If you love an organization and are committed to its success, find a way to wear many hats.
Chris Hamby first encountered Theater Works as a teenager when he was performing in one of their shows. He directed until 2000. In 2015 he became its artistic director.
He took over the executive director title last month after former managing director Cate Hinkle resigned to pursue other responsibilities.
“Chris has been key to Theater Works’ artistic growth and is the right person at the right time to continue his excellence,” said Justin Shaver, Chairman of Theater Works’ Board of Directors. “He’s a careful leader with a foundation of theatrical excellence. Chris is a special and talented person.”
As many nonprofits are finding their way out of the pandemic, Hamby said this decision to combine managerial and artistic roles is the right one for Theater Works at this time.
“We have a lot to do,” said Hamby. “We’re rebooting and rather than immediately trying to replace Cate, who was my soul mate – we were such a good match there – I felt like it was time for me to step up. I know what you want Theater Works to look like and I think I have the skills to get us there.”
He takes the job with a healthy dose of humility, saying he’s confident enough to know where his shortcomings lie and how to find the right people to fill in the gaps he has. He made the decision out of devotion to the organization but also the confidence that he could provide the leadership needed.
“When Cate and I took on artistic direction and general manager, it was a big change for the organization,” Hamby said. “And without that, we wouldn’t be where we are now. This is the right time for me to show that I’m more than just the artist everyone knows me to be. I’m also a leader. I have those skills and I really understand nonprofit management.”
Hamby has been a part of the Arizona theater scene for quite some time. He has worked with Greasepaint, East Valley Children’s Theatre, Mesa Encore Theater and Desert Foothills Theatre. In 1999 he co-founded the Vagabond Youth Theatre.
After directing at Theater Works, he was their Education Manager for several years before taking on the role of Artistic Director.
His work has been widely praised and critically acclaimed. The Arizona Thespians honored him with an Outstanding Achievement Award for his work with high school drama students. He has received 10 AriZoni Theater Awards of Excellence and has been nominated more than 30 times. In 2020 he received the Governor’s Arts Award for Artist of the Year for his body of work and was named a HomeTown Hero Trailblazer in the city of Peoria.
Not one to rest on his laurels, Hamby envisions Theater Works becoming the biggest and best community theater in the state of Arizona.
“That’s the path we’re on,” Hamby said. “And I think we’re putting together a team that can take us there. We currently have a board of directors that is the strongest I have seen in my years at Theater Works.”
In the short term, he strives to remind people of all the great things people have come to know and love about Theater Works throughout its 37 year history. He said everyone is making a concerted effort to get people back through their doors, especially if they haven’t come to visit in a while.
“Once we get you back inside you won’t want to leave,” Hamby said. “You will immediately see the differences we have made and how much we have grown in recent years.”
During the pandemic, he pointed out that they took a lot of risks, worked harder than ever, and created things like the immersive theater experience Curiouser and Curiouser in a few different incarnations. He said they also spent a lot of time planning and thinking about what they wanted to do in the future.
“That time has allowed us to internalize what we want to be,” Hamby said. “We viewed the pandemic as a puppet for our organization. We will come out of this as a butterfly, keeping all the good things that come with the history of this organization and giving up the parts that we wish were different.
“We still care about our story, but some of the ghosts — it’s time to put them to bed and pay attention to what we can be and what we can be is the very best community theater in our state.”
An example of a shift is that they’ve found a younger demographic that’s become accustomed to their after-dark immersive theater and they want to do more with them in the future. They develop cutting-edge theater work that appeals to the 25-45 age group. They have committed to giving these initiatives three years to see how they work and if they catch on.
The pandemic was also a time when theater across the country was changing, re-listening to calls for social justice and examining the ways they marginalized people. Hamby said Theater Works, like other theaters across the country, is listening and having conversations among staff and with the community.
“Hopefully we’ll be able to respond in a way that’s not only conscious but also sustainable,” Hamby said. “If you change something out of fear, it will never be real and it will never be genuine and it probably won’t last. So we are looking at where we can bring about real change for our organization by creating space and pushing boundaries.”
Hamby points to the organization’s title as one of its strengths. He points out that it’s a theater that works, and it works for the people who come through its doors. He sets himself as an example of a kid who grew up in the West Valley and for whom Theater Works changed his life.
“Without theater, my life would have taken a completely different approach and not a healthy one,” Hamby said. “I know that art is important. I know that this theater can change lives. Now my goal is to pass that on and give back to this community that has supported me for so long. If there is only one Chris Hamby out there who can tell this story 20 years from now, then I have succeeded.”
Maribeth Reeves, who directs the children’s show Junie B. Jones Jr. the Musical, has worked with Hamby for many years, including when she formerly ran the Desert Foothills Theatre. She expresses her admiration for everything he has done for Theater Works.
“I love every moment of working with this group,” Reeves said. “Some of the things Chris did during the COVID time were take his time, sit back and plan. I really admire the structure they have put in place for how shows run and what shows need in terms of timing, schedule and staff to be successful. I work at many theaters in the community and it’s a real blessing to have what Theater Works has.”
For those who haven’t been to the theater since 2019 or earlier, Hamby encourages them to return. Theater is back, playing all the great musicals, family-friendly shows, and holiday events that people have loved for so long. There are plans to lead the organization for the next 40 years.
“If you haven’t visited us yet, please buy a ticket,” Hamby said. “If you can’t afford a ticket, give me a call. I want to get in touch with you again. If you see me in the lobby, please say hello.
“Theater Works has always been one big family and we look forward to this family coming together again in the theater, in these seats, and having a great time making great memories.”