• Something old, something new, something borrowed and 'Something Rotten!'

    by John Moore | Oct 17, 2017


    Cast of the national touring production of 'Something Rotten,' opening tonight (Oct. 17) at the Buell Theatre. Photo by Jeremy Daniel. 

    Something Rotten! is a cheeky new musical with its tongue planted firmly in the cheek of Broadway's past  

    Most Broadway newcomers don’t get their first show produced by Tony Award-winner Kevin McCollum, and they don’t typically land Tony-winner Casey Nicholaw as their director-choreographer. But brothers Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick and British comedy writer John O’Farrell, the creators of the Tony Award-nominated Something Rotten!, aren’t like most Broadway first-timers.

    Growing up in Louisiana, the Kirkpatrick brothers fell in love with musical theater, appearing in high school shows and going to what’s now the Baton Rouge River Center to see touring productions of Broadway hits. In 1983, Karey Kirkpatrick saw his first show on Broadway, My One and Only, starring Tommy Tune and Twiggy, at the St. James Theatre – the theater that’s now home to Something Rotten!.

    Careers took the brothers and their Something Rotten! collaborator O’Farrell in different creative directions – Karey to success as a screenwriter, songwriter and director, with credits including The Rescuers Down Under, James and the Giant Peach and Chicken Run; Wayne to acclaim as a Grammy Award-winning songwriter (Eric Clapton’s Song of the Year Change the World and Garth BrooksWrapped Up in You are his); O’Farrell to multifaceted success in the U.K. as a comic novelist, columnist and TV and film writer.

    The seeds of Something Rotten! were sewn in the mid-1990s when Karey, who now lives in Los Angeles, and Wayne, who calls Nashville home, would get together for holidays or catch up by phone.

    “We were big history buffs. It started with, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if Shakespeare’s London were a lot like what Broadway was in the 1930s?’” Karey says. “Then it was, ‘What would it be like to be writing plays in the shadow of William Shakespeare, after Romeo and Juliet just opened?’”

    “We thought of two writers,” Wayne says. “What if one went to a soothsayer? Then somewhere along the way it was, ‘What if the two writers were brothers? What if the soothsayer’s name was Nostradamus, but he wasn’t The Nostradamus? What if he was a senile, bad soothsayer, his nephew?’ Eventually it was, ‘If we’re going to do this, we should really get serious about it.’”

    The brothers buckled down, and in 2010, Karey reached out to McCollum, producer of Rent and Avenue Q.

    “We called Kevin and said, ‘What do you need?’ He said that Avenue Q was three songs and an idea,” Karey says. “He came to my house and we pitched him five songs and the idea. He said, ‘I think you’ve got something here.’ ”

    Karey brought in O’Farrell, whom he’d met on Chicken Run, to help write the show’s story. The brothers crafted the music and lyrics, eventually writing more than 50 songs. What they had, after plenty of revisions and a multi-year developmental process, is a buoyant musical set in Shakespeare’s day that imagines the creation of the very first musical.

    Something Rotten! centers around Nick and Nigel Bottom (the last name comes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream), brothers desperate for a hit in Elizabethan London, where William Shakespeare is a rock star-like god of the stage lately given to cribbing plots. 

    Nick’s wife, Bea, a can-do gal in the style of Shakespearean heroines who cross-dress to get things done, tries to help. Nigel falls for a pretty Puritan named Portia, whose daddy strongly disapproves. Unreliable soothsayer Thomas Nostradamus, nephew of the Nostradamus, looks into the future and tells Nick that theater’s next big thing will be – tahdah! – “musicals,” where people sing, dance and act all at the same time.

    Something Rotten! is laced throughout with humor for Shakespeare aficionados and musical theater geeks.

    “We were conscious of not wanting to be so inside that you could only get it if you had seen the most obscure musicals,” Wayne Kirkpatrick said. “We went broad, purposely. We referenced not only the musicals that inspired us, but also musicals people would know even if they hadn’t seen them, or maybe they’d only seen the movie. The same with Shakespeare. Everybody knows some Shakespeare lines. There are a lot of what we refer to as his ‘hits’ that everybody is going to know.” 

    More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

    The end result is a show so that has been called fresh and funny and appeals to audiences of all backgrounds. “I think it doesn’t matter how much you know,” said Nicholaw, whose other current Broadway shows are Disney's Aladdin (coming to Denver April 6-28) and The Book of Mormon (returning to Denver from June 13 through July 1). “My nieces and nephews say it’s their favorite show that I’ve done, and they don’t know any of the references.”

    Added O’Farrell: “If it works as a musical for people who don’t know musicals or Shakespeare, then I’m happy. It’s about show business and putting on a show. The show works on many levels, but the main level it works on, I hope, is that it’s just a great fun night out.”

    For the no-longer-green creative team, Something Rotten! has been a challenge, an education and a joy, an experience they still savor as the touring production plays cities all over the United States.

    “This was by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but [it was] so rewarding to sit in a theater and watch all these amazing contributions from people who took it beyond our idea to create this magical, happy experience,” Wayne Kirkpatrick said.

    (The preceding article was provided by Something Rotten!)

    Bonus: Something Rotten! sings!


    'Something Rotten!'
    is brimming with references from some of the most beloved modern musicals throughout history. Jazz hands out! Below is a list of just some of our favorites from the show-stopping number 'A Musical':

    “I believe it’s called ‘Miser-ahh-bluh’”: This is directly referring to Les Misérables, with music by Claude-Michel Schönberg, original French lyrics by Alain Boubil and Jean-Marc Natel and an English libretto by Herbert Kretzmer.

