• In the Spotlife: Ilasiea L. Gray of 'Sleeping Beauty'

    by John Moore | Mar 29, 2018

    briar-rose-ilasiea-l--gray-pricks-her-finger-with-prince-owain-austin-lazek-sleeping-beauty-macc-2018-rdg-photography-1440x810Ilasiea L. Gray brings perhaps unprecedented color to Denver audiences as Sleeping Beauty for Denver Children's Theatre. Photo by Becky Toma.

    DCPA Teaching Artist making most of rare opportunity to play a princess with color for the Denver Children's Theatre

    DCPA Teaching Artist Ilasiea Gray is proudly playing an African-American Sleeping Beauty for the Denver Children’s Theatre through May 4. She is also playing the title role in Curious Theatre's BLACK, which is available for performance in schools and for community organizations. Gray has directed more than 20 children's shows. She also works as a Casting Associate for Sylvia Gregory Casting. Gray is a graduate of Denver's Thomas Jefferson High School and the University of Colorado Denver with a BFA in Theatre, Film and Television, and a minor in political science.

    • ilasiea L. gray QUOTEHometown: Denver — though we lived in California for a time when I was younger, and I became a die-hard Oakland Raiders fan!
    • Home now: Denver
    • Where does your first name come from? My mom’s wonderful, creative, imagination
    • What's your handle? @laegray on Instagram and @ilasiea on Twitter
    • What's your web site? ilasiea.com
    • What does your job as a DCPA Teaching Artist encompass? Teaching students from pre-kindergarten through high school, both at the Denver Center and in schools.
    • What have you done for us lately? I played Bunny in Curious Theatre's recent production of Detroit '67.
    • Twitter-sized bio: An extroverted introvert, living the dream. Passionate about activism and social justice, children, education and the arts. Occasionally binge-watches reality T.V.
    • Detroit 67 Ilasiea Gray and Anastasia Davidson. Photo by Michael EnsmingerThe role that changed your life: This is a tough one because my three most recent roles all have changed me: Bunny in Detroit ‘67 for Curious Theatre (photo at right by Michael Ensminger) because she was written for an actor like me — a black woman. She was an extension of myself, and a representation of women in my family. That experience was truly once-in-a-lifetime. Also playing Black in Curious Theatre's touring production of BLACK because she is also a strong black woman dealing with social justice as it relates to race, police brutality and understanding. This one is special because not only do I get to play this role, I then get to be a part of powerful post-show discussions in the schools. I am all about activism, and what a gift it is to be in the room, reaching hundreds of people who are confronted with the topic of race, and discussing how we can all be better. Then there is Sleeping Beauty. I am so passionate about children’s theatre, and the smiles I see on these kids’ faces – the especially the smiles I see on little black kids' faces — is magic. Representation matters, and to my knowledge, this is history for Denver. I cannot tell you what it would have meant for me as a young girl to have seen a black lead character — especially a princess — in the live theatre. Someone I could hug and talk to afterward, as opposed to a movie. I am still taking it in!
    • tupac-cropIdeal scene partner: Tupac Shakur because he is one of my idols. He was so raw and unfiltered not only in his music, but also in all that he stood for. He had such presence in life and on screen via movies, interviews, videos and more. People who know his background know he went to the Baltimore School of the Arts and studied acting. He had a bright future in film, and I'm sure his take on current events would lead to such amazing conversations. Fun fact: I actually impersonated Tupac for a college assignment. It was so acclaimed that I was asked to present it as one of my senior exit performances for my BFA. Proud of that.
    • What’s your bucket-list stage role? I honestly don’t think it has been written yet. Kerry Washington ever thinking that Olivia Pope would be a role in her career? Not likely!
    • What are you listening to on Spotify right now? The Black Panther soundtrack.
    • What is Sleeping Beauty all about? Charles Way's adaptation tells the story of Briar Rose (also known as Sleeping Beauty), an independent, headstrong, in-your-face kind of princess and her best friend Gryff, a smart-aleck half-dragon. The play also includes two sister witches (one good, one evil) who are trying to out-spell each other. When Briar Rose pricks her finger and goes to sleep, Prince Owain and Gryff join forces on a funny, adventurous quest to save her, battling troublesome fairy-folk and a riddling Spider King along the way.
    • Tell us about both the challenge and the opportunity of playing Sleeping Beauty as a person of color? The opportunity is incredible. When I was asked to audition, I had no idea that I was even being considered for the title role. As an actor of color, you don’t even think it's possible. I am so grateful for director Steve Wilson’s vision and for him taking a chance. I found this role to be such a calling. This is making history. This is everything I represent. The challenge for me is being nervous about the possible backlash. Not all audiences are as progressive or accepting as they like to think. I have seen it time and time again, when white audiences and even fellow artists start to reveal their disapproval and disappointment in non-traditional casting, which devalues the progress and necessity of equal representation. I have already had one kid say that I don't look like the Sleeping Beauty from the animated film, and I expect to field many more of those comments. I am so happy to remind kids that princesses — and regular people — come in all shades, shapes and sizes, and can look many different ways. As an arts educator, it is an honor to be the vessel for these teachable moments by way of this production. The beauty of children is that they are impressionable yes, but also more adaptable in changing their world view. It is the steadfast adults I am worried about.
    • What do you hope audiences get out of seeing Sleeping Beauty? I hope they have such a great time and that their eyes are opened to unlimited possibilities. One of the themes in the play is living out one’s dreams. I think we can all relate to that and be reminded that all things are possible, and that barriers are meant to be broken down.
    • Black-IlasieaTell us about BLACK and what it is accomplishing at area schools? BLACK was written by Lamaria Aminah as a part of the 2016 Curious New Voices Summer Intensive. It was born of her desire to articulate a common problem in our country – we don’t know how to talk about race. It takes place at a vigil after another black boy is killed by police, and a conversation evolves between two mothers – one white and one black. Touring BLACK with Anastasia Davidson has been a true highlight of my career. The play is a call to action that is always followed by a community discussion facilitated by our director, donnie l. betts. It evokes such thought-provoking conversations among people from different walks of life, and I am so grateful to be a part of it. We have performed for 2,000 students at George Washington High School, churches, libraries, at ThesCon and, just last month, for a group of lawyers and judges. The conversations afterward are so different but they are all so real, at times tough and always inspiring. I always leave humbled and hopeful. Word-of-mouth on this story has been so powerful, it has toured for two years now.
    • What's one thing we don't know about you? I am terrified of squirrels. I have had a couple of run-ins.
    • What do you want to get off your chest? I think it is so important to allow people to walk in their truth and be themselves. I always like to say, “Do you and allow others to do the same” — whether that be, race, gender, religion, sexual orientation or quirky personality traits. If people spent half as much time reflecting and making sure they are being their best selves, there wouldn’t be room for so much judgment and misunderstanding of others. Let people live.

