• 2017 True West Award: Colorado Theatre Person of the Year Regan Linton

    by John Moore | Dec 30, 2017
    2017 True West Award Regan Linton



    Regan Linton

    Colorado Theatre Person of the Year

    By John Moore
    Senior Arts Journalist

    We’ll never know whether Phamaly Theatre Company would have survived 2017 had Regan Linton not been here. She was here. And one of the nation's signature theatre companies is still here. And that's why Linton is the True West Awards' 2017 Colorado Theatre Person of the Year.

    For 28 years, one of Denver’s crown jewels has produced professional plays and musicals exclusively for actors with disabilities. But at this time a year ago, it was in catastrophic financial trouble.

    Regan Linton True West Award Quote Photo by John MooreLinton, a former core company member who went on to become a shining national example of what begets opportunity, had just been named Phamaly’s interim Artistic and Executive Director to fill a short-term leadership vacuum.

    Linton’s appointment was a cause for celebration. Not only had the Denver East High School graduate helped elevate Phamaly’s game as an actor with wrenching performances in musicals such as Side Show and Man of La Mancha, she came home with serious cred. In 2012, she became the first paralyzed student ever to be enrolled into one of the nation's top master’s conservatory programs when she was accepted at the University of California San Diego. And in 2015, Linton became the first actor in a wheelchair ever to be hired into the venerable Oregon Shakespeare Festival's year-round repertory company since it was founded in 1935.

    Today, Linton is a highly respected actor, educator and prominent voice for disability inclusion in the national theatre community. And when she accepted the one-year Phamaly assignment last year at age 34, Linton became the first person in a wheelchair ever to lead a major U.S. theatre company as Artistic Director, according to Theatre Communications Group.

    Then came the sticker shock.

    “I immediately became aware that the company was not in as healthy a financial position as I had thought,” Linton said. Phamaly's annual operating budget had more than doubled over the previous seven years, to $850,000. But revenue had not grown proportionally. Just two months into the job, Linton realized Phamaly was facing an immediate $100,000 shortfall.

    (Story continues after the photo gallery below.)

    Photo gallery: A look back at Regan Linton's year (and years) with Phamaly:

    Regan Linton: 2017 Colorado Theatre Person of the Year
    Photos from Regan Linton's first year as interim Artistic and Executive Director of Phamaly Theatre Company, followed by additional photos from years past. To see more images, just click on the image above to be taken to the full gallery. Photos by or compiled by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

    Linton attacked the problem swiftly, first by shaving the upcoming budget. She scrapped expensive plans to stage Peter Pan with wheelchairs flying over the DCPA’s Stage Theatre. A Shakespeare collaboration with a New York company was put off. And then, on March 28, Linton took a deep breath and released an uncommonly forthright public statement bluntly telling supporters that without an urgent cash infusion, Phamaly would be bankrupt by July 1. And that was just to make it to the summer. “We were really more like $250,000 in the hole,” she said.

    The most important thing to Linton was being open and honest about the situation. “If we were going to go down, then we were going to do it having been completely transparent with every one of our supporters,” she said.

    But, it turns out, It’s a Wonderful Life ain’t just a holiday movie.

    Phamaly’s “Sunny Tomorrow” campaign didn’t just raise $100,000. It raised $108,000, thanks to more than 325 individual donors. And that still takes Linton's breath away. “I feel like that wasn't just people saying, 'We love this theater company.’ It’s deeper than that. I feel like they were saying, ‘People with disabilities are valuable.’ And as a person who lives with a disability, that's really, powerfully meaningful to me.”

    More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

    Just a few weeks after the campaign ended, Phamaly netted an additional, record-obliterating $60,000 from its annual gala — up from $35,000 the year before. And then Annie, which Linton chose to present instead of Peter Pan, drew 6,700 to the Stage Theatre. That’s nearly 20 percent more than the previous Phamaly attendance record.

    Janice Sinden Regan Linton QuoteAll three of those things had to happen, Linton said, for Phamaly to fully climb out of the hole it was in. And all three did.

    But Phamaly didn’t get the backing it needed on sentiment alone. It got it because it was Linton who went out and asked for it, Denver Center President and CEO Janice Sinden said.

    “Regan is a determined, passionate woman who leads with her heart, but always with an outcome in mind,” Sinden said. “She was uniquely situated to lead this campaign because of who she is and what she means to the community. She leveraged smart relationships to drive this turnaround.”

    Boy, did she. The first call Linton made was to Sinden’s predecessor, Daniel L. Ritchie, a longtime Phamaly supporter who cut Linton a $10,000 check just 20 minutes after sitting down with her. The Harvey Family Foundation then agreed to match up to $35,000 in new donations, a goal that was reached in just 17 days.

    But Linton’s greatest fundraising achievement of 2017 came at the end of the year, after Sinden facilitated a visit with William Dean Singleton, retired chairman of The Denver Post and newly named Chairman of the Bonfils Foundation. They hit it off, Sinden said, because the two share a powerful commonality as former able-bodied persons now living with mobility challenges.

    Life changes in the ordinary instant

    Regan Linton HospitalLinton was a 20-year-old undergrad at the University of Southern California when her spine was wrecked in a fraction of an instant on a rainy Santa Monica Freeway. Linton was in the back seat of a car that was stopped for a vehicle that had been abandoned in the fast lane of the highway. The car behind Linton, filled with five sorority sisters, hit her at full speed.

    Linton no longer feels sensation below her chest. And yet, whenever she prepares to go on stage, she playfully says, “I can still feel butterflies.”

    Singleton is a newspaper magnate and cattle rancher who founded MediaNews Group, the fourth-largest newspaper company in the U.S. by circulation, with The Denver Post as its eventual flagship. He was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 30 years ago, which has slowly robbed him of his mobility, and today he gets around in a motorized chair.

    (Story continues after the video.)

    Video bonus: Regan Linton wins 2017 Spirit of Craig Award:

    The video above was played at the annual PUSH Gala for Craig Hospital in April with the announcement of Phamaly Theatre Company Executive and Artistic Director Regan Linton as its 2017 Dave and Gail Liniger Spirit of Craig Award winner. Video provided by Craig Hospital. To watch Linton’s acceptance speech, click here

    “They hit it off when they met,” Sinden said, "and Dean immediately saw an opportunity to help.”

    On Oct. 11, Singleton presented Linton with the Fourth Annual Dean Singleton Legacy Grant, a $50,000 gift made through the Denver Post Community Foundation. “It was very emotional for both of them,” Sinden said.

    A Regan Linton and Dean Singleton“I couldn’t be more proud of our grant recipient this year, for what Phamaly does to inspire people to re-envision disability through professional theatre,” said Singleton. “Phamaly provides such a benefit to the metro-Denver community.”

    Linton called the grant “an incredible honor for Phamaly.”

    In just six months, Linton implemented a campaign that moved Phamaly from the financial brink to something akin to stability. And that, said former Phamaly assistant stage manager Max Peterson, is an astonishing accomplishment.

    “I had both the pleasure and the anxiety of watching Regan and (Director of Production and Operations) Paul Behrhorst walk through that whole mess,” Peterson said. “It was inspiring to see their determination and persistence to bring that company all the way back. The blood, sweat and tears were real — and the stakes could not have been higher.”

    Meanwhile, back on the stage

    A Regan Linton Theatre Person of the Year Ytue West Awards Photo by John MooreLest we forget: While this was going on, Linton also had a company to run, both as Artistic and Executive Director.

    In February, Phamaly presented George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion at the Aurora Fox, followed by the record-breaking run of Annie at the Denver Center and, last month, Phamaly’s annual original sketch comedy called Vox Phamilia at Community College of Aurora.

    (Pictured at right: Regan Linton backstage with the cast of 'Annie' on opening night. Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.)

    Linton pushed herself to her physical and mental limits in 2017, in part because she also chose to direct Annie on the largest stage in Phamaly history. Linton began to feel overwhelmed by the enormity of it all as preparations for Annie approached. “The stress of even thinking of Phamaly going away was emotionally taxing for me,” she said. "It all finally caught up to me. I was a mess.”

    One of Linton’s smartest moves of the year was calling on former longtime Phamaly Artistic Director Steve Wilson to co-direct Annie with her. “Wilson knows to his bones what directing disabled actors entails: The difficulties many face, the need to work without sentimentality or condescension, and to treat his actors as the artists they are,” wrote Westword’s Juliet Wittman, who called the resulting production “Ready, willing … and very able.”  

    MacGregor Arney and Regan Linton Curious Incident Mixed Blood Photo by Rich Ryan Linton kept her own acting skills sharp in 2017 by performing in two major productions for the Mixed Blood Theatre Company in Minneapolis. In February, she played the governor of California in a site-specific immigration play called Safe at Home that was set and performed at a local baseball stadium. And just last month, she returned in one of the first regional stagings of the big-buzz play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Star-Tribune theatre critic Chris Hewitt said Linton was excellent as an autistic boy’s calm, compassionate teacher.

    (Pictured at right: MacGregor Arney and Regan Linton in 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time' for the Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis. Photo by Rich Ryan.)

    As Linton reflects back on her year now, she won’t say she saved Phamaly Theatre Company. But Behrhorst will.