    “Feel that fascinating rhythm move into your feet”: These lyrics are from George and Ira Gershwin’s Fascinating Rhythm, which was first included in the Broadway musical Lady Be Good in 1924 with Fred and Adele Astaire.

    “It’s a musical, a Seussical?”: Seussical was a musical that debuted on Broadway in 2000 and was based on the books of Dr. Seuss. Stephen Flaherty independently composed the music and co-wrote the book with Lynn Ahrens, who also wrote the lyrics.

    Sailor Hats: During A Musical, Nostradamus and the chorus men don sailor hats, which harkens to several nautical-themed musicals, including South Pacific, Anything Goes, On the Town and Dames at Sea.

    “All That Jazz” number: This number comes from the John Kander and Fred Ebb musical Chicago (returning to the Buell Theatre starting Nov. 28), featuring the iconic Broadway choreography of Bob Fosse.

    “525,600 Minutes” excerpt: This moment comes from the song Seasons of Love from Jonathan Larson’s Rent which won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 1996. The 20th anniversary tour of Rent comes to the Buell Theatre Nov. 14-21,

    Wash Buckets: The ensemble brings on cleaning buckets and emulates the iconic staging of the song It’s the Hard Knock Life from Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin’s Annie. BDT Stage will be presenting Annie in Boulder from Nov. 18-Feb. 24.

    Get in 'Line': The lyrics refer to the tradition of a chorus or ensemble dancing in a line in synchronized fashion. This can be seen with the world-famous Radio City Music Hall’s Rockettes and the musical A Chorus Line. At the end of the song, the entire company crosses to one line downstage with headshots (or rather head… sketches) in front of their faces. This is also replication of the iconic staging from the musical A Chorus Line.

    Fun photo gallery: A peek at the Playbills. Elizabethan style!

    Something Rotten! A Peek at the Playbills

    As a show about the "first" Broadway musical, there are naturally quite a few hilarious references to the Great White Way in Something Rotten! See how the titles of some famous shows would have changed if they were created at the turn of the 17th century. To see more, hover your cursor over the image above and click the forward arrow that appears.

    Something Rotten!: Ticket information
    Something Rotten!At a glance: Set in 1595, this hit musical comedy  tells the story of two brothers who set out to write the world's very first musical. It was called  'The Producers + Spamalot + The Book of Mormon. Squared,' by New York Magazine. The New York Post called Something Rotten! 'a big, fat hit.'

    • National touring production
    • Performances Oct. 17-29
    • Buell Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex
    • Tickets start at $25
    • Call 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE
    • Sales to groups of 10 or more click here
  • 'The Wild Party': Five things we learned at first rehearsal

    by John Moore | Sep 15, 2017
    Making of 'The Wild Party'

    Photos from the first rehearsal for Off-Center's upcoming off-site, immersive production of 'The Wild Party.' To see more, hover your cursor over the image above and click the forward arrow that appears. Photos by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

    The audience will become, like the characters in the play,
    'a roomful of strangers who call themselves friends.'

    By John Moore
    Senior Arts Journalist

    The Denver Center is preparing to present the Jazz Age musical The Wild Party as a 360-degree immersive theatregoing experience where the 208 audience members are guests at a corker of a gin-soaked Big Apple soiree, right alongside the 14 professional actors in the ensemble. It will be staged in what was once an airline hangar at the new Stanley Marketplace in the Stapleton neighborhood.

    And that is not at all how composer Michael John LaChiusa originally imagined his piece to be staged. Like most musicals, The Wild Party was first presented in front of an audience separated from the stage by theatre’s nearly ubiquitous, invisible “fourth wall.”

    There’s no wall here.

    “Our production is going to put our audience directly in the Jazz Age,” two-time True West Award-winning Director Amanda Berg Wilson said Tuesday at the company’s first rehearsal for the show opening Oct. 11.

    The Wild Party. Amanda Berg Wilson. Photo by John MooreThe DCPA’s adventurous Off-Center wing is known for creating original nontraditional work in nontraditional spaces, most notably last year’s sprawling Sweet & Lucky, which played out in a huge warehouse north of downtown. The Wild Party will be its first musical, and first scripted work.

    The musical is based on a scandalous, book-length poem written by Robert Frost protege Joseph Moncure March in 1926. It was described as “a kind of obscene, more destructive take on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Scott Miller, Artistic Director of St. Louis’ New Line Theatre. The poem paints a vivid and decadent picture of Manhattan just before the market crash. It centers on the damaged, reckless relationship between a dancer named Queenie and a vaudeville clown named Burrs. The audience here will witness many personal dramas unfold up close and in three dimensions.

    The Wild Party. Allison Caw, Marco Robinson, Katie Drinkard and Jenna Moll Reyes. Photo by John Moore.“The audience is not going to be passive witnesses to the party,” said Wilson. “They are going to be integral components of the party – and its conspirators. So we are going to encourage them to help mix the bathtub gin; to console the coke-snorting wannabe starlet; to read love letters; to be pulled into boiler rooms for intimate moments; to see things they are not supposed to see.” In the end, the audience will become, like the characters in the play, "a roomful of strangers who call themselves friends." 

    Which helps explains why this is a 21-and-over evening. It’s a party, after all. And apparently a wild one.

