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Staying Power: He fell into the Phoenix theater community. Now, it's his calling to keep it afloat

The Show  series Exit Interview featured a series of conversations with people who had made their mark on Phoenix — and then left. They hit a ceiling or needed to grow.

The Show series  Staying Powerlooks at people who have made Arizona their home. Phoenix certainly isn’t the first city one might imagine themselves being a successful actor in. But according to Louis Farber, although it may require a little more hustle than in other big cities, it’s definitely possible to “make it” as a successful actor here.

Farber's been acting since he was a little kid.

"My first recollection of that was doing a play in the third grade," Farber said. "It was some sort of holiday play. I honestly can't remember what it was about. All I know is that I was an owl and there was another character and we were sort of meeting all of the other animals that were doing these talent acts and it was supposed to be for the big holiday show for the animals and nothing was going right. And I just remember the feel of the audience response, anytime anyone said anything funny, especially me or you know what I mean. It just that sort of, that juice, right away. And that was it."

He’s been through the rounds in this field, including a Medieval dinner theater in Massachusetts.

"It was basically dirty jokes and, and drinking songs," Farber said. "And they did sort of a big joust at the end, you know, they would find out who had a birthday or who got married and they would do these, they would have two people come up on stage and put these baguettes between their knees and joust until one of them broke. We kept them in the freezer so that they would snap easily."

And a seven-year stint learning how to be a "working actor" in Los Angeles, complete with all of the other jobs he had to do to pay his bills.

There was one moment there when he might have made it.

"I was in an acting class and the gentleman that was running the class had a casting agent come in and watch our sort of selected scenes," Farber said. "And she had some very nice things to say to me and she ended up calling me several months later and I had already booked a, a touring theater gig. She called me on the phone and said, hey, I've been thinking about you. I have something that I'd love you to come in and read for, because you're very funny and I think you'd be perfect for it. But I had already committed to this theater tour."

And, and so I said stupidly on the phone to her, I was like, I've already booked this job and I, I'm gonna be gone during these dates and I, I wouldn't want to waste anybody's time thinking that this was the polite thing to do. And so, yeah, I often look back on that moment and go, yeah, that was probably the one that might have been it. Who knows?"

Eventually, his story landed him here, in Phoenix. He came here to get a bachelor's degree in theater at Arizona State University. Farber thought he might become an academic and teach theater. But, as he was doing it, he accidentally fell into the Phoenix theater community. He's now the associate artistic director at Stray Cat Theater.

Full conversation

LOUIS FARBER: My first paid gig here, right out of graduation, was for Childsplay, which, you know, if anybody knows, certainly locally but also nationally, you know, I didn't really know how big of a deal that was until I started working there. And all these TYA people were like, oh, my God. David Saar was on my comps. Like this is a major company. They are, you know, big.

LAUREN GILGER: So, you kind of fell into the theater community here and were you surprised at, at what you found at the people, the quality et cetera?

FARBER: Yeah, I think I was, I think the thing that struck me the most was sort of how supportive and tight knit this community was. It was easy for me to move. You know, I, I met a person in Childsplay, that show, who was directing the next show that I was in and I went from that, I was in that show with someone who was going to be a guest director at Stray Cat. And so I wound up, you know, my third show here, I was at the place that I, at the time, didn't really know that I was gonna be, you know, the associate artistic director of, but I just was, it was easy to move and work.

You know, somebody was always talking about the next thing they were going to do or, oh, I'm auditioning for this. You should come out just to get in the room with these guys.

GILGER: So it sounds like you found a lot of richness here that maybe you didn't expect that's kept you here in some way. I wonder also, like, as you have embedded yourself further and further in this community here, how you view your own role in it? Like do you see yourself as, as somebody who has really helped shape this and make it into something that it even wasn't when you started, I suppose?

FARBER: I don't know that I see myself that way. I think, if you ask somebody else that question, they might, they might, they might throw my name out there. I certainly like to think of myself as an ambassador for this community. I certainly like to think of myself as a resource and a bridge builder. I do think that during my tenure at Stray Cat, I have been there for a lot of ups and downs in this community. So I think I have helped shepherd things along the way. You know, we've seen companies start companies end, long standing and sort of flash in the pan stuff. We all are still sort of crawling, limping out of the pandemic.