    “I say it because it is true,” Behrhorst said. “Of course Regan didn't do it single-handedly. But from the start, she gave the community, the actors, the board and the staff something to believe in. Regan didn't back away from the problem. She gave us new life."

    Sinden sides with Behrhorst.

    John Moore’s 2005 Denver Post feature on Regan Linton

    “Regan came home and she brought both thought leaders and community leaders to the table who invested in the future of this organization," Sinden said. "Regan put Phamaly on a trajectory for long-term success. And only she could have done that.”

    All of which is only part of the reason Linton has been named the 17th annual Colorado Theatre Person of the Year. She not only saved a theatre company. She not only preserved future performance opportunities for persons with disabilities that do not exist elsewhere. She saved something that is part of the city's soul.

    Regan Linton. Craig Hospital PUSH Gala Photo by John Moore“There's a lot of great theater that happens in Denver,” Linton said. “However, one-fifth of the population of the United States identifies as having a disability. So if you don't have that identity prominently represented in your local theater, then you are missing out on a whole subset of what it means to be human. And that's what I think people would have missed out on if Phamaly had gone away. They would've missed out on this unique experience that opens your eyes to something you just don’t see anywhere else.”

    Linton’s 2017 odyssey has changed her career itinerary in ways that are not yet clear, even to her. Her initial one-year appointment is now entering its 15th month. She says she is very close to hiring the company’s next Executive Director. So what does that mean for Linton, who officially lives in Montana now, while maintaining a second artistic home in Minneapolis?

    “It means I will be around for the near future, at least,” she said. “I feel committed to Phamaly, and I want to see Phamaly succeed. To me, that means following through with my commitment to make sure the company is in a good place if and when I move away. And I don't think that work is done yet.”

    Asked to assess where she is at as 2018 begins, compared to the start of the year, Linton laughs. “Well, I'm not nearly as much of a mess as I was,” she said. “But most of all, I will say I am proud to be part of Phamaly living on, and I'm proud to be part of leading Phamaly into its next chapter.”

    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 

    Regan Linton: 2017
    •  Artistic and Executive Director for Phamaly Theatre Company
    •  Winner, 2017 Spirit of Craig Award READ MORE
    •  Played the Governor of California in Mixed Blood Theatre's Safe at Home in Minneapolis
    •  Co-Directed Phamaly's mainstage production of Annie at the DCPA's Stage Theatre
    •  Played Siobhan in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nght-Time for Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis

    The True West Awards' Theatre Person of the Year / A look back

    • 2016: Billie McBride: Actor and director
    • 2015: Donald R. Seawell: Denver Center for the Performing Arts founder
    • 2014: Steve Wilson: Phamaly Theatre Company and Mizel Center for Arts and Culture
    • 2013: Shelly Bordas: Actor, teacher, director and cancer warrior
    • 2012: Stephen Weitz: Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company co-founder
    • 2011: Maurice LaMee: Creede Repertory Theatre artistic director
    • 2010: Anthony Garcia: Su Teatro artistic director
    • 2009: Kathleen M. Brady: DCPA Theatre Company actor
    • 2008: Wendy Ishii: Bas Bleu Theatre co-founder
    • 2007: Ed Baierlein: Germinal Stage-Denver founder
    • 2006: Bonnie Metzgar: Curious Theatre associate artistic director
    • 2005: Chip Walton, Curious Theatre founder
    • 2004: Michael R. Duran: Actor, set designer, director and playwright
    • 2003: Nagle Jackson, DCPA Theatre Company director and playwright
    • 2002: Chris Tabb: Actor and director

    Phamaly Theatre Company: Coming in 2018
    • April 14-22: Romeo & Juliet, at the Dairy Arts Center
    • July 12-Aug. 5: Into the Woods, at the DCPA's Space Theatre
    • Oct. 18-Nov. 11: Harvey, at the The Olin Hotel Apartment, in partnership with Senior Housing Options
    Information: 303-575-0005 or phamaly.org

    Selected recent NewsCenter coverage of Phamaly:
    Photos: Phamaly Theatre Company's amazing opening-night tradition
    The triumph of Phamaly's not-so-horrible Hannigan
    Pop-culture Annie, from comics to Broadway to Jay-Z
    Phamaly gala, campaign raise $200K, ‘save the company’
    Phamaly launches emergency $100,000 fundraising campaign
    Regan Linton accepts Spirit of Craig Award
    Regan Linton returns to lead Phamaly in landmark appointment

    About The True West Awards: '30 Days, 30 Bouquets'

    The True West Awards, now in their 17th year, began as the Denver Post Ovation Awards in 2001. DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore — along with additional voices from around the state — celebrate the entire local theatre community by recognizing 30 achievements from 2017 over 30 days, without categories or nominations. Moore's daily coverage of the DCPA and the Colorado theatre community can be found at MyDenverCenter.Org

    A look back at the history of the True West Awards

    The 2017 True West Awards

  • 2017 True West Awards: Steven J. Burge and Jeremy Rill

    by John Moore | Dec 30, 2017
    2017 True West Awards The Breakouts  Jeremy Rill Steven J. Burge


    Day 30: The Breakouts

    Steven J. Burge and Jeremy Rill

    By John Moore
    Senior Arts Journalist

    Steven J. Burge and Jeremy Rill are very different performers. Think Sean Hayes and Frank Sinatra. Burge will shock you into gut-busting laughter, while Rill will make you swoon. If Burge is the flamboyant life of the party, then Rill is more, say … sunset on the beach.

    “If there is a spectrum,” said director and actor Robert Michael Sanders, "those two are on the opposite ends of it.”

    The comedian and the crooner.

    Steven J Burge and Jeremy Rill But these two emerging actors have far more in common than you might think. Both had big-time breakout years on Denver stages in 2017 — and both were separately described as “the nicest guy in Denver theatre” in interviews for this very story.

    Something's gotta give.

    Steven Cole Hughes, Burge’s castmate in the Denver Center’s extended hit comedy An Act of God, goes so far as to declare with dead-on eye contact that “Steven Burge is the nicest guy working in the American theatre today. Period.”

    Even Hughes’ 2-year-old daughter, Birdie, backed her father up.

    “Hey Birdie, who is this?” Hughes said, pointing to a poster for An Act of God. The child’s face immediately lit up. She pointed to a photo of Burge playing no less than God Himself, and she declared enthusiastically: “Steven!”

    “She’s 2,” Hughes reiterated. “Even the 2-year-olds love Steve Burge.”

    That’s high praise (or short praise, come to think of it) for Burge, who has been working his way up to this moment with one joyful performance after another since moving from Iowa in 2003, most often in extroverted comic roles. Highlights have included playing Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors and conquering the epic challenge of playing 40 roles in the one-man comedy Fully Committed. In 2012, Westword’s Juliet Wittman flatly declared, “Steve Burge is one of the funniest actors anywhere.”

    Says his friend and fellow actor Shannan Steele: “I love watching him delight in making others happy.”

    But Burge’s body of work has revealed far greater range and uncommon emotional honesty in stagings such as Dog Sees God at The Avenue Theater (I called him "triumphant" in The Denver Post) and Curious Theatre’s Speech and Debate. No matter how big the character Burge is called upon to play, “you always know there's a real and very interesting person underneath," Wittman wrote.

    (Story continues after the photo.)

    Steven J. Burge United in Love Photo by John Moore
    Steven J. Burge co-hosted the 'United in Love' benefit concert with Eden Lane that raised $40,000 for The Denver Actors Fund.  Photo by John Moore.

    But Burge’s steady career trajectory took a turn for the skyward late last year when he was hired by Director Geoffrey Kent to be the understudy for An Act of God, a pointed social comedy in which God comes down to Earth in human form to set the record straight about the misguided ways in which we sometimes act in God’s name. When Broadway and TV star Wesley Taylor’s contract expired, the Denver Center did not seek out a similarly big-named national replacement. It already had Burge, who smoothly ascended to Almighty status for what turned into an extended run at the Galleria Theatre. The role called on all of Burge’s comic skills, as well as his uncommon gift to make people listen and laugh, even when they might not like what he is telling them. Burge had An Act of God audiences eating out of his holy goblet.

    To say that Burge made an impression in his Denver Center debut would be an understatement.

    “Steven has spot-on comic timing, a fantastic voice and the best rehearsal attitude and esprit de corps I know of,” said Kent. “He improves the quality of everything he touches.”

    More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

    A few months later, Director Ray Roderick punched Burge's ticket for an immediate return trip to the Galleria Theatre in the musical comedy First Date. Gigs at the Galleria are considered jackpot jobs among local actors because they generally come with a minimum six-month contract.

    Burge plays many characters in First Date, most notably the quintessential gay best friend of a young woman who’s just starting to brave the dating pool. The reason Burge succeeds at taking such a stock character and making him meaningfully connect with an audience, says Steele, is his willingness to bring his authentic self to all his roles.

    “The thing you need to know about Steven is that just beneath his hilarious and charming exterior is a beautifully tender, vulnerable, compassionate and generous person,” she said.

    “Steven is the opposite of an old soul. He is brand new to his world ... and his childlike wonder and joy are palpable.”