    “Our goal with each audience member is that they are going to experience a kind of release that you only have when you have had a really wild night," Wilson said.

    Here are five more things we learned about 'The Wild Party' at the first rehearsal:

    NUMBER 1A Wild Party PoemThe source poem, which went virtually unread for two years because no publisher would touch it, inspired iconic beat writer William Burroughs to become a writer. “It is a witty and risqué poem about two vaudeville performers who fight, make up, throw a party and flirt with danger,” Wilson said. “It name-drops Martha Graham and Langston Hughes, and the book for the musical is by George C. Wolfe (the Public Theatre icon who first directed Angels in America). The story is set at a time when America was waking up to its identity as a wild and creative nation that was emerging into its own sense of self separate from Europe. That sense of self was really born in vaudeville and speakeasies and the avant-garde of the 1920s when jazz, arguably the most American of art forms, was being born. These are people who are not only trying to figure out who they love but who they are and who they will present as. Ambisextrous, Jewish, uptown, downtown, black and white identities are all explored in these jazz-soaked numbers.”

    NUMBER 2The audience will be encouraged (but not required) to dress up for the party. Says Costume Designer Meghan Anderson Doyle: “I think we get the best of the 1920s in this piece because we get the glitz and glamour of beaded dresses and tuxedos and dinner jackets and champagne, and then we get the soft sensuality and the vulnerability of stockings and garter belts and bathtub gin.”

    NUMBER 3The Wild Party. David Nehls. Photo by John Moore.The Music Director is David Nehls (pictured right),  who has helmed the music for most every musical at the Arvada Center for more than a decade. "I am very excited that we have an amazing, seven-piece live band," Nehls said. One of those players is Trent Hines, himself an active Music Director in the local theatre community. For this production, Hines is also being integrated into the story as an actor.

    NUMBER 4The cast is made up entirely of local actors. Wilson, also the founder of a Boulder theatre company called The Catamounts, performed in Sweet & Lucky alongside Diana Dresser, Jenna Moll Reyes and The Wild Party choreographer Patrick Mueller. “Having an all-local cast is evidence that we really do have the talent right here to pull off a show like this,” said Wilson. “And I think it is great that as the Denver Center continues to experiment with immersive theatre, we are developing a base of talent right here in Denver with an increasing set of tools and vocabulary so that we can keep making this kind of work. And we are discovering that audiences are really hungry for it.”

    NUMBER 5The man charged with turning the airplane hangar at Stanley Marketplace into a New York apartment is Jason Sherwood, who first came to the Denver Center in 2014 as an assistant on The Unsinkable Molly Brown and returned last year as the lead Scenic Designer for Frankenstein. This season, he will create the worlds for the Denver Center’s The Wild Party, Macbeth and The Who's Tommy.

    John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

    The Wild Party: Cast list

    • Brett Ambler: Gold
    • Leonard Barrett Jr.: Oscar D’Armano
    • Allison Caw: Sally
    • Laurence Curry: Black
    • Diana Dresser: Miss Madelaine True
    • Katie Drinkard: Mae
    • Trent Hines: Phil D’Armano
    • Drew Horwitz: Burrs
    • Wayne Kennedy: Goldberg
    • Sheryl McCallum: Dolores
    • Jenna Moll Reyes: Nadine
    • Marco Robinson: Eddie Mackrel
    • Emily Van Fleet: Queenie
    • Aaron Vega: Jackie
    • Erin Willis: Kate

    The Wild Party:
    Ticket information

    The Wild PartyAt  a glance: You’re invited to leave your inhibitions (and Prohibitions) behind as you join a decadent party in the Roaring Twenties, brought to you by the producers of Sweet & Lucky. Indulge your inner flapper as you mingle with an unruly mix of vaudevillians, playboys, divas, and ingénues in a Manhattan apartment lost in time. Debauchery turns disastrous as wild guests becomes unhinged and their solo songs reveal the drama bubbling underneath the surface. Whether you’re a wallflower or a jitterbug, you’ll think this jazz- and gin-soaked immersive musical is the bee’s knees.

    • Music and Lyrics by Michael John LaChiusa
    • Book by Michael John LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe
    • Based on the poem by Joseph Moncure March
    • Oct. 11-31, 2017
    • At The Hangar at Stanley Marketplace, 2501 Dallas St.
    • Visit the official Wild Party web site
    • Call 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE
    • Sales to groups of 10 or more click here

    More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

    Previous NewsCenter coverage of The Wild Party

    2017 Colorado Fall Theatre Preview: Meet Emily Van Fleet
    Cast list: Look who's been invited to The Wild Party
    Off-Center throwing a Wild Party at Stanley Marketplace this fall
    Vast and visceral: 2017-18 Theatre Company, Off-Center seasons announced

    About the Stanley Marketplace
    The Stanley Marketplace, which opened last year near the Stapleton neighborhood just east of Denver, is a community of like-minded businesses and residents who believe sustainable retail and community development. The more than 22-acre space, which occupies 140,000 square feet, was once Stanley Aviation headquarters, where airplane ejector seats were engineered and manufactured. Today it is an adaptive re-use community hub, home to a park, beer hall and an urban marketplace. All businesses are local and independent. The address is 2501 Dallas St. in Aurora. MAP IT
  • Shakespeare Fest: Students put spirit of youth in everything

    by John Moore | Apr 29, 2017

    Above: Video coverage from the 2017 The Denver Public Schools Shakespeare Festival on April 28. Our guests include Denver Mayor Michael B. Hancock; DCPA President and CEO Janice Sinden; DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg; teacher Tim Boyle (John F. Kennedy High School); students Amelia Corrada (Denver School for the Arts), Vincent Haney (Denver North High School) and Alexis Ayala (J.F.K). Video by David Lenk and John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter. 