GILGER: Is Arizona, like the public here, the infrastructure here, the government here, the big picture kind of institutions. Is this a supportive place for the arts?

FARBER: I think, I think it wants to be. I think, I think it is, well, I mean, again, this is, based on, you know, my working experience and what I read, I'm certainly not out there championing the arts in these government institutions, whether that's municipally or federally. But I can say that, you know, Katie Hobbs, who I voted for, you know, had a grand proposal of $20 million for the arts for the 2024 fiscal year. And once she, you know, that's a great big number and a great intention. But once those talks started to go, that dropped to, I think [$5 million]. And I'm not saying that's anybody's fault. I'm just saying that that's, that seems to be politics, right? That's, you know, you have to negotiate and this is a state that has always been conservative in its politics and in its sort of fiscal responsibilities. I do think that a lot of times people think of the arts as I don't wanna say frivolous, but more, you know, entertainment, right. This is a thing that you could take or leave.

GILGER: It's more than that though. Like, what do you think the, the, the role of the arts should be in, in community building, like, in making this place the kind of place we all want to be?

FARBER: Sure. Well, I think it's, you know, it's also, it's jobs, it's a great tool for education. You know, a lot of companies in this town have an educational arm so I think it can be used to educate community, but also to build community, too. You know, there has been a, a larger shift in inclusive casting and inclusive storytelling and I, I certainly can't speak to what this would be like as a child because almost everybody I saw on a stage or on a television or on a movie screen looked and sounded like me. But I would imagine that if you were a young child of color, if you saw someone that looked and sounded like you up there doing a thing that you thought, Oh, wow. Could I do that? Could I sing a song in front of a group of people? Like, oh, could I do a dance? Could I recite a thing? I think that would be incredibly impactful.

GILGER: So, is this a place where you can make it as an actor?

FARBER: Sure. I'm sorry, that was, that didn't sound great. I do think you can, there's a lot of things that are tough about that. And I also think, you know, not to answer your question with a question, but it would be, you know, the question really is, what do you mean by make it as? I do think that it is a different, it's a different animal here in the sense that a lot of folks who do theater don't do it as their full-time job. They have a full time job and they do theater because it's in their bones. It's in their blood. They can't not do it.

GILGER: Do you still get the, the sort of fulfillment from it? Do you still get the shivers when you're on stage? Do you still feel that way about live theater?

FARBER: I do, I think that if you ever get to a place where you don't have those sort of like butterflies jitters, that kind of nervousness about going out and doing it. That should be a sign that you may be either want to take a break or maybe not do this anymore. That's the great thing about live theater is that it's live, right? There's that exchange between you and them and you don't know, you know, am I gonna say everything right? Is my scene partner gonna say everything right? Are the lights gonna turn on, right? Is that some sound gonna happen? Is a plane gonna fly over? You know, are we outside and like is there gonna be a traffic jam or a car accident, right, 10 feet from where we're performing?

GILGER: So you still, you still love it?

FARBER: Yeah. Oh yeah. It's the juice, you can't, any reaction from an audience that you get live, there's no, there's nothing like it.

GILGER: Yeah. So and you knew this question was coming? Why have you stayed all this time? Why have you invested so much of yourself and your life in Phoenix of all places?

FARBER: I love it here. I love the people here. My life is here. And that is not to say that annually or biannually or whatever that, that thought doesn't come around or that those discussions don't happen. I, I, I would hate to say that I feel like a loyalty to this place but, because that sounds disingenuous, because I do think that, you know, if something came along and it made sense, then I guess I would seriously consider leaving, but, you know, everything is here and I am really happy with my life here and I'm really happy with my job and my standing in this community. Not just, you know, not just in theater but in this community in general, I love downtown Phoenix. I live there. I have a house there now. I just, I don't know, I identify as a Phoenician now, even though I'm a boy from Philadelphia.

And I guess I do, maybe getting back to one of the first things you asked me, I guess I do feel like part of my job is to stay to make sure that this community stays afloat and to use my position in the community or at Stray Cat or whatever to champion that and to die on the hill of live theater here in the Valley.

GILGER: It's quite a hill to die on.

FARBER: It'll be, it'll be dramatic if nothing else. Have you ever seen an actor die? Especially if they get to choose it. It's one of the most things.

GILGER: Dying on stage.

FARBER: Absolutely.

KJZZ's The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ's programming is the audio record.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.