    800 Red Hot and Cole Cherry Creek Theatre Jeremy Rill Phot by Olga LopezHe’s now being rewarded for paying his many dues, and everyone agrees — it could not be happening to a nicer guy. For years, Burge has been known for saying yes to anyone who asks for his time and talents. This year, he co-hosted a benefit concert at the Lone Tree Arts Center that netted $40,000 for the Denver Actors Fund, and Miscast 2017 at the Town Hall Arts Center, which raised $7,000 more. He also has kept the Colorado Theatre Guild’s Henry Awards buzzing along since 2012 with his unpredictable comic energy as co-host with GerRee Hinshaw.

    "To me, Burge encapsulates the heart and soul of the Denver theatre community,” Kent said. “He volunteers for almost every arts organization I can list. If Denver were to elect a ‘Theatre Ambassador,’ he would have my vote.”

    Also receiving votes for Nicest Guy in Denver Theatre would be Jeremy Rill, an Arkansas native who already was a big deal in the lofty Chicago theatre scene when he moved to Colorado for love. And it didn’t take long for people to notice.

    “It's that voice,” said his frequent director, Kelly Van Oosbree. “The richness and his absolute control of it is remarkable. The first time I heard Jeremy open his mouth, I said, ‘This guy is going to be big.’ You just can’t deny that voice.”

    Coming Sunday: 2017 Colorado Theatre Person of the Year

    The Performance Now Theatre Company in Lakewood was the first Colorado company to catch wise, casting Rill in the regional premiere of Jane Eyre (Edward Rochester), Guys and Dolls (Sky Masterson) and Ragtime (Younger Brother). By then it was becoming pretty obvious to anyone within earshot that Rill was going to be a man in demand this year.

    Jeremy Rill Miscast Photo by John MooreA lot more people know “that voice” after it opened up and sang for the first time on four different metro stages this year. Rill started out playing no less than Cole Porter himself in the Cherry Creek Theatre Company’s Red, Hot and Cole at the Mizel Arts and Culture Center, landing quite cozily among a star-filled cast that included Steele alongside local big-shots Seth Dhonau and Lauren Shealy (both now co-starring with Burge in First Date), Damon Guerasio, Stephen Day, Matt LaFontaine, Sharon Kay White and several others.

    Rill then earned karma points for life when he was asked to join the ensemble of the Arvada Center’s Jesus Christ Superstar after the actor playing Judas had to leave the show for medical reasons. That set off casting dominoes that ended with Rill stepping onto one of the biggest theatre stages in the state a mere four hours before the first performance in front of an audience.

    There’s a reason Arvada Center director Rod Lansberry turned to Rill, whom he had never before cast, when the chips were down, Van Oosbree said. It’s that Sinatra cool.

    “If someone ever asked me to do something like that, I would have said, ‘No, thanks,’ ” Van Oosbree said. “But Rod knew Jeremy could handle the pressure. And he did.”

    That may be one reason karma has smiled back on Rill, who will return to Performance Now to play Cinderella’s prince in Into the Woods opening Jan. 5 at the Lakewood Cultural Center. He then joins the cast of the Arvada Center’s Sunday in the Park with George — and on the first day of rehearsal this time. Rill will play Louis, fiancé of the model who attracts the eye of an artist based on Georges Seurat.

    Superstar led to the 2017 performance that will put Rill on every director’s radar – and wish list — for years to come. Van Oosbree tapped Rill to head another dauntingly loaded ensemble in Stephen Sondheim’s Company for the Aurora Fox that included Shealy, Heather Lacy, Lindsey Falduto, Carolyn Lohr, Rebekah Ortiz, Heather Doris and many others.

    (Story continues below the video.)

    Video bonus: Jeremy Rill performs 'Everybody's Girl' at Miscast 2017:

    You knew going in that Rill would bring any production of Company to a thunderous finish with his take on the forceful ballad “Being Alive.” But what separates a good Company from a great one is an actor who understands that Bobby’s journey is a serious rumination on the relative pros and cons of choosing a married or solitary life. Rill allowed himself to get fully lost in his journey — which at times meant going inside and checking out from the Aurora Fox audience altogether.

    Turns out, as Van Oosbree plainly puts it: Jeremy Rill is not just another pretty voice.

    “He’s also a really good actor,” she said. “He found the vulnerable in Bobby and the underlying pain that I think sometimes goes missing in other performances. The easy thing would be to make Bobby a fun, jovial bachelor, but that’s just not who this man is. Jeremy was clever and he was sexy and he was charming and he was cynical and he was sad. He was all the things. He just killed it.”

    Wrote Ramsey Scott for the Aurora Sentinel: “Jeremy Rill nails the mix of aloofness and emotional despair that plagues his character throughout the show and matches it with a voice that deserves to be the center of attention.”  Added Wittman for Westword: "Jeremy Rill has a richly melodious and supple voice that’s sheer pleasure to listen to."

    Norell Moore by Jeremy RillAnd Rill’s artistry, by the way, is not limited to the stage. He’s also a disarmingly effective portrait photographer who is known for bringing out an astonishing clarity of character in a single frame. Look no further than his revealing portrait of fellow actor Norrell Moore (right) soon after she started chemotherapy for breast cancer.

    “I mean this as no disrespect to any other photographer,” said Sanders. “But if you put 100 random actor headshots in a pile in front of me, I could easily pick out the ones taken by Jeremy because he has such a distinctive style behind the camera. He just has a way of making actors look their best. Maybe it’s because he’s one of them. But somehow he manages to put a sparkle in the eye of every single person he photographs.”

    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 

    Steven J. Burge: 2017
    • The Almighty in DCPA Cabaret’s First Date
    • Co-Host, United in Love benefit concert
    • Co-Host, Colorado Theatre Guild Henry Awards
    • Co-Host, Miscast 2017
    • Multiple roles in DCPA Cabaret’s First Date

    Jeremy Rill: 2017
    • Man 1 (Cole Porter) in Cherry Creek Theatre’s Red, Hot and Cole
    • Ensemble in Arvada Center’s Jesus Christ Superstar
    • Aurora Fox’s Company
    • Emile de Becque in Platte Valley Players' South Pacific (concert version)
    • Performed in Miscast 2017 for the Denver Actors Fund

    Steven J Burge GerRee Hinshaw 2017 Henry Awards BLF Photography
    Steven J. Burge and GerRee Hinshaw co-hosting the 2017 Henry Awards. BLF Photography.

    About The True West Awards: '30 Days, 30 Bouquets'

    The True West Awards, now in their 17th year, began as the Denver Post Ovation Awards in 2001. DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore — along with additional voices from around the state — celebrate the entire local theatre community by recognizing 30 achievements from 2017 over 30 days, without categories or nominations. Moore's daily coverage of the DCPA and the Colorado theatre community can be found at MyDenverCenter.Org

    A look back at the history of the True West Awards

    The 2017 True West Awards (to date)


  • 2017 True West Award: Composer and Music Director David Nehls

    by John Moore | Dec 29, 2017
    2017 True West Award David Nehls


    Day 29: David Nehls

    Composer and Music Director
    I’ll Be Home for Christmas

    Killer Wigs from Outer Space

    The Wild Party

    Mommie Dearest

    A Midnight Clear

    By John Moore
    Senior Arts Journalist

    Composer David Nehls had four new musicals in various stages of development over the past 12 months.

    Wait, wait. Let me repeat that:

    Composer David Nehls had FOUR NEW MUSICALS in various stages of development over the past 12 months.

    It’s nearly incomprehensible to think that one composer based here in Colorado could have that much new musical material gestating out there in the theatre world all at once. And all four of his musicals got staged and seen, in some form or other, in three states.

    And that doesn’t even include his musical direction of someone else’s musical: Nehls made his Denver Center debut in 2017 by taking on Off-Center’s full-flapper cannonball dive into immersive theatre with The Wild Party, a truth-in-title Jazz Age musical that was staged under The Hangar at Stanley in Aurora.

    Joan_CrawfordLadies and gentlemen, this is David Nehls’ moment. And his moment includes brain-eating parasites, unapologetic holiday sentiment and partnerships with none other than the daughter of Joan Crawford (pictured at right) and a star of Broadway’s Rock of Ages.

    Maybe we should go back to the beginning of the year.

    Nehls began 2017 by bravely leaving the safe embrace of his 12-year artistic home at the Arvada Center, where he supervised the music for about 45 mainstage productions. And he went out on top: His final project there was one of his own: The Arvada Center premiered Nehls’ I’ll Be Home for Christmas, a familiar holiday throwback with a little bit of bite. He ended 2017 premiering a purely joyful holiday commission called A Midnight Clear: A Musical Tale of Christmas at Stages Repertory Theatre in Houston, where Nehls’ writing partner, Kenn McLaughlin, is the Artistic Director.

    "The work that David is doing is really vital for the future of the American musical,” said Denver's Robert Michael Sanders, who traveled to Houston to be the assistant director A Midnight Clear. "Because without people like David continuing to take these big risks and write this new stuff, we’ll continue to just perform The Sound of Music and Beauty and the Beast into the next century."