    'Today, we keep the arts alive. Today we triumph
    over hatred, over grief and over despair.'

    By John Moore
    Senior Arts Journalist

    Surely no one will compare Friday to a summer’s day. But compared to the bone-chilling festivities of a year ago, the 33rd Denver Public Schools Shakespeare Festival was, in the Bard’s own words, a comfort like sunshine after rain.

    2017-dps-shakespeare-festivalDespite a gloomy forecast, the mild weather cooperated just long enough for 5,000 students from kindergarten through high school to perform more than 640 short scenes, dances, soliloquies and sonnets on stages in and around the Denver Performing Arts Complex. The celebration is the largest and oldest student Shakespeare Festival in the country.

    Performing in 14 tents, theatres and stairway landings spread out over four acres, students from an estimated 80 schools soliloquized, sang, fenced, danced, played musical instruments, raged and gently wooed – but did not kiss. (Festival rule: High-fives – not smooches!)

    2017-dps-shakespeare-festivalDressed in authentic period garb, Mayor Michael B. Hancock told the wee throng that the DPS Shakespeare Festival has become part of the fabric of Denver. “We believe wholeheartedly in arts education,” said Hancock, a graduate of DPS’ Manual High School. “We believe in connecting to our history. We believe in upholding our culture. You are making Denver proud today.”

    Most participating DPS teachers have spent the past two months introducing Shakespeare to their students and creating live performances through auditioning, rehearsals, text analysis and costume-building. Studies have shown that studying Shakespeare improves students’ literacy and literary skills, especially in a district like DPS, where more than 50 percent speak English as a second language.

    “This experience gives them the opportunity to really dig into Shakespeare’s words and find emotions and character motivations and storylines,” said Jacqueline Smilack, a journalist and fourth-year English teacher at Abraham Lincoln High School. And for those who speak English as a second language, she said, “Shakespeare is the great equalizer. Everyone comes into it on the same page.” A team from Denver School of the Arts presented a scene from Romeo and Juliet with two students performing in English and two others in Spanish.

    (Story continues under the photo gallery)

    Full photo gallery: 2017 DPS Shakespeare Festival

    2017 DPS Shakespeare Festival

    To see more photos, click the forward arrow on the image above. All photos by John Moore for the DCPA's NewsCenter. Photos may be downloaded and shared with credit to the DCPA NewsCenter. 

    Alix Gonzalez, 15-year-old sophomore from North High School, performed Friday in her third festival, dating back to middle school. “I love it because it gets me out of my comfort zone,” she said. “Speaking in old English stretches your confidence as an actor because of how big you have to go to do Shakespeare.”

    Watch our Facebook Live stream from the parade

    Each year, DPS students submit essays for the privilege to play William Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth I in the welcoming ceremonies, and ride at the head of a short parade from the 16th Street Mall to the Denver Performing Arts Complex. This year’s honorees were Denver North High School Senior Vincent Haney and Denver School of the Arts senior Amelia Corrada, who has been accepted into the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. Haney said he was speechless and euphoric when he learned he had been selected to speak as The Bard.

    Story: Where do those 5,000 costumes come from?

    2017-dps-shakespeare-festival“Theatre is the voice of our people,” Haney said as Shakespeare. “And today, our message is as strong as ever. Today, we keep the arts alive. Today we triumph over hatred, over grief and over despair. Today we sing, today we dance, today we act.”

    Corrada said Shakespeare remains timely because “the themes of Shakespeare’s plays are the same themes we are living through in our country right now. Through his verse, he exposes us to the very truth and nature of friendship, magic, betrayal, war and even love in all its forms. It's totally relevant.”

    2017-dps-shakespeare-festivalSmilack admitted that Shakespeare can be intimidating for first-time students, and they are not alone. “It can be intimidating for teachers, too,” she said. Because many teachers are not specifically trained in teaching or interpreting the Shakespeare canon, she said, “This exercise gives teachers good perspective on what our students are going through.”

    Now in its fourth decade, the DPS Shakespeare Festival’s bloodlines go back for generations. Acclaimed singer and actor Mary Louise Lee (Hancock’s wife), performed in the festival as a student at Thomas Jefferson High School. The First Lady has made restoring arts-education programs in schools her top priority since founding her nonprofit, Bringing Back the Arts. John F. Kennedy High School Drama Director Tim Boyles, who brought a fresh group of festival participants this year, performed in the festival when he himself was a student at JFK.

    2017-dps-shakespeare-festivalNot all of the performances on Friday were by students. A team of DCPA Education Teaching Artists presented a 45-minute version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that they perform at schools statewide in and around a beat-up old pickup truck as part of the “Shakespeare in the Parking Lot” program. All costumes and props come from the back of the truck – so, for example, floor mats are used as a wall, and an ice-scraper is used as a sword to depict a suicide.

    This is the DCPA’s third year partnering with Denver Public Schools and the DPS Foundation to present the festival. “We provided workshops, we judged auditions, we opened our doors and we offer financial support to 4,000 students from across Denver to participate in this event,” said President and CEO Janice Sinden. “We do that because the DCPA knows arts education improves academic success, produces leaders and cultivates creativity. Plus, it’s fun.”

