Thoughts on Culture and Live Theater in Phoenix

live theater in Phoenix
The Rocky Horror Show – some great live theater in Phoenix. (photo by Jessica Frieling Photography)

People love to say that Phoenix doesn’t have any culture. It’s a notion that people parrot constantly. And it puts me in the mood to brandish a cricket bat in a threatening manner. What they really mean is one of of the following:

    • I’m too lazy to go out and find any culture in Phoenix
    • The culture in Phoenix isn’t exactly the same as Chicago/Detroit/Whatever Fast-Fading Rustbelt Eastern City I’m From, and is therefore not really culture.
    • There’s no place where other people can see me partaking of the culture in Phoenix, so I’m not interested.

Well, first off – "culture" is a pretty encompassing word. I can’t address it all in one blog post. But I can address one aspect of it. And I feel like talking about live theater in Phoenix. Over the past few years, Sarah and I have made a better effort to see more live theater. Hollywood has aided and abetted this plan by making a bunch of terrible "reboots" and "re-imaginings" of "franchises"

live theater in phoenix
The Pirates of Penzance at Fountain Hills Theater.

(known as "movies" to people with an iota of sense).

Then, when my good friend Todd started acting in live musical theater, we had another reason to hit the theater. We haven’t missed any of his shows, and we drop into other shows, too. I’m ordinarily not into musicals, but seeing your friends devote their time to something they love doing is a very cool thing. And it’s part of a cultural scene that we shouldn’t overlook. I’ll admit, Phoenix does not have on-tap the smorgasbord of high-end theater of bigger, more-established cities. The casts and crews are not the polished professionals you see in the big shows.

So what?

Perfection isn’t the be-all, end-all of any artistic endeavor. They all put some heart into what they do. And yes, there are also some absurdly talented people on their way up. You’ll actually enjoy them, even if you didn’t pay hundreds of dollars for a ticket. And here’s the thing: If you want more live theater in Phoenix and want more big shows and huge productions, you need to get out and push.

You need to show interest, and that means going to see shows with just 250 other people in the audience – or even just 25 other people! Alright, I’ve stated my case. Now, let me give you a few ideas of where you can see some live theater in Phoenix.

Brelby Theater Company – We’ve made a few visits to Glendale to catch outdoor shows from Brelby Theater Company. It was really cool watching lightning in the distance while enjoying some Shakespeare. The casts have all been very young, energetic and innovative. They do a lot with very little space and very little staging.

Desert Stages Theater – Even before Todd got into acting, Sarah and I enjoyed Desert Stages Theater. It’s a very cool space with multiple stages that can hold audiences of varying sizes. My favorite so far was their version of the Rocky Horror Show – some excellent singing, and great use of space.

Don Bluth Front Row Theatre – We just made our first visit to the Don Bluth Front Row Theatre. And it’s literally fewer than 50 people jammed into a central Scottsdale strip mall. Don Bluth, by the way, is an animation legend who is throwing his energy into this out of honest love for the theater. A very cool way to use his time and resources.

Fountain Hills Theater – I got a nice little surprise from this theater. Culturally, Fountain Hills doesn’t hold much interest for me: no good coffee shops, and no venues for hard-rockin’ live music. But Fountain Hills Theater put on a version of Pirates of Penzance that added a steampunk look to the story. Some very impressive singing here, too. Good fun!

Scottsdale Musical Theater Company – I ordinarily wouldn’t have gone to see The Music Man. But Todd was in it, so I thought "why not?" This was another impressive cast, both in size and ability. One of my favorite parts of it was recognizing so many elements that Matt Groening riffed on in the "Monorail" episode of The Simpsons.

And look, these are all just a start. There are plenty of other theaters around the Valley. Go see a show. Better yet, audition for a part. If you don’t, just realize that you’re why Phoenix doesn’t have the culture you want.

IMPORTANT NOTE: If I didn’t mention your favorite theater, leave a comment and a link. The whole idea of this post is to expose people to cultural opportunities they don’t about … and take away their reasons for not going to a show.

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The PERCH Pub & Brewery – First Visit

The PERCH Pub & Brewery
Hanging out at The PERCH Pub & Brewery.

I just got my first look at The PERCH Pub & Brewery in Chandler. Sarah and I went there for dinner and some nice craft beer. The bottom line: A very welcome addition to downtown Chandler, which is an area on its way up thanks to places like this. Sorry I don’t have very good photos – if I knew how cool that place would look, I’d have brought a real camera.

Here are a few specifics to give you an idea of what to expect if you visit The PERCH Pub & Brewery.

  • First off, The PERCH Pub & Brewery doesn’t brew its own; though it’s website mentions "in house brews," I didn’t see them on the list. I hope that comes in the future. For now, the beer list is split between craft beer from local breweries and beyond. There’s Guinness for the un-adventurous. It’s a good beer list. And here’s something: When you order a stout, it doesn’t show up at
    The PERCH Pub & Brewery
    Birdies at The PERCH Pub & Brewery.

    the table cold. It’s just slightly cooler than room temperature, perfect for getting the most out of the flavors.

