Goodyear native Chris Hamby

Goodyear native Chris Hamby, fresh off creating and launching “Curiouser & Curiouser,” which triumphantly relaunched TheaterWorks after months of darkness, was awarded a Governor’s Arts Award.

When Chris Hamby was growing up here in the late 1980s and 1990s, Goodyear was not known as a theater town.

“I remember when we got a bowling alley and two-screen theater,” Hamby said with a laugh.

Yet, somehow, “I fell in love with theater in high school.”

His first theater experience was a field trip to the Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix. The production was “Through the Looking-Glass.” The story of Alice, the Mad Hatter and many curious characters has been told many times before and since—most recently by Hamby himself.

Hamby credits teacher Linda Phillips with fueling his passion for theater. After graduating from Agua Fria High School in 1997, he went on to Northern Arizona University. In two decades since, his rise has been as speedy and off-beat as Alice’s fall down a rabbit hole.

At 41, Hamby is not only the artistic director of TheaterWorks, one of the most respected theaters in the Valley, he just won an award that staggered him—in a good way.

Last month, Hamby received the Governor’s Arts Award in the Central Arizona Artist category.

“I was shocked” when his name was called at a virtual awards show, Hamby said. Part of the surprise, he said, is “it’s kind of a lifetime achievement award. And I feel like we have so much more work to do.”

Indeed, Hamby was in the middle of transitioning from “Curiouser & Curiouser,” his take on the Alice tale that ended Nov. 1, to a holiday version called “A Curiouser Nutcracker,” which opened Nov. 27 and plays through Dec. 30.

Shortly after TheaterWorks “went dark” due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Hamby started brainstorming an idea for  “an immersive, multi-sensory, intimate theater production,” during which audience members walk into and through the world of Alice.

After spending years racing from one production to the next, Hamby had the rare luxury of time to work with his staff to transform various theaters, rehearsal spaces and hallways of the spacious Peoria Center for the Performing Arts into Wonderland.

Launched Sept. 10, “Curiouser & Curiouser” was a triumphant comeback for TheaterWorks, which was dark and quiet for months.

Two days before the theater’s biggest fundraiser of the year, Hamby made the decision to shut down the theater and the fundraiser. “It was one of the hardest things I ever had to do,” he said. “We didn’t know how long it would last—two weeks? Two months?”

It turned out to be an entire summer, normally one of the busiest times for the youth-oriented Peoria theater.

Instead of juggling an assortment of shows this summer, “I was figuring out how to keep my theater alive,” Hamby said.

Typically, instead of playing it safe with a minimalist show to reopen, Hamby went big.

“Logistically, this is the craziest thing I’ve ever done,” Hamby said, with the kind of laugh reserved for the closing moments of a show.

Audience reaction has been joyous, leading to the holiday sequel.

The icing on the cake came last week, when Hamby learned of the Governor’s Arts Award.

What did it mean to him?

“Selfishly, it was a validation of my body of work—‘Hey, people are paying attention to me,’” Hamby said.

His home theater beamed with pride.

“Chris is a theater visionary with incredible talent, devotion and passion that creates magic on and off the stage,” said Tom Doyle, TheaterWorks’ board chair.

Hamby recently celebrated his 10th year at TheaterWorks, which has received many AriZoni Awards in his decade in Peoria.

“The impact that Chris has made on the lives of so many is indisputable. He is a magnetic leader and a remarkable artist,” said Cate Hinkle, TheaterWorks managing director.

“And, his work is just beginning. I am proud to work alongside Chris and support his vision.”