    2017-dps-shakespeare-festivalDance Legend Cleo Parker Robinson, a graduate of the Denver Public Schools who created Cleo Parker Robinson Dance 47 years ago, brought two of her company members to perform a short excerpt from their current offering, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet layered with scenes from George Gershwin’s Porgy & Bess (through May 7 at 119 Park Avenue West.)

    “It's thrilling to see students of all backgrounds and ages be introduced to the magic of theatre in this way,” said Robinson. “Our presence here today is meant to show these young students that Shakespeare can be expressed through the word, through music – and also through the ballet of Prokofiev.”

    2017-dps-shakespeare-festivalThe Grand Marshal of this year’s parade was Deputy Director of Denver Arts and Venues Ginger White Brunetti, who heads the city’s Imagine 2020 arts program.

    While students were free to perform from any of Shakespeare’s works, this year’s featured title was Much Ado About Nothing. But in the words of DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg, “Today there is going to be much ado about something.” 

    John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist. This is his 16th year covering the DPS Shakespeare Festival.


    Our 2017 DPS Shakespeare Festival coverage

    Our 2016 DPS Shakespeare Festival coverage

    Our 2015 DPS Shakespeare Festival coverage

    Our 2014 DPS Shakespeare Festival coverage

  • Shakespeare rolls down the window on today's world

    by John Moore | Mar 12, 2017
    Shakespeare in the Parking Lot

    Photos from DCPA Education's 'Shakespeare in the Parking Lot' program over the past three years, most recently a visit to University Schools in Greeley. To see more, click the forward arrow on the image above. Photos by McKenzie Kielman and John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

    How presenting Shakespeare in a pick-up truck
    rolls down the window on everyday issues for students 

    By McKenzie Kielman
    For the DCPA NewsCenter

    “What light through yonder window breaks?” 

    If you are Stuart Barr and Max McEwen, abosutely none. For the DCPA Education crew to arrive in Greeley on time, the equipment must be loaded onto a truck before the sun rises. On this Tuesday morning, that’s 4:30 a.m. Pitch dark.

    Traveling to high schools across Colorado, DCPA teaching artists perform abridged versions of Shakespeare plays for a popular education program called Shakespeare in the Parking Lot. The next day, the actors conduct classroom workshops to help students make the connection between the play its current-day relevance in their own lives.

    Stuart BarrThere would be no Shakespeare in any parking lot without the early morning prep work undertaken by Barr, the DCPA Education’s Technical Director, and McEwen, his Assistant Technical Director. They meet in the pre-dawn dark at the downtown warehouse where the equipment is stored, but they have devised a methodical system to load their rig under the helpful aid of a nearby streetlight. The main set piece going along for the ride is an old, white 1980 Ford F-250 Farm Truck. It’s a beat-up contraption with a crystal door handle to accessorize the gearshift. But it has no mirrors, license plates or other legalities necessary to be road-ready.

    In fact, the truck has been known to have a mind of its own when Barr tries to get the motor to turn over after chilly evenings. The gas pedal will stick, and off they often fly. Surely the Bard’s line, “Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?” has come to Barr’s mind during these moments. The crew jokes that in order for the truck to be the center of a production filled with interesting characters, it had to be a character itself. They call this truck Rosaline - after the poor girl Romeo dumped about two seconds after first seeing Juliet.   

    When the truck has been tamed and tethered onto the flatbed, there is a quick double-check of necessary equipment, and then off toward Greeley they go, the Hamilton soundtrack punctuating the crisp morning air.

    While the program is called Shakespeare in the Parking Lot, the “parking lot” portion of the title can be interpreted liberally. The location of the actual performance at each school can vary widely depending on the building layout, traffic, noise pollution and weather.

    Problems are solved as they come up through trial and error, which at times can be painful. During the program's pilot run in 2015, Barr found out the hard way that wireless microphones do not work well near metal buildings. So the crew had to completely dismantle the whole staging and reassemble elsewhere. Now it's more of a well-oiled machine.

    Read more: Shakespare in the Parking Lot visits Weld Central

    Upon arrival, Barr and McEwen go straight into memorized action. And one of the most important items on their daily checklist is to simply take a moment to enjoy the sunrise. After a brief discussion about its quality of color and a comparison to the numerous others they have experienced together, they go back into work mode. Soon the actors arrive and begin assisting with the equipment and other assigned tasks. 

    Shakespeare in the Parking Lot By McKenzie KielmanOnce the stage is set, the equipment operational and the sound check complete, it’s time for fight call. According to union rules, each fight sequence in the performance must be practiced in advance under the supervision of the designated fight captain. Although the actors could by now do these exercises in their sleep - and often do depending on how early their call time is - Fight Captain and actor Jessica Austgen reminds the crew: “Safety first, safety last, safety always.” 

    Other performers in this cast of Romeo and Juliet are John Hauser as Romeo, Jenna Moll Reyes as Juliet, with Napoleon M. Douglas, Chloe McLeod, Joelle Montoya and Justin Walvoord playing a variety of supporting roles. Depending on the size of school, the actors can do up to four performances a day, each 45 minutes long, for audiences that at times exceed 200. 

    Long days spent together in the parking lot or in the classroom together over an intensive five weeks have fostered close friendships among the crew. Between performances, the group will play Frisbee or occasionally luck out to find the school has, say, a disc golf course. It’s in the downtime this crew has gone from co-workers to comrades.