  • The atmosphere might be the most interesting and distinct of any brewpub in Phoenix: A few huge bird cages filled with parrots, macaws, love birds, parakeets and other feathered critters make for a very cool vibe. Seating is mostly outdoors, with a second-story balcony area overlooking a downtown Chandler that keeps looking better all the time.
  • The idea of serving smoked burgers is a good one. But I’d recommend letting the burgers spend a little less time in the smoker. They’re a bit overcooked and drier than they could be.
  • Our server was excellent – prompt and personable. He knows his craft beer, and he seemed to take a lot of pride in The PERCH Pub & Brewery. Always a good thing when the employees buy into the concept and like being there.
  • Beware of the bathroom situation. There’s generally a long line. I opted for some portable toilets outside; I think there’s more construction going on, and I’d expect The PERCH Pub & Brewery to have additional restrooms in the
    The PERCH Pub & Brewery
    Catching a nap at The PERCH Pub & Brewery

    plans. You can only rent craft beer, you know!

  • The PERCH Pub & Brewery could use some dessert. I can’t knock them for not having every single thing I want from the get-go. Better to start off with a smaller menu and work your way up from there. I do hope dessert is in the future -- it just goes well with craft beer.

The PERCH Pub & Brewery is a great new reason for craft beer fans to visit Chandler. I prefer it to San Tan Brewery (which is walking distance away), though I think San Tan still has the edge in food right now. That could easily change. I just happen to like what The PERCH Pub & Brewery offers in atmosphere, and I like its craft beer list better.


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Do You “Explore”? Not Likely.

The guy in the white suit definitely earned the right to call himself an explorer. What about you?

I have this little eccentricity about travel writing: I gag whenever someone casually uses "explore" in any form. For example, "I explored Sweden this summer." Or Twitter bios that say stuff like "I’m an explorer who is determined to visit every country in the world."

OK, I’ll admit that these are legitimate uses of the word, according to the dictionary. But to my ear, casual use of "explore" is self-aggrandizing travel writing ego inflation. I reserve "explore" for those who are the for-real first-timers, those who assume big risks and go places where no signs point the way. Neil Armstrong stepping off the LEM – that’s an explorer. Not a kid backpacking in France after graduating high school. The badasses who made it to the North and South Poles first? Explorers. Some dude eating "street food" in Chiang Mai? Not.

This is what real explorers look like, (Roald Amundsen og Helmer Hanssen gjør observasjoner pÃ¥ Sydpolen, 1911 – Photo credit: National Library of Norway)

It’s like being a professional musician. People have paid me to haul my gear to venues, set it up and play. But I never tell anyone that I’m a professional musician. I don’t make my living that way, and just about every studio musician on the planet could hand me my ass on a platter, musically. I’m a decent local musician. I can do stuff on a guitar that most people on the planet will never be able to master – I know this from the small number of people I’ve tried to instruct, and the mind-boggling frustration of watching them flail at riffs I can nail at will. For all that, I’m a hack compared to working pro musicians. I know it, and I respect their abilities and knowledge too much to equate my meager abilities to theirs.

Someone died at the marker to the left during a freak summer snowstorm. But that doesn’t make us explorers.

For the exact same reasons, I never call myself an explorer. I go to remote places, sure. I’ve been to many places where other people died through bad decisions or rotten luck. But signs generally point the way. Someone got there first and did the heavy lifting for us all.

Likewise, I never say that I "discovered" anything during my travels.

Feel free to explore possibilities in your travels. Write all you want about what you discover about yourself. But think twice before calling yourself an explorer, or saying you are discovering Southeast Asia or wherever your next trip takes you. Challenge yourself to find a better word, to accurately represent what you do.

You’ll be a better writer for it.

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Adventurous Ideas to Go to Iceland

go to iceland
A hike you shouldn’t miss if you go to Iceland.

I started this blog for one reason: to give people ideas for finding the right adventure for them. My favorite days as a blogger are not when an advertiser throws some cash my way. It’s when someone writes and says something like "Hey, I got the top of Mt. Ngauruhoe using your tips."

So I was fired up to get a message from a friend who decided to go to Iceland -- and promised to mine my blog for ideas.

Rather than make my friend Katie leaf through dozens of post, I decided to compile some ideas to help her go to Iceland. These will be perfect for anyone who plans to go to Iceland. Katie did say "you probably went more rugged than I will go." Fair enough -- I think I can help Katie find the right adventure for her taste.

Katie has her plane ticket and her new hiking boots -- let’s see what we can do for her! (And be sure to check out a more recent post with even more Iceland info!)

Go to Iceland, Go Inside a Volcano

I love volcanoes, especially if they’re still spewing something. But an extinct volcano can offer something, too. Especially Thrihnukagigur volcano, which is just a 30-minute drive from Reykjavik. It’s the only volcano in the world that I know that is extinct, yet has a its magma chamber fully intact. The Inside the Volcano tour takes you more than 400 feet into the depths of Thrihnukagigur.

