Arizona Classical Theatre, A History

Arizona Classical Theatre was founded in Prescott, AZ in 1998 by theatre veterans Kelly Johnston and Tracey Mason. We produced our first Shakespeare Festival in October, 1999 on the historic Courthouse Square in downtown Prescott. Our performances of Othello and A Midsummer Night’s Dream played for over 2,700 people during the course of nine performances.

Our opening night that year was a benefit for Turning Point, a local troubled teen outreach program. The first festival featured artists-in-residence Phillip Curry, Mary Sprenger, and D. Rogers Luben (performers), and Paul Silverman (director).

In 2000, we relocated the Festival to Granite Creek Park near downtown Prescott, due to feedback from our audiences that the traffic around the square was too loud. Granite Creek Park provided a more attractive Shakespeare-in-the-park setting. We produced Romeo and Juliet set in the American Civil War, and As You Like It with a modern setting. Although the change of venue caused a moderate drop in our attendance, the quality of our productions increased significantly.

Due to a generous donation from an individual sponsor, we were able to feature three guest actors and a guest director, as well as two costume designers, a guest production stage manager, a fight choreographer and a technical director. (Guests that year included Ronnie Clark, Mary Sprenger, Caleb Terray, and Leslie Ann Kent) Our resident volunteer staff grew from two to six members, and we began our ongoing Educational Outreach program into our community.

2001 saw several bold strides forward. In addition to increasing support from individuals and local business, we received our first grants from the Arizona Commission on the Arts, which allowed us to bring out three guest actors when we only anticipated being able to bring out one. We also created and launched our improvisational/dramatic performance troupe, “The World’s Greatest Shakespeare Company Presents The History Of King Henry the Fifth. Since that premiere, the WGSC has performed year round at schools, performance festivals, and events throughout Arizona.

For the fall festival, we produced Measure for Measure and Much Ado About Nothing in Granite Creek Park. Guest Artists that year included Ronnie Clark, Derek Medina, and Jennifer Pennington. We also expanded the Festival to include special performances for local high schools, a program which continues every year. Although the 2001 Festival opened two weeks after the attacks of 9/11, our core audience carried us through. In December, we performed our first production of A Christmas Carol at the Historic Elks Opera House in Prescott. Attendance for that show was our highest ever.

In 2002, we began expanding our season further.  In February, we presented a premiere staged reading of a new play, Ophelia, by New York based playwright Ashley Minihan.  The Educational Outreach program expanded, and the WGSC toured Mohave County, performing at both schools and libraries.

In May, the WGSC premiered a new original work, A Death in the Family, at the historic Sharlot Hall Museum in Prescott.  For the fall Shakespeare Festival, we produced The Tempest and The Comedy of Errors, featuring, by special arrangement through Actors Equity, guest artist Cal Pritner. We also included guest artists Christopher McFarland, and Elizabeth Wade.  That year, after much effort, we finally received approval from the Arizona Corporation Commission to use the name Arizona Shakespeare Festival.  Attendance for the Festival increased over the previous year, and we moved on to produce an all new version of A Christmas Carol, written by ACT’s resident dramaturge, D. Rogers Luben.

We also created a new activity for our educational outreach program during the fall festival; actors from the festival toured area elementary schools, presenting scenes from The Tempest and giving out 600 free copies of Lois Burdett’s The Tempest for Kids (made possible by company fundraising and a special arrangement with Firefly Books, Ltd).

2003 marked a turning point for ACT.  Through the support of our sponsors, we acquired an indoor rehearsal/performance space and expanded our season to year-round productions, which we christened The Harriett Lipphardt Theatre WorkSpace.  The space opened to the public in April with a production of Don Nigro’s play Seascape with Sharks and Dancer.  In addition to using our home space as an office and headquarters, we held ongoing performance classes, and hosted our first week long Youth Acting Intensive in July of that year.  In May of 2003, the WGSC presented The Hanging Whores of Babylon, another in their ongoing series of original plays.  In June, the company featured a dinner theatre world premiere of the romantic comedy Amici by local playwright Micki Shelton.

The 2003 Arizona Shakespeare Festival featured Macbeth and The Merry Wives of Windsor.  Our audience attendance increased 42%, and we enjoyed more out of town guests than ever before.  In October, the WGSC presented the second of their original shows for the year.  The Hanging Whores of Babylon, part II at the M.A.D. Linguist in downtown Prescott.  In December, we ended the year again with A Christmas Carol, which was well attended once again.


In 2004, we continued to produce year round, creating original works and working with new and established playwrights.  We doubled the length of our summer Youth Acting Intensive.  After years of performing in Tsunami on the Square Festival, we were asked to be the producers of that year’s “skitmercials”, one of the highlights of that festival. 

The WGSC have continued their episodic productions with performances of the original dramas, The Pocket Watch and The Dying Breed

The Arizona Shakespeare Festival expanded to three weeks with performances of Titus Andronicus and Twelfth Night, and we continued to expand our Educational Outreach tours and youth training programs.  We also produced A Christmas Carol for the 4th year in a row.

2005 was viewed as a reconstruction year. While the past several years saw the company's repertoire and exposure expanding, its financial performance was not keeping pace. The newly enlisted managing director and board members placed their emphasis on fundraising and fiscal stability.

A partnership with Prescott Unified School District found the Arizona Shakespeare Festival moving indoors to the Ruth Street Theater and received rave reviews of its productions of Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard. The Hamlet-themed year began in April with the world premier staging of Ophelia, by New York based playwright, Ashley Minihan. As part of the agreement with PUSD, ACT presented 7 workshops for the middle and high school students.

2006 opened with the company back on track. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) opened in April. The 9th annual Arizona Shakespeare Festival, back in the Ruth Street Theater once again, w included Julius Caesar and The Taming of the Shrew.

The WGSC produced original performances on a monthly and bi-monthly basis which began in January. The WGSC completed their 3 part series loosely based upon The Divine Comedy, written by Dante Alighieri, containing titles such as Cab Ride Through Hell, Presence at the Pearly Gates and A Growing Darkness. Our educational outreach program had a chance to expand to Phoenix in addition to the workshops that are continually provided for PUSD.

2007 celebrated our 10th season, and in honor of ten years, we decided to go back to the beginning and performed Othello, directed by Mary Sprenger Spence and A Midsummer Nights Dream directed by Nathanial Montgomery.

In 2008 we went back to our roots and took the company in a new and exciting direction with our first ever state wide tour. With a cast of 12, an abridged script and a very portable set we took As You Like It to 20 cities and locations all over the state.