    The sun, if not a curtain, rises

    The performance is timed to coincide with a typical high-school class session so as not to disrupt the normal school routine. On this day, the students seem intrigued by the unusual setting of the performance, the fight scenes, the masquerade ball, Shakespeare in the Parking Lotthe love story and Shakespeare’s beguiling words – all happening on and around this broken-down truck.

    More than 400 years later, Romeo and Juliet remains steeped in recognizable themes of violence, blind loyalty and the origin of love. As the playwright himself said, “Never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo.”

    While the set and costuming are modernized, it is important to DCPA Education Director Allison Watrous, who conceived this pilot program, that the students hear Shakespeare’s actual, if abbreviated, language.

    More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

    "Oftentimes, the students watching these performances have recently read Romeo and Juliet as part of their preparation for the actors’ visit. Seeing the play performed by professional actors after having read it can be vitally helpful in helping the students comprehend the action and its meaning," she said.

    Romeo and Juliet is a cornerstone of high-school reading curricula all over the country. And reading about a sword fight can certainly be exciting. However, it’s a completely different experience to watch a fully choreographed stage combat scene, let alone one that takes place against the cab of a truck.”

    Watrous came up with the idea for Shakespeare in the Parking Lot from seeing newfangled food trucks in action. Performing the play in an environmental setting gives the DCPA an opportunity to engage young audiences in a new way.

    “This unique approach breaks out of the physical theatre and directly delivers the show to students in an outdoor, non-traditional playhouse experience that introduces thousands of students across the region to the theatre arts,” Watrous said.

    Shakespeare in the Parking Lot By McKenzie Kielman 2
    On the second day, the 'Shakespeare in the Parking Lot' program moves into the classroom, here at University Schools in Greeley. Photo by McKenzie Kielman

    Why don't you take it inside?

    The next day, in this case a Wednesday at University Schools in Greeley, the actors lead students through three workshop activities to foster a discussion about the production and its meaning. They are asked to name a line from the play that sounded familiar to them, a character they related to, a moment in the play that stood out, or perhaps the trickiest question: Did Romeo and Juliet really experience true love? The fictional girl is only 14, after all, and the couple have no shared past. The question, put another way: Do you believe in love at first sight?

    With each question, the volume in the classroom grows along with the students' passionate opinions. “When you know, you know,” one group concludes. Another cluster of students disagrees, saying, “We’re too young to know anything for sure.”

    Shakespeare in the Parking Lot By McKenzie Kielman 3For the next segment, the students are asked to register their opinion on a suggested issue by moving to one side of the room or the other, like in a political caucus, to reflect whether they agree or disagree. Taking the middle ground – or being unsure – is not allowed in this exercise. They must take a stand. But as the students begin to defend their positions out loud, they can change sides by moving from one group to the other.

    More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

    An example: “Holding a grudge is a sign of strength.” One student immediately moves to the side indicating that she agrees. When asked to support her position, she giggles and says, “Because I’m petty.” A fellow student disagrees, saying, “It takes more guts to forgive someone.”

    More consequentially, the students are asked: “Violence always leads to violence.” One student disagrees. “You shoot someone, they’re dead,” he says. “They can’t do anything.” But DCPA actor John Hauser, who is co-leading this session, plays devil's advocate by pointing out an example from the performance the day before: Tybalt kills Mercutio, so Romeo kills Tybalt. And in the end, both Romeo and Juliet are dead.

    Another student responds with a real-world example by saying simply: “ISIS.”

    In a lighter moment, the student are asked whether friends should always come first in every situation, even before significant others. A quieter student sets up the scenario more simply: “Pals before gals.” It's a moment of welcome levity after such an earnest examination of the play’s issues.

    (Story continues below video)

    Video: Our visit to Weld Central High School in 2015:

    The workshop allowed the students to dig deep into matters that are clearly important to them both at school and at home. The moderators suggested the following talking points, and each sparked meaningful back-and-forth among the students:

    • Loyalty is dangerous
    • The only appropriate punishment for murder is death
    • Parents can never understand what a child feels
    • Going behind someone’s back can be necessary
    • Teenagers have right to privacy no matter what
    • Parents have a right to know a child’s whereabouts at all times
    • Parents own and therefore can regulate any items they have bought for their child

    To finish up, the students are presented a “what-if” scenario involving a fictional teenager and her father: A senior in high school, a few months shy of turning 18, has been getting into trouble and is disrespectful to her father. She is breaking curfew and other house rules. Frustrated and concerned, the father would like to gain access to her password-protected cell phone and computer. So he asks his older, adult daughter for her help with the passwords. Should the older sister give them to her father? 

    Students immediately dive into arguments on both sides of the issue. As the debate continues, the DCPA moderator adds to the stakes: What if the girl is also coming home with alcohol on her breath, and is possibly experimenting with drugs?

    Most of the students remain on the daughter’s side: “People need privacy,” says one. “Strict parents make for sneaky children,” offers another.

    Others sympathize with where the father is coming from. “What if she’s getting into illegal stuff?” one asks. “If you are not doing anything bad, there would be nothing to hide,” opines another.

    Check out the Shakespeare in the Parking Lot home page

    There is one classroom consensus - that a direct, one-on-one conversation between the father and younger daughter is in order.

    From the start of one normal class period to the end, these students have gone from being quiet and impartial to conversational and assertive. DCPA actor Justin Walvoord later says the point of the workshop wasn’t to change the students' minds about any particular issue. It was to empower them to be opinionated, and also to more thoughtfully consider and respect the opinions of people they don’t necessarily agree with. 