    Sleeping Beauty: Ticket information
    • Written by Charles Perrault and adapted by Charles Way
    • Directed by Steve Wilson
    • Through May 4
    • Public performances 1 p.m. Sundays 
    • Elaine Wolf Theatre at the Mizel Arts and Culture Center, 350 S. Dahlia St.
    • Tickets $10 for students and seniors, $12 for adults
    • Call 303-316-6360 or go to maccjcc.org

    More 2017-18 'In the Spotlife' profiles:

    • Meet Candy Brown of Love Letters
    • Meet Christy Brandt of Creede Rep's Arsenic and Old Lace
    • Meet Deb Persoff of Vintage Theatre's August: Osage County
    • Meet Monica Joyce Thompson of Inspire Creative’s South Pacific
    • Meet Hugo Jon Sayles of I Don't Speak English Only
    • Meet Marialuisa Burgos of I Don't Speak English Only

    More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

  • Study: There's a lot of Denver in Denver Center casts this fall

    by John Moore | Dec 13, 2017

    Fall Casting 800 Photos by Adams Viscom

    Survey of DCPA cast lists shows 56 percent of all available jobs this fall have gone to actors who live in Denver area 

    By John Moore
    Senior Arts Journalist

    There has been a lot of Denver at the Denver Center this fall. An analysis of cast lists for the eight shows presented since the start of September shows that 56 percent of all actors who have taken to a DCPA stage also call Denver home.

    That doesn’t even include the eight child actors who currently populate the Theatre Company’s A Christmas Carol. And when you add in all the actors who grew up in Colorado but are now based elsewhere, the number of actors with local connections jumps to 67 percent.  