    Here’s a quick look at Nehls' four very different new musicals in 2017:

    A David Nehls 800

    I’ll Be Home for Christmas

    • World premiere at the Arvada Center
    • Nov. 18-Dec. 23, 2016
    • Written with: Kenn McLaughlin
    • At a glance: Set in 1969, the Bright family prepares for their annual Christmas variety show, always one of the most-watched national TV events of the year. As the telecast approaches, they welcome their eldest son home from the Vietnam war. The former teen idol is now a decorated hero but deeply challenged by his return to civilian life in front of the cameras.

    Killer Wigs from Outer Space

    • Workshop staging at the University of Colorado Boulder on Dec. 5-6, 2016. Fully presented at the New York Musical Festival from July 10-16, 2017
    • Written with: Zac Miller
    • At a glance: This “hair-raising rock opera” is the story of a carnival handyman named Orville who is attacked by a galactic, brain-eating parasite. The alien transforms Orville into "a rock ’n roll prophet for peace with out-of-this-world hair." We follow Orville on his epic operatic journey to save our world. The New York cast featured Mitch Jarvis, who starred in Broadway’s Rock of Ages.

    Mommie Dearest

    • Presented as a reading on Sept. 1, 2017, at Out of the Box Theatrics in New York
    • Written with: Christina Crawford
    • At a glance: This is the musical stage adaptation of Crawford’s shocking, bestselling memoir about growing up as the adopted daughter of Joan Crawford. The focal point of the stage story, written in full collaboration with Christina Crawford, is the famous actor’s will, which disinherits her two eldest adopted children. The plot becomes the coming-of-age story of the brother-sister pair who try to remain family as various obstacles force them down different paths.

    A Midnight Clear: A Musical Tale of Christmas

    • True West Award David Nehls Megan Van De Hey A Midnight Clear HoustonNov. 8-Dec. 24, 2017
    • Stages Repertory Theatre, Houston
    • Written with: Kenn McLaughlin
    • At a glance: It’s Christmas Eve 1964, and a snowstorm threatens to cancel a concert hosted by the Sisters of the Poor Sacred Heart. But when a mysterious stranger and a stranded motorist arrive at their chapel, the nuns find that the songs of Christmas have far more power than they had imagined. The score combines traditional Christmas songs with Nehls originals including “A Joyful Christmas Noise,” “St. Christopher's Prayer” and “Eyes of a Wandering Stranger.”

    'If regular theatre takes place in three dimensions, then immersive theatre takes place in six.'

    No less impressive than creating those four new works from scratch was tackling the unique challenges Nehls was presented by Off-Center’s staging of The Wild Party, said director Amanda Berg Wilson.

    “First of all, the way the music functions in an immersive-theatre space like The Stanley is a totally different ballgame from how it works in a traditional theatre,” Berg Wilson said. “If regular theatre takes place in three dimensions, then immersive theatre takes place in six. Performing the show environmentally seriously changes how the music is going to play out in your time and space.”

    Imagine a cast of 15 actors playing characters who are attending a drunken, decadent party in a 16,000-square-foot apartment crammed with 200 guests. The live band is stationed in one far corner of the room, but the actors sing and dance and run down tiny aisleways at times more than 100 feet away from the musicians. This was a new performance challenge for actors and musicians alike.

    “David really had to be there to support the actors and to help them develop techniques for how to perform the songs in completely different corners of this massive room and still make it sound blended and lovely,” Berg Wilson said.

    A David Nehls The Wild Party Aaron Vega Jenna Moll Reyes Photo by Adams ViscomAnd Nehls had to abandon his own comfort zone to do that. “After so many years at the Arvada Center doing outstanding, but traditionally presented musical theatre, David had to be willing to go places he had never gone before —  and he was completely game for it,” Berg Wilson said.

    Perhaps no actor has more practical experience working with Nehls than the multiple award-winning Megan Van De Hey, who has performed in nearly two dozen productions under Nehls’ musical supervision since 2005. She even went on the road to Houston with Nehls last month to play the Mother Superior in A Midnight Clear.

    “The one thing that has impressed me the most about David over the years is how much that he, as a composer and lyricist, thinks about the characters and the story and the mood and the ambience — and then he puts all of that into his songs,” said Van De Hey. “He has a very clear concept for every show that he goes into.”

    More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

    She cited the Arvada Center’s 2012 production of the Cold War musical Chess as an example. “He took every song that was focused on the Russians and filled it with the warmth of violin and cellos,” Van De Hey said. “And anything that had to do with the Americans had more of an electric sound to it. That’s the kind of twist that David adds to everything he does.”

    In recent years, Nehls vigorously joined the now 30-year-old grassroots movement to resurrect the dilapidated old Elitch Theatre summer playhouse that once hosted the likes of Vincent Price, Grace Kelly and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as a year-round, functioning crown-jewel of Denver theatre. As a former board member, Nehls got further than anyone else has in 2015 when the old wooden theatre in the Highlands began hosting an annual new-play festival of readings.

    Despite Nehls’ breakout year as a composer in 2017, his success in new-musical development is not actually new. Nehls first hit it big back in 2004 with The Great American Trailer Park Musical, which he developed here in Denver with Betsy Kelso before it went on to dozens of productions in New York, Australia, the U.K. and many points in-between.

    Van De Hey was asked how she reconciles the breadth of Nehls’ story subjects, ranging from the sci-fi silliness of Killer Wigs to basking in the show-biz mud to holiday stories geared for traditional theatre audiences.

    From 2014: Nehls' work to save the Historic Elitch Theatre

    “No one who has met David would ever expect him to turn out to be a sentimentalist in any way, shape or form,” said Van De Hey. “But actually, so much of his work is rooted in actual memories from his own childhood.”

    She describes working with him as "insanely collaborative."

    “It’s never been his way or the highway,” she said. "If you are the person who is going to be singing his song, he talks to you. He asks you questions. He asks for your point of view. As a composer, he works with the actor, and you discover the song together. And when David turns a song over to you, he is really turning a piece of himself over to you."

    And that works to everyone's advantage, Sanders said.

    "David is not only furthering his own craft — he’s creating work for the rest of us,” Sanders said on behalf of the hundreds of actors, musicians and other creative personnel who produce musicals in Colorado and around the country.

    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 

    About The True West Awards: '30 Days, 30 Bouquets'

    The True West Awards, now in their 17th year, began as the Denver Post Ovation Awards in 2001. DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore — along with additional voices from around the state — celebrate the entire local theatre community by recognizing 30 achievements from 2017 over 30 days, without categories or nominations. Moore's daily coverage of the DCPA and the Colorado theatre community can be found at MyDenverCenter.Org

    A look back at the history of the True West Awards

    The 2017 True West Awards (to date)

  • 2017 True West Award: Vance McKenzie

    by John Moore | Dec 28, 2017

    2017 True West Awards Vance McKenzie


    Day 28: Vance McKenzie

    Lighting Designer

    By John Moore
    Senior Arts Journalist

    To shed a little light on Lighting Designer Vance McKenzie, we offer this bit of illumination: He’s a cool kid with a cool kid. Clearly. He and wife Crystal named their son Grayson — the non-nom de plume of Batman’s original sidekick Robin before he became known in the DC universe as Nightwing.

    Seriously, how cool would it be to have a nickname like Nightwing? As your birthright?

    McKenzie is a busy lighting designer from Carbondale whose friends use other words to describe him as well: Collaborative. Patient. Unafraid. Outside the theatre, they say he's an avid skier who loves board games, role-playing Starship Troopers and playing Xbox. "So yeah, he's a total uber-geek,” says Miners Alley Playhouse Managing Director Jonathan Scott-McKean. (And it takes one to know one.)  

    Vance McKenzie QuoteSuch a fine line between tech-nerd and guardian protector of the universe.

    McKenzie is definitely a superhero to Seth Caikowski, who directed The Wedding Singer last summer with McKenzie as his “let-there-be-light” guy. McKenzie is the resident lighting director for Performance Now Theatre Company at the Lakewood Cultural Center.

    “I would trust him with any type of show,” Caikowski said. “From Shakespeare to Sondheim, Vance will always deliver.” 

    He’s delivered for a wide variety of Colorado theatre companies including the Arvada Center, Colorado Springs TheatreWorks, Performance Now, Phamaly Theatre Company, Breckenridge Backstage Theatre, Miners Alley Playhouse, Platte Valley Players, the University of Denver, Ballet Nouveau Colorado and Lake Dillon Theatre. Those companies perform in venues ranging from a state-of-the-art, 975-seat concert hall to a tiny, 60-seat studio. And it takes a special someone, Scott-McKean says — one might even say cool — to design for both kinds of spaces effectively.

    “Miners Alley Playhouse is a harder place for a lighting designer to work than, say, the Arvada Center because we have fewer instruments and circuits to work with,” Scott-McKean said. “Vance came in here wanting to do highly professional work in a venue that, frankly, was not designed for truly high-quality lighting. But instead of settling, he worked with us to move up in the world and get better gear. He’s upped the game here.”