    In its first two years, more than 15,000 students have participated in Shakespeare in the Parking Lot. The program returns on April 3 and runs through May 12 - one week longer than originally scheduled to accommodate demand. Participating schools can now choose between Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night's Dream.

    The bottom line, Barr said, is that Shakespeare in the Parking Lot “is a touring production that introduces Shakespeare to young people who have never seen a play before with a group of very hard-working professional performers who have become a tightly knit group of friends," he said. 

    “And seeing some beautiful Colorado sunrises!”

    McKenzie Kielman is a sophomore at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa, and an intern for the DCPA NewsCenter.

    Shakespeare in the Parking Lot is made possible by a grant from Anadarko

    Selected previous coverage of Shakespeare in the Parking Lot
    Shakespeare in the Parking Lot brings Bard to life at Weld Central High
    2015 True West Award: Rosaline the 1980 Ford F-250 Farm Truck
    The Shakespeare in the Parking Lot home page

  • Soggy skies can't shake 5,000 students' Shakespeare spirit

    by John Moore | Apr 29, 2016
    2016 DPS Shakespeare Festival

    Photos by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter. To see more, click the forward arrow on the image above. Photos may be downloaded and recirculated with source attribution. Click on any photo to download.

    "April hath put a spirit of youth in everything." - William Shakespeare, Sonnet 98

    Michael Berger grew up with a stutter. On Friday, the high-school senior stood ebulliently in the rain and welcomed thousands to the 32nd annual Denver Public Schools Shakespeare Festival.

    A DPS Shakespeare 160"This is the greatest honor I have ever had in my theatre career,” said Berger, a senior at Denver School of the Arts who was chosen from hundreds of DPS students to perform as none other than the Bard himself at the festival’s opening ceremonies in Skyline Park.

    “My first performance as an actor was here. It was in the fourth grade, I was 8 or 9, and I performed Romeo and Juliet, Act 3, Scene 1,” he said definitively. “Because of that, I was inspired to continue in the theatre. And it was through Shakespeare that I learned how to speak clearly. So this is very much full circle for me.”

    The rain-snow mix didn’t dampen the students’ spirits, but the chill surely put the shake in the Shakespeare as nearly 5,000 chilly students from 80 schools in grades kindergarten through high school braved the cold to perform more than 640 short scenes, dances, soliloquies and sonnets on stages in and around the Denver Performing Arts Complex while bundled in an array of colorful costumes that were often covered in parkas.

    DPS Shakespeare Fetsival opening ceremonies: Micael Berger as Shakespeare, Vicky Serdyuk as Queen Elizabeth I, and DCPA CEO Scott Shiller. Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.
    DPS Shakespeare Festival opening ceremonies: Michael Berger as Shakespeare, Vicky Serdyuk as Queen Elizabeth I, and DCPA CEO Scott Shiller. Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

    Denver Center or the Performing Arts CEO Scott Shiller served as Grand Marshall for the three-block opening parade alongside Berger and George Washington High School senior Vicky Serdyuk, who won the annual honor of playing Queen Elizabeth I at the oldest and largest student Shakespeare festival in the country.

    “Shakespeare was the first live performance I ever saw – and I was in daycare,” Serdyuk said with a laugh. “I remember that the actors talked funny, but that they made it sound so good.”

    Shiller told the students that by participating in arts-education programs like the Shakespeare Festival, studies indicate they will be more likely to graduate, enroll in college, contribute meaningfully to civic life and volunteer. “Plus, children who are exposed to live performance are 165 percent more likely to receive a college degree,” he said.

    Gillian McNally, who served as a festival adjudicator and general encourager, was undaunted by the cold. Despite the gloomy weather, she declared Friday to be the most beautiful day of the year.

    DPS Shakespeare Quote “This might be the only time most of these students ever perform on a stage in their whole lives – and we celebrate that,” said McNally, an Associate Professor of Theatre Education at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley. “Just look at these wonderful, handmade costumes,” she added, indicating young students from the DaVinci Academy dressed as a human forest. “That tells me teachers collaborated with students and their parents, and they made something together. That’s what this is all about: We are making something together.”

    More than half of all students enrolled in Denver Public Schools speak English as a second language. Serdyuk says it makes sense that many DPS English teachers use Shakespeare as a language-learning tool in the classroom. “Shakespeare’s English follows a lot of the same rules as many of these students’ first languages,” she said. 

    Berger serves as student teacher for Denison Montessori School’s Shakespeare program.  He says Shakespeare is less intimidating for students whose native language isn’t English because they are already learning one foreign language – so what’s another? “It’s neat seeing kids learn to speak Shakespeare while they are learning English at the same time,” Berger said.

    Christine Gonzalez, who teaches kindergarten through 6th grade students at Denison, said Berger has been a big help to her students. “He keeps it light and fun and inspirational,” she said. “It’s easier to learn when you make it fun.”

    DPS Shakespeare Festival. Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter. Mary Louise Lee, an accomplished performer and also the First Lady of Denver, addressed the crowd about the importance of arts education. “I am a proud product of the Denver Public Schools,” said the graduate of Thomas Jefferson High School. Lee, wife of Mayor Michael B. Hancock, has made restoring arts-education programs in schools her top priority since founding her nonprofit, Bringing Back the Arts.