    “The Colorado acting community is such a multi-talented group, and that is evident in all the amazing work featured across the entire state and on every one of our stages at the DCPA this fall,” said DCPA Director of Casting Grady Soapes.

    The survey includes all homegrown programming offered by the DCPA, totaling 73 adult actor slots. Much of the local infusion this year can be traced to Off-Center’s immersive musical The Wild Party at the Stanley Marketplace, as well as DCPA Cabaret’s newly launched musical First Date at the Galleria Theatre, both of which cast entirely local actors.

    First Date Fall Casting Photo by Emily LozowFirst Date director Ray Roderick, who is based out of New York, is responsible for the longest-running musical in Colorado Theatre history, I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, also at the Galleria, as well as The Taffetas, Five Course Love and many others. And while he is always empowered to cast actors based anywhere around the country, he almost always fills his Denver cast lists with Denver actors. Why? Because he can, he says.

    (Pictured above and right: Local actors Seth Dhonau and Adriane Leigh Robinson will be taking their 'First Date' through April 22. Photo by Emily Lozow.)

    “There is no question that there is a wealth of talent here in Denver,” Roderick said. “When I work at other regional theatre centers and I choose my cast, I’m often told, 'Well what have they done on Broadway?’ I never get that here at the Denver Center. The fact is, when you are casting a show, what matters is the story, period. And we have beautiful storytellers in Denver. That they happen to live in Denver has nothing to do with their level of talent.”

    It was the Denver Center’s Jeff Hovorka who convinced then-DCPA President Randy Weeks that the first staging of the Galleria Theatre’s Always…Patsy Cline back in 1997 could be effectively cast with local actors. Melissa Swift-Sawyer and Beth Flynn made Denver musical-theatre history when their show ran for three and a half years, only to be surpassed by I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, another all-local show that opened in 2000 and became Denver’s longest-running musical by 2004.

    “The three biggest successes in the Galleria Theatre history, including Girls Only: The Secret Comedy of Women, all have had local casts,” said Hovorka, now the DCPA’s Director of Sales and Marketing for Broadway and Cabaret. “Denver always has had an incredibly strong talent base, and we are always proud to celebrate the homegrown talent we have in this city.”

    Check out the all-local cast of DCPA's First Date

    The Wild Party Director Amada Berg Wilson, also the founder of a Boulder theatre company called The Catamounts, put 15 local actors to work on Off-Center’s risky plunge into immersive musical theatre, which was attended each night by 200 live party guests.

    “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 who have the tools and the vocabulary to make this specific kind of work. We are discovering that audiences are really hungry for more of it, and now we have the people here to do it.”

    michael-fitzpatrick-leslie-ocarroll-photo-credit-adamsviscom_24874516748_oThe list of local actors working for the Denver Center this fall spans beloved veterans such as Leslie O’Carroll, who is again playing Mrs. Fezziwig in the Theatre Company’s A Christmas Carol, to first-timers such as longtime BDT Stage favorite Wayne Kennedy and Adriane Leigh Robinson, who just played Sally Bowles for the Miners Alley Playhouse’s Cabaret.

    (Leslie O'Carroll, right with 'A Christmas Carol' castmate Michael Fitzpatrick, is now the longest-tenured actor in the DCPA Theatre Company.)

    Longtime Galleria Theatre favorites Jordan Leigh and Lauren Shealy, now appearing in First Date, have built sustainable acting careers around steady work at the DCPA, including occasional crossover roles in Theatre Company productions. Shealy, headlined the Lone Tree Arts Center’s summer production of Evita that was nominated for Outstanding Musical by the Colorado Theatre Guild’s Henry Awards.

    Colorado theatre favorite Steven J. Burge, who joined the Denver Center earlier this year to play none other than God in the long-running Galleria Theatre hit An Act of God, is back in First Date, which runs through April 22. This is a job, Burge says, “that I would not quit even if I won the lottery, because I love it so much.”

    Each May, the Denver Center holds three days of “general auditions” that are open to local actors to sign up for. This year a record 100 union and 275 non-union actors participated, directly resulting in many of the fall hirings.