    Vance McKenzie Adriane Wilson Cabaret Miners Alley Playhouse 400Here’s a brief look at McKenzie’s busy and very varied 2017:

    • Miners Alley Playhouse’s Hir
    • Miners Alley Playhouse’s Cabaret (photo at right of Adriane Wilson, currently appearing in DCPA's 'First Date' as Adriane Leigh Robinson, by Sarah Roshan.)
    • Performance Now’s Man of La Mancha
    Performance Now’s Hello Dolly
    • Performance Now’s The Wedding Singer
    • Performance Now’s The Mervelous Wonderettes
    • Lake Dillon Theatre Company’s Sister Act
    • Lake Dillon Theatre Company’s Ghost
    • Arvada Center’s The Foreigner
    • Platte Valley Players' A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

    Lake Dillon Theatre Company Artistic Director Christopher Alleman said McKenzie’s adaptability made him the perfect choice to simultaneously design two very different film adaptations in its swank new $9 million Silverthorne Arts Center: Sister Act in the 165-seat mainstage theatre and Ghost in the 60-seat studio next door.

    More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

    “Those are two very different spaces,” Alleman said. “Sister Act had more bells and whistles, while Ghost was simple storytelling. Although Vance was successful with both shows, I believe his design in the smaller and more challenging theatre was beautiful.”

    Vance McKenzie Sister ActDespite the obstacles McKenzie faced in designing Cabaret for the 120-seat Miners Alley Playhouse in Golden, Director Len Matheo said McKenzie went the extra mile to make sure the lighting "truly evoked the seedy atmosphere of Berlin’s pre-World War II Kit Kat Club." McKenzie’s lighting ideas even informed the show’s scenic design.

    “We decided early on we wanted to use spotlights,” Matheo said — which, to anyone’s memory, had never been used for any MAP show since its 2003 opening. “Working together, we created actual towers to house those spotlights — and those same towers eventually became the guard towers in the concentration-camp scene.”

    (Photo at right of Lake Dillon Theatre Company's 'Sister Act' by Christopher Alleman.)

    McKenzie, a graduate of Roaring Fork High School, the University of Northern Colorado and the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, teaches lighting for the Community College of Denver. His wife, Crystal, is the Assistant Costume ShopVance McKenzie The Wedding Singer Manager at the Arvada Center and is currently focused on the upcoming Sense and Sensibility, opening Jan. 26. Crystal designed the costumes for Neil Simon's Broadway Bound at MAP last summer and will be designing two more shows there in 2018.

    Here’s more of what those who worked with McKenzie in 2017 had to say about today's True West Award winner:

    • Alleman: “We love working with Vance. We like to surround ourselves with talented and knowledgeable people but, most important, we surround ourselves with generous, kind and collaborative people. Vance is all of those. His spirit in the room is palpable. His goal is to make the show stronger — whether it is his lighting vision or not.  He listens to directors and incorporates their thoughts — without losing his own vision.”
    • Vance McKenzie The ForeignerCaikowski: “Vance understands exactly how to work in challenging spaces. And he has the patience to roll with changes in a very small amount of time. Vance has to navigate around the chaos of load-in and produce an entire show in about two days. All while taking notes and being patient in a sea of frustrations. He is truly incredible."

    (Photo of the DeLorean from The Wedding Singer courtesy Seth Caikowski. Set photo from the Arvada Center's 'The Foreigner' by M. Gale Photography.)

    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

    About The True West Awards: '30 Days, 30 Bouquets'

    The True West Awards, now in their 17th year, began as the Denver Post Ovation Awards in 2001. DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore — along with additional voices from around the state — celebrate the entire local theatre community by recognizing 30 achievements from 2017 over 30 days, without categories or nominations. Moore's daily coverage of the DCPA and the Colorado theatre community can be found at MyDenverCenter.Org

    A look back at the history of the True West Awards

    The 2017 True West Awards (to date)

  • 2017 True West Award: Buntport Theater

    by John Moore | Dec 27, 2017

    2017 True West Award Buntport Theater Zeus Crud Poe


    Day 26: Buntport Theater

    The Zeus Problem
    The Crud
    Edgar Allan Poe Is Dead and So Is My Cat

    By John Moore
    Senior Arts Journalist

    When you’ve done what Buntport Theater has done for 17 years, the worst thing that could possibly happen would be for complacency to settle in.

    Not in them. In us.

    Buntport has been such a consistent contributor to the Colorado creative ecology that I sometimes wonder whether audiences might eventually (and perhaps even naturally) begin to take what they do for granted.

    What they do is make the magical look mundane time and time and time again. But this is a condition which must be guarded against at all costs. Because to normalize what Buntport does would be like normalizing … I dunno. Butterflies.

    Buntport The Zeus Problem Jim Hunt QuoteThink about it: Now entering its 18th year, Buntport is older than all but 20 Denver metro theatre companies. In that time, these five uncommonly compatible college pals have conjured, written and staged 45 original, intelligent, accessible and often very funny full-length theatrical productions. From scratch. Collaboratively, without designated writers, directors, designers or even janitors. "We do it all. Because we love it," says, well ... one of them. Because another thing they do collaboratively is ... talk about themselves.

    Think about that: Forty-five distinct, form-bending stories unlike anything any other company brings to any Colorado stage. Often while employing old-school Eastern European transformational theatre techniques they were introduced to at Colorado College.

    The Buntport Five — Brian Colonna, Hannah Duggan, Erik Edborg, Erin Rollman and Samantha Schmitz — have pretty good heads for business, too, having long ago turned working at Buntport into full-time employment, thanks in large part to rentals and supporting monthly and children’s programming that keeps people coming back to the iconic warehouse theatre in the Santa Fe Arts District whenever the company is between mainstage shows.

    The three new works Buntport entered into the canon in 2017 well-demonstrate everything they do right as an artistic collective — even when not everything they do necessarily comes out just right. That’s part of the fun. The Zeus Problem was metaphorically political — or as political as Buntport gets, which usually isn’t all that much. The Crud was a theatrical adventure and party game of epic scale: The company bought a random storage locker at an auction and committed to building an entire play around whatever contents they found inside, sight unseen. Next was Edgar Allan Poe Is Dead and So Is My Cat, an unabashed Halloween comedy that was intentionally about as scary as a trip to Boston Market. (So you'll have to apply your own personal experience to that barometer.)

    Read more: The Buntport ensemble talks about The Crud

    That’s the thing about these sweet smarty-pants: They can fly 6 feet over your head one minute and go 6 feet under the next depending on where their present creative whim wants to take them. All they ask of audiences is that you meet them halfway. So that's ... 3 feet, over or under.

    “The most remarkable thing about Buntport to me is that they start over every single time. It’s like they always return to Ground Zero,” said Buntport guest actor Jim Hunt. “And they put themselves at incredible risk with their audiences because they don’t say to people, ‘If you liked what we did last time, then you are automatically going to love what we are doing this time — because what we are doing this time is unlike anything we have ever done before.’ ”

    Buntport Poe The Buntporters began preparations for 2017 with a plan, which they promptly threw out with the bathwater after the presidential election. And it was an intriguing plan. Buntport shows often begin with one company member stumbling onto a really interesting bit of otherwise useless trivia — which they then build an entire show around. Colonna, for example, latched onto the discovery that child murderer Nathan Leopold (of Leopold and Loeb infamy) was also an ornithologist who kept 3,000 bird specimens in his home.

    Now that sounds like the quintessential premise for a new Buntport play. But it never happened because Donald Trump won the election.

    (Pictured above and right: Erin Rollman (as The Suit) with Hannah Duggan as a grieving cat owner and Brian Colonna as a creeper wearing Baltimore Ravens boxers in 'Edgar Allan Poe Is Dead and So Is My Cat.' Below: Erik Edborg in 'The Crud.') 

    “When they realized the play would be opening within days of the inauguration, they felt it would be unconscionable if they didn’t do something that was more closely related to the way people were feeling at the time,” said Hunt, a Colorado Theatre Guild Life Achievement winner they had asked to play famous lawyer Clarence Darrow.


    Buntport. The CrudThey still wanted Hunt — they just no longer wanted Darrow. So instead they cast him as Zeus, the vainglorious and hotheaded ruler of all other gods, in The Zeus Problem. Then they asked the esteemed and ever-erudite actor with the somewhat British sensibilities to, oh … let’s run down the list: Pull his pants down, fart, dance on a table, chew on a heart, repeatedly brag about his manhood and grab his testicles — a lot. Hunt’s Zeus was a charmer with the audience, too. Particularly when Hunt said to them: “You violent things. You dim lights. You armored and inedible vegetables. You (bleeping) artichokes.”

    What he was not doing was an impression of you-know-who.

    “They told me, ‘You are playing a crazy, childlike god. You are not playing Donald Trump.’ They did not want me to mimic him. They did not even want me to watch him on television because they didn’t want it to bleed into the performance.”

    The setting for the play was sort of a dinner party. At one end of a long table sat an amiable Henry David Thoreau (Colonna) working on his boring translation of AeschylusPrometheus Bound. At the other end was Prometheus (Edborg), who was chained to his rock, condemned by Zeus to a life of torment for the crime of stealing fire from the gods and giving it to man. Duggan played a giant eagle who unenthusiastically snacks on Prometheus’ continually regenerating heart and liver. And then there was Rollman as a beautiful maiden named Io (pronounced I.O.) whom Zeus transformed into a cow to prevent his wife, Hera, from picking up on his lust for her.   

    So what you had with Zeus, Hunt said, “is a crazy god who behaves like a temperamental, narcissistic child. Who was mad with power and armed with lightning bolts. Who chained a man to a rock as punishment for wanting to liberate all mankind. Who turned a beautiful woman into a cow for his own selfish pleasure. Who could do absolutely anything he wanted, and absolutely no one could stop him.”

