Founded in 1993 by two educator/artists, Randy Messersmith and Kevin Dressler, the “user-friendly” theatre concept, high artistic values and educational bent were present from the start. The goal of the user-friendly approach is to create a modern day people’s theatre, originally inspired by Shakespeare and his contemporaries, whereby audience members from all walks of life are encouraged to take an active role in SSC through contact with artists (i.e., talkbacks and seminars today). SSC believes this enhances the total theatre experience for the audience and fosters a sense of community.
The mission and goals have changed little over the years: to entertain, educate, inspire, and elevate the general public and educational communities of Arizona. Southwest Shakespeare Company opens doors by exploring the intricacies of language through the vibrant and passionate performance of works of classical theatre. While Messersmith left early, Dressler remained Managing Artistic Director until 2000 when a national search brought Jared Sakren. Hired to take SSC to the “next level,” Sakren has done exactly that, raising artistic standards, bringing in talented actors, designers & directors from across the U.S. and presenting the classics in unique settings.
In 20 years, SSC has grown financially, artistically & organizationally. Without losing sight of mission or goals, the budget has increased from less than $30,000 to over $800,000. Artists continue to come from all parts of the U.S. and, having had a positive experience, returned, i.e. AriZoni-Award winners Ken Ruta, James Knight & Richard Baird. They are three recipients of over 30 SSC AriZoni Award winners, including the company itself for Best Overall Productions for A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1996); Richard III (2004); Hamlet (2006); Much Ado About Nothing (2006); and, The Merry Wives of Windsor (2008).
During the 2008-09 Season, Richard Baird joined the company as Associate Artistic Director., leaving the following season to pursue his acting career in Chicago. We added a Director of Education and a Marketing Director at the same time to expand the workshop program and to attract a younger demographic, respectively.
In 2009-10, we again became the only company to perform in three of the Mesa Arts Center’s four theatres with the production of 99 performances, 16 of which were weekday student matinees. In the summer of 2010, we initiated a partnership with the Arizona Biltmore to take our shows to their historic hotel for three summers.
In 2011-12, Actor Christopher Noth joined several hundred SSC supporters at Speakeasy Night at the Wrigley Mansion. Later in the season, Academy Award, Tony Award and Screen Actors Guild Award winner Kevin Kline appeared onstage at the Mesa Arts Center and at the Arizona Biltmore for two special fundraisers. He returned to the MAC stage in 2012-13 for an exclusive appearance for SSC with “He Who Plays: An Evening of Shakespeare.” And, again, in 2015 for a series of fundraisers in Phoenix and Mesa. As a member of the Advisory Board, Kevin Kline is a true friend of the company.
In 2012-13, Southwest Shakespeare performed two shows, The Tempest and Hamlet, “in repertory” in the Virginia G. Piper Repertory Theater, using basically the same casts and the same sets. Calling the combined series “Winterfest,” it was the first time that a true repertory had ever been performed in the Piper Repertory Theater in the history of the Mesa Arts Center. SSC repeated Winterfest in 2013-14 with The Taming of the Shrew and Macbeth and in 2014-15 with As You Like It and King Lear. Now a tradition, the 2015-16 Winterfest will include The Comedy of Errors and Othello.
Southwest Shakespeare celebrated its 20th Anniversary in 2013-14 by expanding to two additional venues: Playhouse on the Park at the Viad Center in downtown Phoenix for A Christmas Carol and Desert Botanical Garden, for an innovative partnership in the reimagined and retitled outdoor performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream called FairyWorlds!
2014-15 saw a return to the Viad for A Christmas Carol and to Desert Botanical Garden, this time for a musical version of Cymbeline entitled SpellBound! Equivocation was remounted to rave reviews. Winterfest included King Lear and As You Like It. Beowulf and The Odyssey were performed as a one-man show.
Our 22nd Anniversary Season included updated locations and time frames for Shakespeare’s works; The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night. We also offered two Arizona premieres with Hysteria and Wittenberg. Southwest Shakespeare Company was honored to host David Davalos, the playwright of Wittenberg. He shared his insights and reasoning with opening weekend patrons.
2016-17 was a season of Arizona premieres! It brought fresh versions of Shakespeare’s canon with productions of The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet, and our own delightful 70-minute adaptation of A Midwinter Night’s Dream and a line-up of new works: Or, a fast paced, raucous, day-in-the-life of the first female playwright, Aphra Behn by Liz Duffy Adams; Photograph 51, straight off its London West End premiere, the moving story of DNA pioneer and Shakespeare buff, Rosalind Franklin, by Anna Ziegler; Pride@Prejudice, an imaginative adaptation of Jane Austen’s beloved novel, by Daniel Elihu Kramer; and back for an encore run, Wittenberg the thought-provoking and hilarious story of Faustus, Martin Luther, and Prince Hamlet at Wittenberg University by David Davalos. SSC was privileged to add two historic venues to our season, ASU Kerr Cultural Center in Paradise Valley, the former home of musician and philanthropist Louise Lincoln Kerr and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Pavilion Theater at Taliesin West in Scottsdale. This is the first time in recent history that the Pavilion will be open for regularly scheduled dramatic performances.