    Many of the Denver Center’s current crop of actors have tentacles that reach throughout the Colorado theatre community from Creede Repertory Theatre (Diana Dresser and Emily Van Fleet) to Phamaly Theatre Company (Leonard E. Barrett), which exists to create performance opportunities for actors with disabilities.

    Michael Bouchard and Luke Sorge, the two actors playing David in Off-Center’s The SantaLand Diaries, are both company members with the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company, which was co-founded by occasional DCPA Theatre Company actor and Director Stephen Weitz.  

    The Theatre Company’s season-opening production of Macbeth included local playwright Steven Cole Hughes, also a longtime Teaching artist for DCPA Education and graduate of the Denver Center’s National Theatre Conservatory. Robert O’Hara’s cast was a Denver Center reunion of sorts that also brought home Colorado natives Gareth Saxe, Erik Kochenberger and Skyler Gallun.

    Skyler GallunSaxe, a graduate of Colorado College and Denver East High School, played Scar for two years on Broadway in Disney’s The Lion King, but his DCPA Theatre Company roots go back to Cyrano de Bergerac in 2001. Kochenberger also graduated from East High School — but his was in Pueblo. Gallun, who previously appeared in Lord of the Flies, led a talkback with students from his alma mater, George Washington High School, after one Macbeth matinee (pictured at right by John Moore).

    DCPA Education head of acting Timothy McCracken, who has recently performed with both BETC (Outside Mullingar) and Local Theatre company (The Firestorm), landed this fall in both the Theatre Company’s Smart People and A Christmas Carol. His Smart People co-star Jason Veasey graduated from Coronado High School in Colorado Springs and the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley. His many past local credits include playing Jesus in Town Hall Arts Center’s Godspell.

    More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

    This fall also has brought the launch of DCPA Education’s new Theatre for Young Audiences program. The three-person cast of The Snowy Day who performed Ezra Jack Keats’ beloved story for 19,000 pre-kindergarten through third-graders included longtime DCPA Teaching Artist Rachel Kae Taylor (also an NTC grad with three Theatre Company credits) and Robert Lee Hardy, who was recently seen in Vintage Theatre’s A Time to Kill In Aurora.  

    finalpdheadshots0005-web“This has been an exciting year not only for the local actors but for myself and the DCPA,” Soapes (pictured right) said of his local casting. “The dedication this organization has made to further highlighting the talent we have here in Denver has also deepened our appreciation for the artists who are working hard every day to entertain our audiences —  my hat goes off to them,” he said.

    Soapes said his top priority always will be to cast the best person for every role, regardless of ZIP code.

    “We here at the DCPA are excited to continue to tap further into the local talent pool, open our doors wider and show the entire industry why Denver is a destination for quality theatre,” Soapes said.

    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.

    Grady Soapes Quote

    Denver Center Fall 2017 Casting:

    Macbeth: 17 actor jobs
    Actors living in Colorado:

    • Steven Cole Hughes as Doctor of the Psychic/Ensemble)

    Actors from Colorado:

    • Skyler Gallun as Donalbain/Ensemble
    • Erik Kochenberger as Hecate Two/Ensemble
    • Gareth Saxe as Duncan/Ensemble)

    'A Snowy Day. Rachel Kae Taylor, Robert Lee Hardy. Zak Reynolds. Photo by Adams Viscom.The Snowy Day:
    Three actor jobs

    Actors living in Colorado:

    • Rachel Kae Taylor as Archie, Amy, Mom and others
    • Robert Lee Hardy as Peter

    Smart People: Four actor jobs
    Actors living in Colorado:

    • Timothy McCracken
    Actors from Colorado:
    • Jason Veasey

    The Wild Party: 15 actor jobs
    Actors living in Colorado:

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

    Girls Only: The Secret Comedy of Women: Three actor jobs
    Actors living in Colorado:

    • Barbara Gehring
    • Linda Klein
    • Amie MacKenzie

    A Christmas Carol (through Dec. 24): 21 adult actor jobs; eight youth jobs
    Actors living in Colorado:

    • Sam Gregory as Ebenezer Scrooge
    • Chas Lederer as Swing
    • Kyra Lindsay as Martha Cratchit/Ensemble
    • Chloe McLeod as Swing
    • Timothy McCracken as Ebenezer Scrooge understudy
    • Leslie O’Carroll as Mrs. Fezziwig/Ensemble
    • Jeffrey Roark as Jacob Marley/Ensemble
    • Shannan Steele as Ensemble
    • Marco Robinson as Ensemble