    More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

    And if that sounds vaguely similar to someone who appears regularly in your daily Twitter feed, then that’s all on you. But Westword’s Juliet Wittman went there. “Zeus’ clownish and impermeable ego is irresistibly reminiscent of the current president’s,” she wrote. “Except that Jim Hunt is a whole lot funnier.”

    BuntportTo Hunt, “The genius of the play is that it never directly commented on what was going on in the world. It was not trying to change or solve anything. And yet so many of the people who came to our play told us, ‘You gave me a container for me to put my frustration in for 90 minutes. You gave me a place to laugh and have fellowship.’

    “To me, that is the genius of Buntport.”

    (Pictured at right: Buntport's four performing members with their self-chosen celebrity doppelgängers, from the top: Erik Edborg: Jim Carrey, Hannah Duggan: Tina Yothers, Erin Rollman: Rowan Atkinson and Brian Colonna: Jim Belushi.)

    The rest of the year was closer to Buntport’s more expected, unexpected form. In The Crud, the crud that filled the stage became a universal metaphor for the crud on our floors and in our heads and out in the world. The ensemble brainstormed the plot of the play (subtitled Hoarder's Delight) based on what they found in the storage unit they bought. The resulting play explored the nature of memory, the transience of "having," our relationship to technology, and our need for play and fantasy.

    And the unapologetically funny Edgar Allan Poe Is Dead, and So Is My Cat featured a quintessentially original Buntport staging device — Rollman coming to life as a man’s suit. Craig Williamson of the North Denver Tribune called the dead-cat play a return to Buntport's funny roots, "but it still manages to make the audience think about the nature of life, and especially what it takes to make life meaningful."

    Our look back at the 2006 end of Magnets on the Fridge

    So that was Season 17, which was one of Buntport's best yet. And yet, despite years of critical praise, more awards than they have places to put them and a fiercely loyal core audience base, Buntport seemed to be flying somewhat under the radar this year. For example, much thoughtful media and social attention was paid over the past year to the leading contributors of new work among Colorado theatres. And for the most part, none of it thought to include Buntport — the most prolific producer new work by any company in Colorado — in the conversation. Has Buntport become a thing that we, gulp, now take for granted?   

    Buntport Magnets on the Fridge“I do think that Buntport remains somewhat underrated," Hunt said," even as they have become a kind of a staple over all these years."

    To be fair, Buntport doesn’t always start over with every new project. Sometimes they repeat themselves — to their fans’ delight. They have been clamoring for the return of Buntport’s brilliantly stupid monthly sitcom Magnets on the Fridge, about a group of 20-something friends who have a book club even though they don’t read books. And they shall be rewarded, once a month, starting Jan. 3.

    (Pictured above and right: The 'Magnets on the Fridge' cast in 2003.)

    Magnets debuted in 2001 and ran for 65 episodes over five years, nearly all of them packed to the alleyway. Like the Friends/Seinfeld TV series that inspired it, Magnets introduced a group of vapid 20-somethings doing nothing. And the new Magnets no doubt will re-introduce a group of vapid 40-somethings doing nothing. Probably brilliantly.

    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

    About The True West Awards: '30 Days, 30 Bouquets'

    The True West Awards, now in their 17th year, began as the Denver Post Ovation Awards in 2001. DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore — along with additional voices from around the state — celebrate the entire local theatre community by recognizing 30 achievements from 2017 over 30 days, without categories or nominations. Moore's daily coverage of the DCPA and the Colorado theatre community can be found at MyDenverCenter.Org

    A look back at the history of the True West Awards

    The 2017 True West Awards

  • 2017 True West Award: The Difference-Makers

    by John Moore | Dec 25, 2017

    25 2017 True West Award Combined


    Day 25: The Difference-Makers 

    Leading organizers of 2017 fundraisers on behalf of Denver Actors Fund:
    Ebner-Page Productions’ United in Love concert, $40,083
    The Mothers of 13 the Musical, $13,188
    Dr. Brian Kelly DDS, $10,300 in in-kind services
    Robert Michael Sanders’ Miscast 2017, $7,040
    BDT Stage’s Thoroughly Modern Millie and Annie, $6,147
    Dixie Longate standup comedy benefit, $4,804

    By John Moore
    Senior Arts Journalist

    In 2017, The Denver Actors Fund has made $128,000 available to Colorado theatre artists in situational medical need, compared to $42,000 in all of 2016. And there is just one reason the rapidly growing grassroots nonprofit had that much money to give back in only its fourth year of existence: A boggling array of self-starting individuals, theatre companies and schools from all over the metro area organized their own fundraising efforts that generated $112,000 in unplannable revenue for the Denver Actors Fund.

    They are The Difference-Makers.

    2017 True West Award Eugene EbnerThe biggest chunk by far came from one remarkable sold-out concert at the Lone Tree Arts Center featuring Colorado-connected Broadway stars Annaleigh Ashford, Beth Malone and Mara Davi alongside Denver First Lady Mary Louise Lee and more than 20 local performers. The event, called United in Love, was conceived and carried off by Ebner-Page Productions, aka Eugene Ebner and Paul Page. Their concert raised more than $40,000 for the non-profit in part because nearly everyone volunteered their time and talents — and because they went out and secured sponsorships totaling $20,000 from Delta Dental, Kaiser Permanente, Skyline Properties and Alliance Insurance.

    It was a night that changed the trajectory of the Denver Actors Fund forever. But it was just the start of a remarkable year during which school-age kids, for example, accounted for more than $25,000 in donations to the Denver Actors Fund all by themselves.

    The most astonishing of those efforts was a fully staged production of Jason Robert Brown’s 13 the Musical, which in 2008 became the first Broadway musical to feature a cast made up entirely of teenagers.

    2017 True West Award 13 the MusicalThe parents of 13 young metro-area actors banded together to self-produce the first-ever Colorado staging of 13 the Musical, which is the story of a New York-savvy teen whose parents’ divorce lands him in Indiana. The parents absorbed nearly all production costs as their own personal donations so that all proceeds from ticket sales and other revenue sources would go fully to the Denver Actors Fund. As a result, 13 the Musical generated more than $13,000 for The Denver Actors Fund in just two performances at the Mizel Center for Arts and Culture. And it was a good production, because the young actors were supported by a dream creative team that included Robert Michael Sanders, Paul Dwyer, Jalyn Courtenay Webb, Shannan Steele and more (full list below).

    Sanders also again directed and produced Miscast, an annual evening of silly songs and games at the Town Hall Arts Center that raised another $7,000, bringing Sanders’ four-year Miscast efforts past the $20,000 mark.

    The Denver Actors Fund was also the designated beneficiary when tart-talking Dixie Longate returned to the Galleria Theatre for the Denver Center’s fourth staging of Dixie’s Tupperware Party. While in Denver, Dixie creator Kris Andersson wanted to try out Dixie’s new standup comedy routine, and the evening turned into a $4,804 windfall for the DAF.

    True West Award Robert Michael Sanders0Also this year, the Denver Actors Fund entered into a unique partnership with Thornton dentist (and former Broadway dancer) Brian Kelly, who accepted emergency dental cases referred through the Denver Actors Fund. Kelly helped four DAF patients in need of everything from root canals to full teeth replacement to complex bridge work. In all, Kelly donated more than $10,000 worth of his services to uninsured area artists.

    Area companies regularly designate certain performances for the benefit of the Denver Actors Fund, and this year, two remarkable evenings at BDT Stage organized by Producing Artistic Director Michael J. Duran raised a combined $6,147 for the DAF.

    All done on their own.

    More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

    “I think the truest mark of a community is how much people will do to help each other without even being asked,” said Denver Actors Fund President Will Barnette. “These dollar figures brilliantly show the depth of love and caring and camaraderie we have in this Colorado theatre community.”

