Much of 2020 was as bleak as a Beckett play for TheaterWorks.
After stumbling through an extended theatric blackout, the Peoria theater is now as peppy as a Broadway musical.
Artistic Director Chris Hamby not only successfully relaunched the Peoria theater, he just scored one of the most prestigious honors in Arizona.
It has been a most “curious” year for this West Valley native. Hamby, 41, last week received the Governor’s Arts Award in the Central Arizona Artist category.
Hamby was shocked when his name was called at a virtual awards show.
“It’s kind of a lifetime achievement award,” he said with a chuckle. “And I feel like we have so much more work to do.”
Indeed, Hamby is transitioning from “Curiouser & Curiouser,” his trippy take on the Lewis Carroll classic that closed Nov. 1, to holiday mashup “A Curiouser Nutcracker,” opening Nov. 27.
Shortly after TheaterWorks “went dark” due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Hamby started brainstorming an idea for “an immersive, multi-sensory, intimate theater production,” with audience members walking into and through Alice’s Wonderland.
After spending years racing from one production to the next, Hamby had the rare luxury of time to work with his staff to transform various theaters, rehearsal spaces and hallways of the spacious Peoria Center for the Performing Arts into Wonderland.
“Curiouser & Curiouser,” which opened Sept. 10, was a triumphant comeback for a theater that was dark for months.
Two days before the theater’s biggest fundraiser of the year, Hamby made the decision to shut down the theater and the fundraiser. “It was one of the hardest things I ever had to do,” he said. “We didn’t know how long it would last—two weeks? Two months?”
It turned out to be an entire summer, normally one of the busiest times for the youth-oriented Peoria theater.
Instead of juggling an assortment of programs, “I was figuring out how to keep my theater alive,” Hamby said.
Typically, instead of playing it safe with a minimalist show to reopen, Hamby went big.
“Logistically, this is the craziest thing I’ve ever done,” Hamby said, with the kind of laugh reserved for the closing moments of a show.
Audience reaction has been joyous, leading to the holiday sequel.
The icing on the cake came when Hamby learned of the Governor’s Arts Award.
What did it mean to him?
“Selfishly, it was a validation of my body of work—‘Hey, people are paying attention to me,’” Hamby said.
He was raised in Goodyear, not much of a theater town. “I remember when we got a bowling alley and two-screen theater,” Hamby said with a laugh. Yet a teacher fueled his passion as he “fell in love with theater in high school.”
His first theater experience was a field trip to the Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix. The production was “Through the Looking-Glass.” The story of Alice, the Mad Hatter and many curious characters has been told many times before and since—most recently by Hamby himself.
After graduating from Agua Fria High School in 1997, he went on to Northern Arizona University. In two decades since, his rise has been as speedy and off-beat as Alice’s fall down a rabbit hole.
Hamby recently celebrated his 10th year at TheaterWorks, which has received many AriZoni Awards in his decade in Peoria.
His home theater beamed with pride.
“Chris is a theater visionary with incredible talent, devotion and passion that creates magic on and off the stage,” said Tom Doyle, TheaterWorks’ board chair.
“The impact that Chris has made on the lives of so many is indisputable. He is a magnetic leader and a remarkable artist,” said Cate Hinkle, TheaterWorks managing director.
“And his work is just beginning. I am proud to work alongside Chris and support his vision.”