    A Michael Bouchard 800The SantaLand Diaries (through Dec. 24): Two actor jobs
    Actors living in Colorado:

    • Michael Bouchard as David
    • Luke Sorge as David understudy
    First Date (through April 22): Eight actor jobs

    Actors living in Colorado:

    • Adriane Leigh Robinson as Casey
    • Seth Dhonau as Aaron
    • Steven J. Burge as Man 1
    • Aaron Vega as Man 2 (Nov. 11-Dec. 3)
    • Jordan Leigh as Man 2 (Dec. 5-April 22)
    • Lauren Shealy as Woman 1
    • Barret Harper as Male Understudy
    • Cashelle Butler as Female Understudy
  • 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.
  • 'Sweet & Lucky': Morris is home to seize the cultural moment

    by John Moore | Apr 07, 2016
    Zach Morris is a graduate of Denver's George Washington High School. He recently attended the DCPA Theatre Company's Colorado New Play Summit. Photo by John Moore.
    Third Rail Projects co-Artistic Director Zach Morris is a graduate of Denver's George Washington High School. He recently attended the DCPA Theatre Company's Colorado New Play Summit. Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

    “Immersive theatre” sounds like such a New York thing. Perhaps you heard about Sleep No More, a Big Apple sensation that told a dreamlike variation of the Macbeth story in a meatpacking warehouse that had been converted into 90 evocative, seductive and creepy spaces ranging from a speakeasy to a cemetery.

    Immersive theater breaks down the barriers between actors and spectators, letting theatregoers follow new storytelling paths in highly unconventional spaces. As Saturday Night Live’s Stefon might say: Sleep No More was New York’s hottest nightclub, attracting hardcore theatre fans, partying millennials and glitterati from the fashion world who would pull up in limousines for midnight performances. All so very New York.

    A Zach Morris QuoteBut one of the nation’s leading practitioners of this emerging performance art form is a New Yorker who grew up right here in Denver. And Zach Morris thinks audiences in his hometown are no different from those in New York.

    ”There is something about where we are at in this cultural moment because people are really craving this type of experience,” he said.

    Morris, who graduated from George Washington High School and was a student intern in the Denver Center’s costume shop, is one of three core artistic directors for Brooklyn’s Third Rail Projects, one of the foremost companies in creating site-specific, immersive and experiential dance-theater in the United States. “We make work in unexpected spaces and in unexpected contexts,” said Morris.

    Third Rail's Then She Fell, named one of the Top 10 Shows of 2012 by The New York Times, explored the writings of Lewis Carroll in a cramped hospital ward that could accommodate only 15 audience members at a time.

    “For us, experiential theatre is an opportunity for us to blow the doors off the ways that folks traditionally engage with theatre,” Morris said.

    That’s the innovative spirit he’s taking into his newest collaboration with Off-Center, the DCPA’s more adventurous programming wing. Sweet & Lucky, opening May 20, will be the largest physical undertaking in the Denver Center’s nearly 40-year history, taking place in a 16,000-square-foot converted warehouse on Brighton Boulevard. The 360-degree audience experience is being kept as something of an intentional mystery – but a ticket includes a cocktail from nationally recognized Williams & Graham mixologist Sean Kenyon.

    Morris can say Sweet & Lucky is a treatise on memory set in a speakeasy antique shop that opens up into a labyrinth of dreamlike worlds and fragments of time.

    “I think one of the reasons that Denver felt like such a fantastic match for us is the incredibly vibrant art scene here,” Morris said. “There is a real thirst for these types of experiences. Coloradans are inherently adventure-seekers, and there is something about this type of performance that feels very adventurous.”

    We spoke to Morris about his Denver past, his Brooklyn present and what he has in store for Denver audience: 

    John Moore: How did this partnership with the Denver Center happen?

    Zach Morris: After high school, I went to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Then I moved to New York and I eventually became really interested in making site-specific, public, experiential work. A couple of Denver Center staff members came to see our work Then She Fell in Brooklyn and were really excited about it. They knew Denver was primed for this type of work. They knew there are experience-seekers and adventure-seekers who are primed for this type of work. And the Denver Center has the capacity to take it to the next level. It turned out that what we are interested in as a company is a really good fit with the Denver Center’s mission.

