Downtown Phoenix Voices is an ongoing series of profiles on the many diverse and inspirational voices in the downtown Phoenix community. To read the last installment in the series,
Matthew Wiener has worked and thrived in the world of Arizona theater for more than 15 years. It is his livelihood, his business and most importantly, his passion.
“We all have a desire to have people tell us stories,” Wiener said. “Theater is about having a private moment in a public space. Nothing can quite compare to being in a room with actors telling a story very well.”
And it is in telling these stories that Wiener exceeds the most.
Wiener, a Phoenix resident, has been working for the Actors Theatre of Phoenix in the downtown area for 17 years. Erica Black, co-owner and managing director of the theater, oversees the business side of the theater while Wiener is involved with the artistic side as “the chief artist.”
As the producing artistic director, he is in charge of choosing the season’s play selections and actors.
“I try to pick a good combination of works that are fun, dramatic, thoughtful and provocative,” Wiener said. “I find plays that are interesting to me and hopefully to others too.”
The shows that he typically picks are contemporary and modern — ones that people typically have not heard of before. Usually, Wiener chooses works that have not previously been performed in Arizona.
He does not hastily choose a script, but spends time choosing stories that are relevant to his audience and community. Wiener said he reads through local newspapers and media to probe what issues and problems Arizonans and Phoenicians care about.
Wiener and his family moved to Phoenix in 1995.
“Phoenix is so young that it’s not even a post-World War II city. It’s a post-John Lennon city,” Wiener said. “It’s very important that our small artistic and creative community continue its drive here.”
Black said Wiener is dedicated to the community.
“He has a clear vision of where Actors Theatre fits in the landscape of the cultural fabric of the community,” Black said. “He is always thinking of the audience and the audience point of view. He wants them to go on the journey of the play.”
In 2005, Wiener hand-picked “Nickel and Dimed,” a political comedy based on a book by Barbara Ehrenreich. The plot is rooted in the question of whether one can survive in America on minimum wage.
“Arizona’s economy is heavily dependent on the hospitality industry, but these jobs are typically ones that aren’t very well paid,” Wiener said. “The play focuses on the challenges that these people face, and their invisibility society.”
After the show, Wiener said he was touched by people’s responses. Audience members approached him and said that for the first time they paid the parking-lot attendant, looked him in the eyes and said, “Thank you.”
Wiener said these reactions gave him pride in what he does for a living.
“Theater changes the way we look at our and each other’s lives,” Wiener said. “It changes the world in great, small ways.”
Wiener said he has formed special connections to each play he has helped craft. He said asking which one is his favorite is like “asking who is your favorite child.” He said he genuinely loves his job and everything he has worked on.
As a child growing up on Long Island, Wiener was exposed to the richness and magic of theater because he lived close to its shining capital: Broadway. But a career in theater was never his goal. He initially planned to go to law school.
However, when he attended school at the State University of New York at Binghamton, he knew he wanted to pursue a degree he was passionate about. He loved the storytelling aspect of theater and everything about acting, singing and dance. After graduating from SUNY, he studied at Yale and received his master’s in fine arts.
His career in theater has taken him to multiple cities, including Cleveland, San Diego, Minneapolis and San Francisco. Wiener has worked with nearly every theater in the Valley. His talent has not gone unrecognized, receiving various AriZonis and other awards for his hard work and dedication to the craft.
Wiener has not kept track of the number of awards he has received throughout the years because he feels they are less important than his commitment to the community.
“I view theater as a form of community service,” Wiener said.
His commitment and passion often blend to create fantastic results.
“I think what makes Matthew good as a director is being a great storyteller,” Black said. “Finding the answers in the script and understanding the arc of the show is something he translates to the actors and the stage well. He creates an atmosphere that allows the people around him to be excellent and give their best.”
Currently, Wiener’s play “Fox on the Fairway” is running at the Herberger Theater Center until Feb. 10. The comedy has been well received by audiences for its witty humor.
After the time and effort put into a masterpiece performance, Wiener relishes in his favorite part of his job: the audience’s reaction.
“I love watching the audience see the play for the very first time,” he said. “Being in service for the community is what being an artist is all about.”
Contact the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org