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10 Questions With: Kiel Klaphake
Founder and executive producer of Arizona Broadway Theatre
What makes Arizona Broadway Theatre unique?
ABT is a privately funded performing arts center that contains two theatrical performance spaces, a production facility where we create our own sets, a costume shop where our staff creates all of the amazing looks for each show, a rehearsal hall and, of course, a full restaurant that prepares exceptional dining options in conjunction with performances and events. A nationally recognized theatrical producer ABT employs hundreds of actors, musicians and technicians from across the country to create our own productions here in Arizona.
How did you get started in theater?
I originally studied classical music and opera, having received my master’s degree from New England Conservatory in Boston. It wasn’t until my wife Cassandra recommended I audition for “Phantom of the Opera” that my pursuit of theater really took hold. When I auditioned, I honestly didn’t know much about “Phantom” other than having seen it in Vienna during my undergrad semester abroad. I don’t think I did anything right, but I got the job and remained in the production for two years. I was 28. When I left the company, Cass and I moved to NYC to see how we could make a go of this musical theater thing. Reality hit quickly, as did 9/11, and we decided to choose our own reality, stop living out of a suitcase and start our own business. Thus began the creation of Arizona Broadway Theatre.
Not only are you a co-founder and executive producer at ABT, you also perform in and direct shows. How do you decide which shows to direct and which roles might be a good fit for you?
As a director, I look for shows I can sink my teeth into. After several years producing shows at ABT, I finally felt I could step aside briefly and sit in the director’s chair. My first show at ABT was “Cabaret.” Having lived in Germany, I was excited to uncover the dimensions in this story. With performing, and I suppose in life, I started with the young leading roles like Raoul in “Phantom.” As the years passed, I began to transition to meatier roles like Jean Valjean in “Les Misérables.” Up next will be Billy Flynn in “Chicago.” I had the thrill of playing Captain Hook a few years back when my boys, also in the show, were 8 and 10. That was an experience I never would have given up for anything.
How do you juggle your leadership role at ABT with time with family?
I like to call it work/life integration rather than any sort of balance. Fortunately, the kids understand Mom and Dad’s business and participate often in shows as well as in ABT’s performance troupe. We love what we do, so bringing our business home isn’t always a bad thing. It’s just part of who we are.
What’s your favorite aspect of being ABT’s executive producer?
I love turning black and white into color. While I do spend significant time in the operational management of the company, it’s also my responsibility to have the vision to plan for the future security of the company. It’s the endless pursuit of taking advantage of every opportunity that fuels me.
How many people work on the behind-the-scenes production before a show is seen by the public?
At any given time, we have about 100 people working in some aspect of the theater — from the front-of-house staff and ushers, culinary staff and servers, to administration and theater technicians. Theater producing needs a lot of skilled and talented individuals. There’s no amount of automation that can replace real humans.
How do you think arts have grown in the Valley since ABT’s opening in 2005?
We’ve learned a lot about what matters to the community since starting the theater. Unfortunately, shortly after we opened, we had to watch several
companies shutter their doors while facing the wrath of the recession. If anyone said they were immune, they’re lying. In one year, we lost a significant amount of money, had to reduce hours, labor and all nonessential spending, appeal for assistance from creditors and wait it out. The thing that kept us alive was the absolute necessity to make sure the quality of programming would never suffer. Fortunately, patrons stood by us and rallied. We recovered stronger and the patrons that made it through with us are our lifeblood and key ambassadors. I’m optimistic for the future of arts in the Valley — in particular, the concept that not all quality art must be imported. Believe it or not, there are some great companies creating incredible art just down the street from where you live.
What advice would you give an aspiring actor who, like you,
might want to become a producer?
When I graduated high school, I joined the service and enrolled in college. Although I studied music, theater, business management, finance and read just about everything I could find on the industry, I would never have been prepared to launch ABT if not for vision and courage. Some call this leadership; I think of it as tenacity. There were about 1,000 roadblocks in the development of ABT. But you have to make the world you want to live in. If you don’t, who will?
What show in ABT’s upcoming season are you most excited about?
It’s a thrill each year to announce another season. Season 15 is no different. One show I’m particularly excited to produce is “Chicago.” It’s a title our patrons have asked for over and over again, so finally being able to bring it to our stage brings a thrill. Of course, there are other really great titles. Last year Cass and I had the privilege of taking turns traveling the country with our younger son as he performed in the national tour of “Elf.” What a great way to spend the holidays! And of course, “Sweeney Todd.” Last year we produced it for the Herberger Theater Center to fantastic reviews. Bringing the show to ABT was a move no one thought we would do. How can you produce a show at a dinner theater where the leads conceive a plan to slit the throats of wayward Londoners and serve them to the community in tasty meat pies? I dare you to give the show a try. It’s some of the best theater out there and rarely produced.
What do you hope someone feels after seeing a show at ABT?
When people arrive in the right frame of mind and go along with us on the journey, we did our job. You may be uncomfortable, you may laugh, you may storm out absolutely ticked off. It’s all good. The alternative is that you stay home, surround yourself with the comfortable and miss out.
To learn more, visit azbroadway.org.