why should people come see A Bloody Mary Christmas?
It’s incredibly fun. It’s most likely something they’ve never seen before. It’s not A Christmas Carol. It has the fuzzy ending of a Christmas show, but it’s not your traditional Christmas show by any stretch of the imagination.
This production is in its forth year. We have fans who come back show after show and year after year. We love them and all the new audience members we get to meet. I think what brings audiences back is how funny and disarming the show is. This year, there’s a whole new cast, which is wonderful — it gives the show new life. It’s very satisfying to see the show continue to live beyond the original cast and production.
The original characters were created for a 7 Minutes in Heaven show. That’s just one of the continuing benefits how important those variety shows are. The 7 Minute shows are goofy, funny and bizarre, but so many ensembles and artists have been created because of a half-baked idea in the show.
How would you say Space 55 stands out among Valley theaters?
We’ve been doing this for so long now. We’ve managed to keep ourselves afloat by our ensemble and volunteers in order to make ends meet. We haven’t received any funding from the state or government – though we’d like to. We’ve stuck it out, and I’m amazed it still happens month after month.
Since we focus on new or rarely-seen work, each play we feature has to be either a world, U.S. or Arizona premiere. What stands out to me is so much of what we do is original work written by local playwrights. That’s something that makes us stand out in the Phoenix community.
How would you characterize the Phoenix theater scene?
I think it’s not considered a theater town, but I think with some of the exciting work that’s being done with independent theaters like Stray Cat or Nearly Naked, it has become much more distinctive. My hope is the rest of the world will see Phoenix as a viable theater city.
What would strengthen the scene here?
Mostly government and state support. Since we all share those struggles, I’ve experienced a greater feeling of community support at this point than when I first got here. We are all much more conscious we need each other in order to benefit from a healthy, vibrant theater scene.
At Space 55, we’ve created a comfortable, open and inclusive atmosphere. We want people to feel like they are part of our home, that they don’t need to dress a certain way or make huge plans in order to see a play, and it’s affordable. I strongly believe theater should be accessible to everyone. It’s usually the people who can’t afford to see theater who need it the most.
What are your goals?
I would like to see us expand to possibly have a bar in our lobby, so people have a place to hang out and socialize before and after a show. That’s something I experienced a lot when I was in Europe and Chicago. In Phoenix, I noticed people drive to a show and go home, and there’s no connection between artists and audience members. I wanted to create that here, and I think we have, but it’d be nice if we had a bar connected to it.
What advice would you have for someone who wants to start a theater company or get into acting?
If you want to start a theater company, it’s a crazy pursuit. You have to have undying drive and love for what you do. Otherwise, don’t bother, because it’s as exhausting as it is exciting.
If someone wanted to start out as an actor, I would say get as much training as you can. Learn from the best. I recommend our classes, Brandy Hotchner at Arizona Actors Academy and Duane Daniels at Actors WorkHouse. Don’t go to any classes that want you to pay for anything other than the classes — buyer beware. Also, if you love something more, do that instead. You’ll thank me later.!