I was in Iceland before this tour started, and I wail at my misfortune on a daily basis. This is not something any visitor to Iceland should miss.

Sign up for the Miđnæturhlaup

June 23 is the date for the MiÄ‘næturhlaup, a great race in Reykjavik with 5k, 10k and half-marathon distances. All the races start and finish at the Laugardalslaug geothermally heated pools – a perfect way to kick back after running -- and to meet locals. It’s also a good shot at glory: I love telling people that I was the first American finisher the year I ran. Of course, there were only three Americans, and my wife would’ve cooked me if we’d run the half-marathon instead of the 10k.

Since this is right in the middle of Reykjavik, it’s easy to sign up and get to the venue.

Glacier Lagoon, go to Iceland, Jokullsarlon
The Jokullsarlon, or glacier lagoon. Awesome!

Blue Waters, Ancient Ice

Just try pronouncing Jökulsárlón like an Icelander: I dare you. It translates into "glacier lagoon," and you’ll see the word "Jökull" all over the place. Anyway, the word sound cool – but seeing the Jökulsarlon in person will blow you away. Check the image, and bear in mind that it’s straight out of my camera. No photo editing or processing whatsoever. I’d also recommend the boat tour. Our guide fished a hunk of ice out of the glacier lagoon and chipped bits off for everyone to taste. We did a full day of glacier hiking combined with a visit to the glacier lagoon, which we arranged through Glacier Guides. I recommend them highly, especially if they’re still cruising around in a yellow school bus with a cute dog named Hekla.

Jökullsarlon is a haul from Reykjavik. We spent a night camping nearby at Skaftafell National Park, and a second night further west in Vik. Vik is nice, but not a must if you’re crunched for time when you go to Iceland.

landmannalaugar, go to iceland
My GPS track for a hike in Landmannalaugar.

Be a Highlander

OK, I know Katie thinks she doesn’t want to go too rugged. But I think she must get out to the highlands. I’d recommend that she takes a morning bus from Reykjavik to Landmannalaugar. From there, she can do an eight-mile hike on the Laugavegur trail through some of the most unearthly scenery she’s ever seen. By the time she arrives at Hrafntinnusker Hut, she’ll have hiked past volcanic plugs, fumaroles, Technicolor rocks of all sorts, an incredible field of glossy, black obsidian boulders and the scenery used in the opening shots of the movie Prometheus. What’s really funny is when a ranger at the trailhead says "Oh, it’s really crowded today" and then you don’t see another person for the next two hours. Have a look at this post for more photos.

You can turn this into a three-day hike by pressing on toward Thorsmork, or you can return to Landmannalaugar and catch a bus to Skaftafell National Park or Kirkjubaejarklaustur (aka Klaustur, for short).

waterfall iceland
One of Iceland’s many waterfalls. But this one freezes in winter to become The Wall in the HBO series “A Game of Thrones.”

It takes a good four hours to get to Landmannalaugar from Reykjavik. Much of the trip is over bumpy dirt roads that have, by early June, been open for less than week (many of the highland roads are closed during much of the year – the terrain is that rugged). But I can’t in good conscience tell anyone to go to Iceland and give this area a miss. If you don’t travel with a tent, you can book a bunk at Hrafntinnusker hut.

To the North

66°North is an Icelandic clothing brand you’ll see everywhere – at trailheads, at coffee shops, you name it. Icelanders seem to pride themselves on enduring the north, and doing themselves up in 66°North was a manifestation of that pride. But there’s north and then there’s NORTH! To get further up the globe, I recommend that Katie hops on a plane to Akureyri, and then either rents a car or takes a bus to the area near Myvatn (which means Midge Lake). There are hotels and hostels around the lake, but I’d stay on the north side near the Vogar Farm Guesthouse campground. From there, Katie would be close to the Myvatn Nature Baths (a less-touristy and less-expensive Blue Lagoon), the Dimmuborgir lava field, Hverfjall crater and other cool spots. It’s also a very serene area. Do avoid the chocolate-covered black licorice at the gas stations, though.

Something else cool: The road from Akureyri to Myvatn passes a waterfall that freezes in the winter; when it’s frozen, it stars as The Wall in the HBO series A Game of Thrones.

City Living

Reykjavik is as cool and artsy a city as Katie will find anywhere. She likes coffee shops if not coffee, and the city is loaded with them. And they are all regional – as far as I know, Iceland has kept the Starbucks invasion at bay. Katie is a reader, so she’ll love all the bookstores. It’s hard to walk a half-mile without running into one, a sign that this is a very literate society (another sign – all the beds have reading lights on both sides). Reykjavik also has a huge interest in fashion; women there cruise around in some pretty wild styles. And I saw a huge number of independent fashion businesses selling their wares for reasonable prices.

OK, so I hope this gets Katie started on her plans to go to Iceland. Next up, I’ll share some advice on gear for her trip.

Find out even more in my Quick Iceland Travel Guide.

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