    Sweet & Lucky tickets on-sale April 13

    John Moore: How is Third Rail’s mission different from other companies?

    Zach Morris: We’ve always been interested in large-scale installations, and in recent years we’ve become really interested in experiential theatre. Our work often involves animating an unexpected space. So that can be a disused opera house in Hudson, N.Y. Then She Fell started in the former outpatient wing of an old hospital and then moved to a three-story institutional space. We’re interested in crafting an experience that is unique for each audience member. The audience finds themselves in a 360-degree world where they can’t really see the edges. Where movement might be the primary language. They find themselves having unique and intimate encounters with performers.

    John Moore: What makes the right kind of location?

    Zach Morris: The location has to have the physical capacity to help us tell the story, but also the space itself has to have some character. I’m excited to say the space where we will be performing in Denver is really inspiring.

    John Moore: You mentioned ‘experiential’ theatre. What is the difference between ‘experiential’ and ‘environmental’ theatre?

    Zach Morris: There is so much buzz about all of these different forms right now, whether it’s ‘experiential’ or ‘immersive’ or ‘site-specific’ or ‘environmental’ theatre. I think they all mean slightly different things. An ‘environmental’ piece might be set in a diner, so it is actually happening in a diner. A ‘site-specific' piece is a work that can only exist in the site it was created for. For us, that entails doing a lot of research on the site itself, the history, the folks who inhabit it – the whole cultural, social, historical matrix that makes up that site. We then pull inspiration out of those stories, and from the history and from the architecture itself. So when we say we are creating a work that is specifically for that space, we mean it.

    John Moore: You had only 15 audience members at a time for Then She Fell. You will have 72 for each performance of Sweet & Lucky.  How do you make that work economically?

    More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

    Zach Morris: Well, in New York, space is at such a premium that operating in traditional theatre venues is often prohibitive. As a company, we have found that our interest in working in these non-traditional spaces has mirrored the public’s growing interest in gaining access to unexpected or prohibited spaces. With only 15 people in the audience, Then She Fell was an incredibly intimate experience. So we had a fairly high-ticket price, but there is really an appetite for this.

    John Moore: What’s propelling the evolution of this type of theatre?

    Zach Morris: In many ways - and in maybe every way – it has to do with where we are at with technology and the internet right now. The way we are getting media, getting news, getting content of all kinds, is radically different than it was a few years ago. We are now able to navigate our personal content in ways we’ve never been able to before. There is an appetite for stories that can be navigated; there is an appetite for stories that are not linear. There is an appetite for stories that afford agency to the audience so they can explore these various kinds of threads that might be happening simultaneously. I also think that because of all of the amazing advances in our technology, we’re craving human-to-human interaction. We long for an authentic experience, whatever that means. We deeply want to be in the same room with the musician and feel the vibrations coming off the guitar and hitting our skin. It’s great that I can get my music on iTunes, but there is nothing that matches that embodied experience. I think that’s what we’re looking for right now.

    Zach Morris Quote

    John Moore: How do you describe what people are in for in Denver?

    Zach Morris: We’re excited about bringing Third Rail’s brand of experiential theatre to Denver, where audience members are able to sit millimeters away from a performer and have that human-to-human interaction within the context of unfolding and unraveling both narrative and aesthetic art that is linear and nonlinear and fragmented and simultaneous and has myriad layers of meaning.

    John Moore: Most of your audience in Denver will probably be experiencing this kind of live experience for the first time.

    Zach Morris: Yeah, and that’s what’s really exciting about what the Denver Center is doing. The Denver Center is in the vanguard of those institutions that are redefining the ways they can support artists who are making this type of work. They are literally thinking outside the box of their theatre. They are asking: ‘What are the stories we need to tell right now?’ And perhaps most important right now, ‘How do we need to tell those stories?’ That’s what’s really exciting to me as an artist who’s coming home to partner with the Denver Center.

    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.

    Previous NewsCenter coverage of Sweet & Lucky:
    DCPA to create new immersive theatre piece with Third Rail Projects
    Kickstarter campaign allows audience to dive deeper
    Kickstarter home page

    Sweet & Lucky tickets on-sale April 13

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.

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