Since last summer, the former Bookmans in midtown has remained empty and quiet.
Its shelves are long gone, the exposed brick walls that once hung signage and art are now clean, and music that once played overhead has gone silent as the bookshop moved out of the space at 3330 E. Speedway and into a new spot on Stone Avenue.
The silence became a regular part of the vacant space — until a few weeks ago when a theatrical production featuring local teens temporarily moved in, filling the space with singing, dancing and indie-folk music.
Local vocal training studio The Inner Voice Studio and theater organization Southern Arizona Performing Arts Company collaborated to bring “Alice by Heart” to life at a unique performance space in Tucson. The musical was written by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater and inspired by the classic novel “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”
Instead of setting up a typical theater with a stage and seating, the group transformed the Bookmans space into a set resembling an early 1940s London underground train station, complete with a 14-foot-tall tunnel built for attendees to walk through to get to the performance area.
Other elements in the performance area include moving scaffolding, haze and sound effects.
“We built a set inside of it,” said Kaitlin Bertenshaw, a professional singer and the founder of The Inner Voice Studio. “We brought in all of the lights, we brought in all the sound, we have a seven-piece band, put in spotlights … For a month, it’s a theater, which is something I have never done before and is one of the hardest things I've probably ever done, but it is so worth it.”
The musical debuted at the former Bookmans space on Friday, Jan. 19, featuring 40 local teen actors and singers. The final shows run this weekend starting at 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, Jan. 26-27 and 6 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 28.
Tickets cost $27 per person, with proceeds going right back into funding and scholarships for The Inner Voice Studio’s programs. Bertenshaw recommends purchasing tickets in advance, as the shows are expected to sell out.
Ticketholders are encouraged to attend the pre-show tea party featuring a 40-minute chat with the cast and production crew and drinks crafted by Scented Leaf Tea House specifically for the musical, such as “The Hatter and the Hare” and “The Red Queen Gusher.” Proceeds from the specialty drinks also go toward the studio’s scholarship program for students.
Without giving away too much, Bertenshaw says the musical is “exceptionally poignant” and an “astonishing piece.”
“It's set in a war bunker and there's all these kids that are trying to grow up amidst the trauma of war,” she said. “The main character's name is Alice Spencer and her best friend Alfred has tuberculosis and he is not doing well. He is very, very sick and she cannot process that her best friend is going to die. So, in order to try to stop time, she creates this fantasy world of Alice in Wonderland where she turns everybody in the bunker into a character from the book.
“It's about her trying to find a solution and comfort and peace with what's inevitably happening around her. And so it goes back and forth between the fantasyland of Alice in Wonderland and the stark reality of life.”
“Alice by Heart” has 10 principal leads that are interchangeable — if you catch the first show of the weekend, the cast will look a little different in the following shows, with new leads each night.
“The biggest comment I’m getting is they (attendees) do not believe these are kids because of … the professionality and maturity which they told the story,” Bertenshaw said. “You would think you're watching professional actors. It's amazing. And they (the actors) instantly loved the material. They don't want to do frilly little kid stuff, they want to tell stories that mean something to them. So, when we found this piece it was perfect. It's just the absolute perfect piece at the right time with the right people.”
Now that the show is coming to a close this weekend, Bertenshaw says she feels excited to celebrate what they have accomplished, which she says was “quite a feat” and looks forward to producing new shows at new locations in the future.
Bertenshaw is a former professional opera singer who’s performed around the world. After years of traveling, she settled down in Tucson and decided to utilize her passion for performing by teaching the next generation of singers. She founded The Inner Voice Studio in early 2020.
Since the studio was founded a few years ago, Bertenshaw has taught numerous singers ranging from ages 10 to 72.
“As somebody who is an artist, who grew up in the arts, it's not cheap. It's very expensive being an artist and making art is expensive,” she said. “And I don't believe that is equitable. I think that our world will be more beautiful when the arts are more inclusive and socio-economically accessible. ... If one of the (students) says they can't afford it, we find the money to pay for them because we will not turn down anyone. We want to make sure that everybody who wants to participate in an artistic experience can, regardless of income financial status or family situation.
“And part of that was the Scented Leaf Tea House sponsorship and the ticket prices all go towards (the students) because that's why I do this. … The arts were so important to me as a young person growing up and figuring out who I was and discovering my identity and where I fit in the world. And so I could never take that away from someone who wants that space and the kids can feel that. The kids keep coming back because we want to take such good care of them and make them feel supported and loved and safe. And I think it's something that doesn't always happen in the arts.”
For more information about the “Alice by Heart” production or The Inner Voice Studio, check out the studio’s website.