Beginning his 17th year as producing artistic director of Actors Theatre of Phoenix, Matthew Wiener describes himself as a European mutt. “My grandparents came from all over Europe – in fact, one of my grandfathers was born in Constantinople, Ottoman Empire, in 1899. That place doesn’t even exist today.”
His diversity doesn’t end with his ancestors. Actors Theatre, a local professional company performing at Stage West of the Herberger Theater Center in downtown Phoenix, has been enriched by the varied experiences and training Wiener brought to the theater.
Raised in a Conservative Jewish family, Wiener spent most of his youth in Brooklyn. His father was an accountant and his mother was a visual artist, so he was exposed to both the practical and the somewhat more ethereal. His mother took him to a variety of museums, and he was a regular at the Museum of Modern Art.
In high school he dabbled in acting. As an undergraduate at SUNY Binghamton, he was “an ineffective triple threat,” he said – he acted, sang and danced, and did none of them very well. He felt it was wise to move into stage management and directing.
When asked what his parents thought of their nice Jewish son pursuing a career in the theater world, Wiener responded that they were always supportive. “They were concerned, of course, but truly wanted me to be happy.”
After college, in the early 1980s, Wiener went to Cleveland, where he became the resident sound designer at the Cleveland Playhouse, a highly respected regional theater. “I was a sound designer there before CDs had even been invented!”
In 1985 Wiener entered the prestigious Yale School of Drama. He was the artistic director of the Yale Cabaret and graduated with a Master of Fine Arts degree in directing. He had his first taste of Arizona when he spent the 1988-89 season on a fellowship at Arizona Theatre Company. He then returned to New York City, where he performed sound design work and directed Off-Off Broadway, or, as he puts it, “Off Canal Street.”
Before taking the helm of Actors Theatre, Wiener returned to Arizona to work with Arizona Theatre Company for four years. During this time he directed “Sight Unseen” by Donald Margulies at the Arizona Jewish Theatre Company.
Ten years later, Wiener again directed “Sight Unseen” at Actors Theatre, working with some of the same actors. “It was fascinating to see the take of the actors after 10 years had passed. They were able to add layers of meaning from their own experiences – and I had grown as a director as well,” Wiener reflected.
Margulies, one of the country’s most prominent Jewish playwrights, is the author of a number of plays produced by Actors Theatre, including “Dinner with Friends,” which won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Drama; “Shipwrecked!” and, most recently, “Time Stands Still.”
Actors Theatre, under Wiener’s direction, offers a variety of “offbeat and edgy” dramas and comedies and an occasional musical that represent the Valley’s equivalent of Off-Broadway. One of his favorites to direct was an epic by another famous Jewish playwright, Tony Kushner – “Angels in America.” In the play, the character of The Rabbi opens the show with a monologue about the death of Sarah Ironson:
The Rabbi: This good and righteous woman … she was not a person, but a whole kind of a person – the ones that crossed the ocean that brought us to America, the villages of Russia and Lithuania. And how we struggled! And how we fought! For the family … for the Jewish home! Descendants of this immigrant woman … Your clay is the clay of some Litvak shtetl, and your air is the air of the steppes, because she carried that Old World on her back, across the ocean, in a boat! And she put it down on Grand Concourse Avenue … on Flatbush. You can never make that crossing that she made, for such great voyages in this world do not any more exist. But every day of your lives, the miles – that voyage from that place to this one – you cross. Every day! You understand me? In you, that journey … is.
Wiener said this is one of his favorite passages – his own grandparents lived on Flatbush Avenue until they died.
Wiener identifies himself as a cultural Jew at this point in his life. He and his wife, Marion, who is not Jewish, were married by a local rabbi. His twin daughters, Jordan and Claire, are “a bit of everything.” Marion is the marketing director of the Children’s Museum in Phoenix. Wiener proudly mentioned that they have a big Passover seder each year, inviting both Jewish and non-Jewish friends to attend.
Most of the shows produced by Actors Theatre hit upon social issues, and Wiener sees himself as being in service to the community. In selecting the shows, he considers how much dialogue they might engender in cars on the way home. He cherishes the thought of arguing ideas – and adds, “Isn’t that absolutely Talmudic?”
Actors Theatre begins its 2012-13 season with “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” written by Mike Daisey and directed by Matthew Wiener, Sept. 21 to Oct. 7 at the Herberger Theater Center.
Herberger Theater Center
222 E. Monroe Street
Phoenix, AZ 85004
Janet Arnold is the former producing director of the Arizona Jewish Theatre Company. She has been an active member of the local Jewish community since arriving in Phoenix in 1957.