    The DPS Shakespeare Festival draws students of all ages and experience levels. While hundreds were performing for the first time Friday, Denver School of the Arts senior Jimmy Bruenger was performing in his seventh DPS Festival.

    “I remember feeling nervous my first year because I was performing Shakespeare for the first time,” said Bruenger, who was born in Mexico. “But I looked around and I saw younger kids who were only 6 or 7 years old and they were completely into it. That gave me confidence that I could do it, too.”

    Seven years later, Bruenger is not only a recent winner of a True West Award and Denver Mayor's Award for the Arts, but also a full scholarship to the University of Oklahoma from the Daniels Fund. After he performed in his final Shakespeare Festival on Friday, he was off to star in the opening of a world premiere musical about the Armenian genocide called I Am Alive.

    DPS Shakespeare Festival. Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter. This is the first year the DCPA served as a full producing partner in the DPS Festival. The DCPA’s Education Department offered up its Teaching Artists to assist all 80 participating schools in their preparations for Friday.

    “We are proud to partner alongside the largest school district in the state,” Shiller said. “Colorado’s commitment to arts integration outpaces the national average in nearly every category. In fact, 64 percent of our high schools offer theatre education, just like our own Shakespeare Festival.”

    Friday’s crowd was peppered with prominent figures in the local theatre community. Susan Lyles, founder of the city’s only company dedicated to female playwrights (And Toto Too) was on hand to root on her son, Harrison Lyles-Smith, who played a shepherd with a wicked death scene in As You Like It.

    Lyles said Harrison and his 5th-grade classmates at Steck Elementary School have been practicing for two hours every Friday since February. “It has given him self-confidence and a fearlessness when it comes to Shakespeare that a lot of adults don’t have,” she said.

    DPS Shakespeare Festival. Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter. Sara McPherson Horle, Executive Producer of The Catamounts Theatre Company of Boulder, happened to have a nephew in that same class at Steck. For her, one of the great rewards young Samuel Davis has gotten out of the experience is the lost art of listening.

    “You have to be self-disciplined to be an actor at any age,” Horle said. “Learning to listen is a huge thing, but especially at this age.”

    McNally said the emphasis of the festival is not on producing professional-quality performances – although many of the older students come awfully close. What the judges want more to encourage is passion, which leads to the development of useful life skills such as public speaking and boosted self-esteem.

    More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

    But occasionally there are performances that make even the Shakespeare purists turn their heads. DCPA Head of Acting Timothy McCracken was particularly impressed with the 3rd through 5th graders from Isabella Bird, a “heart-centered” community school where teacher Rebecca Sage says students are all made to feel valued for their own specific, individual talents.

    DPS Shakespeare Quote 2“The general clarity of their storytelling was astounding, and their delivery were astounding,” McCracken said after watching Sage’s students perform a Cinco de Mayo-informed take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Ricketson Theatre. “That was an amazing throughline for elementary-school actors." 

    Sage said her approach to the project was not unlike the approach of any director who takes on a full-fledged theatrical production: “It all starts with table work,” she said. That means working through the script with the students line-by-line, making sure they understand the meaning, the innuendo and most important, the comedy of the words they speak.

    Sage’s students fully bought into the project, she said, in part because Friday’s festival was only the start of their reward. Next week, the students will perform the full story back at the school for parents and friends. Sage said her students have been putting in half-mornings two days a week since January.

    “It was hugely gratifying for them to put in the work, both at home and at school, and then to get that kind of validation and respect once they got here today,” she said. “This whole experience is a huge incentive for them to continue doing things that challenge them and take them to their edge.”

    DPS Shakespeare Festival. John Hauser and Jenna Moll Reyes Shakespeare in the Parking Lot's Romeo and Juliet

    DCPA Teaching Artists John Hauser and Jenna Moll Reyes starred in Shakespeare in the Parking Lot's 'Romeo and Juliet' at the DPS Shakespeare Festival. Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

    Also new this year was the evening Shakespeare After-Fest program, when arts organizations from across Denver came together to continue the celebration of the Bard. The program included music from DeVotchKa's Tom Hagerman and the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, mini-performances from The Catamounts, The Black Actors Guild, DCPA's Off-Center, Stories on Stage and PHAMALY. DCPA Education also performed its hour-long production of Romeo and Juliet from its outreach program called Shakespeare in the Parking Lot.

    The First Lady of Denver left the kids with a Shakespeare quote whose authorship has been disputed over time – but its meaning was indubitably apropos for Friday’s occasion:

    “The meaning of your life is to find your gift,” Lee told the gathered crowd. “The purpose of your life is to give it away.”

    John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

    Our 2015 DPS Shakespeare Festival coverage

    Our 2014 DPS Shakespeare Festival coverage

    DPS Shakespeare Festival. Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.
John Moore
John Moore
Award-winning arts journalist John Moore has recently taken a groundbreaking new position as the DCPA’s Senior Arts Journalist. With The Denver Post, he was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the US by American Theatre Magazine. He is the founder of the Denver Actors Fund, a nonprofit that raises money for local artists in medical need. John is a native of Arvada and attended Regis Jesuit High School and the University of Colorado at Boulder. Follow him on Twitter @moorejohn.

DCPA is the nation’s largest not-for-profit theatre organization dedicated to creating unforgettable shared experiences through beloved Broadway musicals, world-class plays, educational programs and inspired events. We think of theatre as a spark of life — a special occasion that’s exciting, powerful and fun. Join us today and we promise an experience you won't soon forget.