From Humble Beginnings
By Laura Stoddard
At the intersection of Cave Creek and Scottsdale roads 43 years ago, there was one thing: dirt.
Cave Creek was just a small, close-knit community, slowly unfurling its petals at the far-north reaches of Scottsdale. Who knew that decades later it would be home to Desert Foothills Theater (DFT), one of the Valley’s most rapidly growing theater companies.
The couple was founded more than 40 years ago when Anne and Carl Nussbaum joined the relatively sparse ranks of the small town, says Meribeth Reeves, the theater’s executive director.
“They brought with them a love of theater and decided to start a community theater,” Reeves says. “Their very first performance was at the Carefree Inn’s opera house.”
Unable to find a dedicated venue for the theater, the Nussbaums bought a tent, and set up wherever people would let them. After years as vagabonds—with a short-term stint at the occasional restaurant or playhouse—they found a permanent home in the Cactus Shadows Fine Arts Center.
“It has grown to a multifaceted theater company with a large education program, offering classes for all ages, a vibrant, award-winning youth theater, and an award-winning adult theater,” Reeves says.
The Scottsdale native became involved with the DFT in the early 2000s. Reeves studied theater, criticism and music education at Oberlin College in Ohio. She moved to Pittsburgh, where she worked in arts management for about 10 years. In 1999, she and her husband returned to the Valley. She soon became aware of DFT, and read a newspaper article about the theater’s impending closure.
“I thought I would see what I could do to help, and somehow I ended up on the board for DFT,” she says.
“I spent several meetings just listening—trying to figure out exactly what went wrong and helping them decide the best course of action. I was hired as a communications consultant and wrote a couple of grants for them, and then in 2007 I was hired as managing director.”
Since Reeves’ involvement, the theater has seen massive growth.
“When I took on the managing director job, DFT was doing two adult productions a year and a series of small, one-night fundraising events,” Reeves says.
“The organization’s overall budget was about $70,000 a year. This season, DFT’s season is almost overwhelming. We have three youth theater productions, three adult theater productions, three tribute band performances, three cabarets and a summer drama. We have also grown our education program from one or two workshops a year, to a full year of classes ranging from acting, to voice, to improv.”
DFT staff is particularly proud of is its commitment to promoting and displaying diversity, on stage and off. The first statement on its online audition page states, “Nontraditional casting is our standard at DFT. Actors of all ethnic backgrounds and levels of ability are invited to audition.”
Reeves was especially sensitive to this topic due to her training and studies at Oberlin, which focused on revolutionary black drama.
“The first work I directed was Baraka’s The Dutchman,” she says.
“I was later asked to direct an Oberlin Black Arts Workshop production of The Colored Museum, by George C. Wolfe. I was drawn to the work because I did not live the lives these writers wrote about. I had no personal frame of reference for the work, so as a director my role was to listen to the actors and help them guide their characters so they were effectively communicating what was written.”
DFT’s cast of The Pajama Game, for example, featured two multiracial couples, as well as an ensemble featuring actors from every walk of life.
“Also, we are willing to consider, if the playwright approves, gender changes in character, or men or women playing the opposite gender,” she says.
Angelina Ramirez, winner of an AriZoni Best Actress award, joined DFT for its production of Dreamgirls several years ago. She was impressed by the theater’s focus on diversity.
“We spoke about it during rehearsals, and I loved that Meribeth stressed this issue and wanted to push forth some great talent that was going unnoticed,” Ramirez says. “As we progressed, I began to see the bigger picture, as far as our impact in the Valley, offering such a diverse show. We became an important narrative, that if you have a show with roles for minorities, we have the talent for it right here in Arizona.”
She looked at other theaters, and what shows they were offering. She concluded that audiences wanted—almost craved, nontraditional casts. Shows like Hamilton were making it the trend. DFT had a leg up on the competition, thanks to Reeves’ influence.
“With all that is going on in the world,” we as minorities want our stories to be told as accurately as possible,” Ramirez says. “The times of people portraying other races because they had no one else to play those roles are gone. I’m confident that DFT will continue to produce shows that offer different cultures and backgrounds to their audiences. Now I am prouder than ever, as an actress, writer, and a minority, to represent all those voices and stories that need to be heard.”
DFT’s mission goes further than that. Reeves and her team are developing a performing arts and education facility for the far North Valley to accommodate all the growth and future plans.
Reeves is excited about the new facility’s possibilities.
“Partnering with Foothills Academy College Prep, we are developing a shared-use facility with a DFT stage, classrooms, rehearsal rooms, scene shop and costume and prop areas, a teachers’ lounge, greenroom, kitchen, and a large multipurpose room that can be used as lobby event overflow,” Reeves says.
“This will be a home for the community, where everyone is welcome and where the community will have access to performing arts. We are so excited to finally be heading down the road to a facility that will allow us to fulfill our dreams.”
Desert Foothills Theater, 34250 N. 60th Street, Scottsdale, 480.488.1981, dftheater.org. Its next show is The Addams Family Musical from October 7 to October 15.