    Here’s a small sampling of additional efforts large and small that benefited more than 40 individual artists facing situational medical needs in 2017 alone:

    • 2017 True West Award BDT StageThe young people in the cast of Town Hall Arts Center kid-centric’s stage adaptation of A Christmas Story created a group they called The Lollipop Kids, and they sold $3,405 worth of suckers in the theatre lobby.
    • For the second straight year, the Miners Alley Playhouse in Golden designated one performance of A Christmas Carol for the DAF, including all ticket revenue and bar sales. The evening sold out, and the Christmas miners raised $3,664 — or about $40 per person.
    • Denver School of the Arts was the very first school to take collections for the Denver Actors Fund in 2014, and the $2,117 the theatre students raised this year at performances of The Producers brought the troupe’s three-year total to a record $6,230. Other school-age groups that raised money for the DAF in 2017 included Front Range Theatre Company in Highlands Ranch ($2,041), Cherry Creek High School ($1,614) Summit Middle School in Boulder ($938.35), Parker Performing Arts School ($475) and CenterStage Theatre Company in Louisville ($406).
    • The journalism students at Metropolitan State University hosted an original Christmas special just last week that raised $2,000. The evening, donated by the city of Northglenn, was co-hosted by student Avery Anderson of The Nightly Met and popular area actor Annie Dwyer (currently Miss Hannigan in BDT Stage’s Annie). The program included appearances by Anna Maria High (Aurora Fox’s Hi-Hat Hattie), Abigail Kochevar (Miners Alley Playhouse’s upcoming Fun Home), casts from Town Hall’s Seussical and BDT Stage’s Annie, bands and combos such as Mister Tim and The Denver Dolls, Ryan Chrys and the Rough Cuts and many more.
    • 2017 True West Award Dixie Longate The Denver Actors Fund hosts a monthly film series at the Alamo Drafthouse in partnership with a rotating local theatre company, next featuring 500 Days of Summer on Jan. 22 with live entertainment from cast members from DCPA Cabaret’s First Date. Half of all ticket proceeds go to the DAF, and the series generated $5,400 in 2017.
    • The Jerseys, made up of area musical-theatre veterans Brian Smith, Paul Dwyer, Klint Rudolph and Randy St. Pierre, designated one February performance at the Clocktower Cabaret to the DAF and raised $2,208.
    • The caustic puppet musical comedy Avenue Q includes a cynical panhandling number called The Money Song, and this year TWO companies used the opportunity to raise real-time money for the DAF during the actual show. The StageDoor Theatre in Conifer raised $1,589 that way, and the Town Hall Arts Center brought in $1,361.
    • The Edge Theatre hosted a staged reading of DAF founder John Moore’s play Waiting for Obama, which had been recently staged in New York, and the evening raised $1,173 for the DAF.

    More information on The Denver Actors Fund

    • Some of the most creative fundraisers were purely personal initiatives. Patty Kingsbaker, who founded Radical Artists talent agency, urged guests at her retirement party to give to the DAF, raising $743. Teenager Willow Samu turned her senior recital into a fundraiser for the DAF and collected $350 at the Clocktower cabaret. Actor Billie McBride, a Colorado Theatre Guild Lifetime Achievement Award-winner, used Facebook to auction off an album she owned that was signed by the original Broadway cast of A Chorus Line, raising $250. Local journalist and In Focus host Eden Lane, who this year made her Denver directorial debut with the Priscilla Queen of the Desert, raised $206 selling custom-made Priscilla coffee cups in the Aurora Fox lobby. Actor Sue Leiser sold hats she made inspired by the Women’s March on Denver, resulting in a $140 donation.
    • The DAF encourages every company in the state to designate one performance per run for a spare-change collection. It’s called Tap Shoe Initiative, which brings in modest amounts that have added up to more than $17,000 over the past four years. This year’s leading Tap Shoe participant was one of the state’s smallest companies: Firehouse Theatre Company raised $937 for the DAF over four collection nights.

    2017 True West Award Brian KellySeparately, the local theatre community was spurred to action last month by the wrenching death of 42-year-old actor Daniel Langhoff from cancer just 10 days after the birth of his second daughter. Over the next six weeks, donations and special events generated $53,000 in targeted donations through the DAF that will help Langhoff’s wife plan for the long-term needs of their children. Among the special efforts:

    • Vintage Theatre’s designated performance of Honeymoon in Vegas raised $2,094.
    • Choreographer and fitness trainer Adrianne Hampton hosted a special class featuring Broadway songs and raised $250.
    • The boards of the Town Hall Arts Center, Breckenridge Backstage Theatre and Performance Now each donated $1,000 to the Langhoffs. Performance Now also pledged to donate 2 percent of all profits for the next year to the DAF (about $365 per show), and challenged all other Colorado theatre companies to do the same.
    • Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company closed out 2017, appropriately enough, by raising exactly $2,017 on opening night of its Every Christmas Story Ever Told.

    “The number of people who planned, participated or attended all of these efforts on behalf of the Denver Actors Fund numbers into the thousands,” the DAF’s Will Barnette said. “Every one of those people is a difference-maker. Their efforts not only sustain us, they galvanize us as we enter 2018. We simply could not do what we do without the continuing efforts of the Colorado theatre community to keep us funded.”

    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. He is also the founder of The Denver Actors Fund.

    Video bonus: Highlights from the United in Love concert:

    Video by The Met Report's Avery Anderson.

    Denver Actors Fund Beneficiaries 2017
    With Name, 2017 Financial Aid and Medical Need

    1. A Daniel Langhoff 800 1Daniel Langhoff, actor, $52,918 ($66,938 overall), Cancer treatments
    2. Archie Valleda, actor, $8,457, Dental
    3. Abner Genece, actor, $6,471, Car accident
    4. Norrell Moore, actor, $4,685, Cancer treatments
    5. Sasha Fisher, actor, $4,522, Car accident
    6. Katherine Paynter, actor, $4,290, Knee surgery
    7. Mark Shonsey, actor, $4,095, Premature birth
    8. Nancy Warner, crew, $3,832, Two emergency surgeries
    9. Don Gabenski, actor, $3,529, Purchase wheelchair
    10. Paul Hartman, pit musician, $2,950, Car accident
    11. Traci J. Kern, actor, $2,693  ($3,243 overall), Cancer tests, Sliced hand
    12. Family of Christopher Tye, actor, $2,500, Funeral expenses
    13. Jaime Lujan, actor, $2,725 ($3,825 overall), Rotator-cuff surgery
    14. 800-DON-GABENSKI-FULL-600x452Patrick Sawyer, director, $2,150 ($5,167 overall), Heart surgery
    15. Anonymous, $2,019 ($2,519 overall), Dental
    16. Becky Toma, props designer,  $1,701 ($1,995 overall), Surgery   
    17. David Ballew, actor, $1,680, Dental
    18. Emily K. Harrison, producer/actor, $1,520, Emergency room
    19. Carol Kelly, hair designer, $1,499, Medical leave
    20. Anonymous, $1,190, Dental
    21. Keegan Flaugh, actor, $1,180, Dental emergency
    22. Meghan Ralph, stage manager/actor, $1,120 ($2,788 overall), Dental emergency
    23. Anonymous, $1,000, Emergency room
    24. Catherine Aasen Floyd, actor, $720, Cancer treatment
    25. Daniel Perkins, actor, $675, Seizures, back surgery            
    26. Joey Wishnia, actor, $600 ($1,597 overall), Eye injections
    27. Twanna Latrice Hill, actor, $540 ($922 overall), Medical
    28. Nick Thorne, actor, $500, Memorial gift
    29. Sheila Traister, actor, $500 ($2,800 ovverall), Bodily injury
    30. Maggie Sczekan, actor, $365, Dental
    31. Lara Maerz, stage manager $246, Diabetes treatments
    32. Faith Goins, actor, $175  ($4,375 overall), Infant’s death
    33. Note: List above does not include beneficiaries of rides, meals and other Action Team assistance
    Video bonus: 'The Cancer Warriors' at Miscast 2017

    Actors Jona Alonzo, Daniel Langhoff and Norrell Moore, all at various stages of their personal own cancer battles, performed an original variation of the song "Tonight," from 'West Side Story,' at Miscast 2017. Video by John Moore.

    About The True West Awards: '30 Days, 30 Bouquets'

    The True West Awards, now in their 17th year, began as the Denver Post Ovation Awards in 2001. DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore — along with additional voices from around the state — celebrate the entire local theatre community by recognizing 30 achievements from 2017 over 30 days, without categories or nominations. Moore's daily coverage of the DCPA and the Colorado theatre community can be found at MyDenverCenter.Org

    A look back at the history of the True West Awards

    The 2017 True West Awards

    a-denver-actors-fund-800UNITED IN LOVE
    • Hosts: Steven J. Burge and Eden Lane
    • Musical Director: Mitch Samu
    • Performers: Annaleigh Ashford, Beth Malone, Mara Davi, Jodie Langel, Denise Gentilini, Jimmy Bruenger, Eugene Ebner, Becca Fletcher, Clarissa Fugazzotto, Robert Johnson, Daniel Langhoff, Susannah McLeod, Chloe McLeod, Sarah Rex, Jeremy Rill, Kristen Samu, Willow Samu and Thaddeus Valdez.  Also the casts of both The Jerseys (Klint Rudolph, Brian Smith, Paul Dwyer and Randy St. Pierre), and 13 the Musical (see below).
    • The band: Tag Worley, Steve Klein, Andy Sexton, Scott Handler and Jeremy Wendelin
    MISCAST 2017
    • Hosts: Steven J. Burge, Eric Mather and Shannan Steele
    • Performers: Robert Michael Sanders, Megan Van De Hey, Jackson Garske, Destiny Walsh, Jalyn Courtenay Webb, Rylee Vogel, Jeremy Rill, Reace Daniel, Jose David Reynoza, Randy Chalmers, Hope Grandon, Kenny Moten, Margie Lamb, Jona Alonzo, Daniel Langhoff, Norrell Moore, Evan Gibley, Kaden Hinkle, Hannah Katz, Darrow Klein, Hannah Meg Weinraub and Rylee Vogel

    Production team:

    • Director: Robert Michael Sanders
    • Assistant to the director: Jessica Swanson
    • Musical Direction and Live Keys: Donna Debreceni
    • Stage Manager: Maegan Burnell
    • Assistant Stage Manager: Haley Ivy Di Virgilio
    • Technical Director: Mike Haas
    • Lights: Alexis Bond
    • Sound: Curt Behm and Tom Quinn
    • Costumes: Nicole Harrison
    Cast (moms in parentheses):
    • Joshua Cellar (Emily Cellar)
    • Conrad Eck (Kristin Eck)
    • Macy Friday (Megan Friday)
    • Evan Gibley (Michelle Gibley)
    • Lorenzo Giovanetti (Carmela Giovanetti)
    • Kaden Hinkle (Shannon Gaydos-Hinkle)
    • Hannah Katz (Erin Katz)
    • Darrow Klein (Jennifer Klein)
    • Michelle Lee (Huwon Lee)
    • Gabe Legg (Angela Legg)
    • Carter Novinger (Jennifer Novinger)
    • Rylee Vogel (Kristi Vogel)
    • Hannah Meg Weinraub (Michelle Weinraub)

    • Robert Michael Sanders: Producer and director
    • Paul Dwyer: Assistant director
    • Anna Smith: Assistant director
    • Jayln Courtenay Webb: Music director
    • Lauren Hergenreter: Stage manager
    • Sydney Eck: Assistant stage manager
    • Tom Quinn: Sound
    • Jennifer Orf: Lighting
    • Choreographer: Stephanie Hess, Shannan Steele, Matthew D. Peters, Jessica Hindsley, Abigail Kochevar
    • Jason Tyler Vaughn: Guitar
    • Heather Holt Hall: Keyboards
    • S. Parker Goubert: Bass
    • Evan Jones: Drums
  • 2017 True West Award: John Ashton

    by John Moore | Dec 24, 2017

    2017 True West Award John Ashton


    Day 24: John Ashton

    Vintage Theatre
    The Edge Theatre
    Benchmark Theatre
    Netflix's Our Souls at Night

    By John Moore
    Senior Arts Journalist

    John Ashton rang in 2017 as the guest of honor at his surprise 70th birthday party — and he went soft. Proactively, profoundly and proudly soft. Overwhelmed by both community and camaraderie, the longtime actor, director and producer publicly promised not to let himself become an angry old man. The line got a laugh. That's easy for Ashton.

    A John Ashton 70th birthday Pam Clifton Photo by John MooreIt was funny because Ashton has never shown any encroaching proclivity for shouting at anyone aged millennial or younger to get offa his lawn! Caustic, sure. Playfully cynical — you bet. He is one of the few ex-journalists to have ever worked at The Denver Post, Rocky Mountain News AND Westword, after all. That ought to bake anyone’s shell.

    But the actor we saw on Denver stages this year was noticeably more open. More vulnerable. More focused. The change was evident in his work both as vaudevillian comic in The Edge Theatre’s The Nance and more subtly as a genuinely gentle husband in Vintage Theatre’s family corker August: Osage County.

    Ashton, it appears, celebrated his milestone birthday by taking his acting to the next level — something that’s virtually unheard of after reaching the senior side of 70.

    John Ashton Quote Abby Apple Boes“I think there is something about how closely he is examining his work and his life these days that is allowing him to dig deeper and be more honest,” said director and actor Abby Apple Boes, who is also Ashton’s partner in life and, occasionally, on stage. “It maybe means more to him now.”

    It certainly seemed to mean more in everything Ashton did this year. He finished 2016 directing a solid revival of Arthur Miller’s incestuous immigrant drama A View from the Bridge for The Edge Theatre — with Boes as the matriarch who looks the other way.

    “He was really proud of that project. I think he felt like he put a great cast together and brought some nuanced performances out of them,” Boes said of an expert ensemble that included Rick Yaconis, Benjamin Cowhick, Amelia Corrada, Jon Brown and the ever-reliable Kevin Hart.

    Ashton returned to The Edge as an actor in The Nance, Douglas Carter Beane’s disarming play about the lives of burlesque performers in the 1930s. That was a time when it was perfectly fine to play a “nance” onstage, but not to be an openly gay man off it. Ashton played a gruff vaudevillian and theatre manager. In the routine, Ashton's Ephraim played the slapstick “straight man” to  2016 True West Award winner Warren Sherril's self-described pansy, Miles.

    It would have been easy for Ashton to go unnoticed in the shadow of Sherrill’s rich and haunting portrayal, but Ashton did not. The Met Report’s Avery Anderson called Ashton “a Colorado theatre legend who keeps the laughs rolling, even at the toughest times."

    (Story continues below the photo.)

    True West Awards John Ashton by RDG Photography
    John Ashton with the cast of 'The Nance' at the Edge Theatre. RDG Photography.

    Sherrill said Ashton is "both a blast to watch and to be on stage with. He gives and he plays — and he plays a lot — but is always a professional.”

    That's about how Darcy Kennedy described partnering with Ashton in Vintage Theatre’s Herculean undertaking of Tracy LettsPulitzer Prize-winning beast August: Osage County. This feral story of a fractured Oklahoma family that has gathered after the disappearance of its patriarch is filled with strong female characters who could easily swallow all of the men whole. But Ashton’s performance was again impossible to ignore.

    A John Ashton Darcy Kennedy August Osage County RDG PhotographyAshton was perfectly cast as Charlie Aiken, a simple, quiet man who is fully in love with a woman who is very hard to fully love.

    “Oh, he’s a card backstage,” said Kennedy, who played Mattie Fae. “But it was a true pleasure to perform with him. He was very much a giver, and if you ever needed something from him for the sake of your own performance, he would be more than willing to work with you. For example, Mattie Fae says some really rotten things to Charlie, and at one point I told John I really needed him to get more pissed off at me for the scene to work — and we worked our way up to that together.”

    (Pictured above: John Ashton and Darcy Kennedy in Vintage Theatre's 'August: Osage County.' RDG Photography.)

    That moment comes when Charlie admonishes his wife for continually tearing down their son. Ashton nailed the killer line not by going large, but by going real: “We've been married 38 years and I wouldn't trade it for anything," he says to his wife. "But if you can't find a generous place in your heart for your own son, we're not gonna make it to 39.” It was a poignant display of both heart and backbone. Two things, Director Bernie Cardell says, that capture Ashton’s biggest strengths as an actor: Tenderness and strength.

    Ashton has been such a fixture in the Colorado theatre community for the past quarter-century that surely many are unaware of the adventurous pre-theatre life that preceded it.

    A quick recap: Ashton grew up in St. Louis and was sent to Colorado during the Vietnam War after filing for conscientious-objector status. Ashton was assigned to work with Monsignor Charles Woodrich, more popularly known as Father Woody — Denver’s patron saint of the poor. Ashton still works for people in need as an external affairs officer for FEMA, responding on-site to occasional disasters around the country.

    More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

    “John truly is one of the most interesting people I have ever met,” said Boes. “Not only did he work in the newspaper business, he had a radio talk show and he wrote a bunch of murder mysteries, and he was in a bunch of movies — and he was in Breaking Bad."

    After his rather, ahem, colorful journalism career, Ashton reinvented himself as a theatre producer, director and performer. He bought operational control of the Avenue Theater from Bob Wells and ran the vagabond boutique theatre from 1990-2005, including overseeing its move down 17th Avenue from Vine Street to Logan in 2003. Ashton has continued to have a place in the running of The Avenue ever since, but it’s probably no coincidence that when he shifted his full focus to acting last December, he went on to perhaps the best year of his acting life.

    ARandyMooreJohnAshtonOh, and Ashton notched one other thrilling little achievement in 2017: He landed a role in the Netflix film Our Souls at Night, an adaptation of the beloved late Colorado novelist Kent Haruf’s final book. Ashton had two scenes with, ho-hum … Robert Redford.

    (Ashton is pictured at far right with veteran DCPA actor Randy Moore on the set of 'Our Souls at Night.' Photo courtesy of Ashton.)

    Ashton has managed to stay relevant in the Colorado theatre community, Boes said, because he's never stopped being curious or giving. He's always in demand as a voice of Colorado's theatre history, recently having hosted memorial celebrations for towering figures such as Henry Lowenstein and Terry Dodd. He's also always up forJohn Ashton Denver Actors Fund Miscast 2016. Photo by John Moore having fun at his own expense, appearing regularly at the Denver Actors Fund's annual Miscast fundraiser —  most recently as an aging Little Orphan Annie and as Grizabella from Cats (not in the same year).His first gig in 2018 will be directing the regional premiere of the musical Bullets Over Broadway for Vintage, opening April 13.

    “John is a pioneer of the Denver theatre scene, and I love his crazy stories of the good old days,” Sherrill said. “And yet he’s constantly thinking about what Denver needs next.”

    Sherrill admires Ashton no matter what hat he’s wearing. “He’s smart when it comes to producing because he always gives the audience what it wants," he said. "That may be nothing more than a simple slamming-door comedy — which really isn’t that simple — but he will work his hardest to make sure that comedy is a quality experience for his audience. As a director, he’s able to streamline and simplify things, without taking anything away. And as a person, he is one of the most kind and endearing people I’ve ever met.”

    All of which helps to make him a better actor.

    “John is all heart, and that is what he brings to the stage,” Cardell said. “You love watching him — and, while you do, you fall in love with him.”

    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.

    Video bonus: A video review of The Edge Theatre's The Nance:

    Video by The Met Report's Avery Anderson.

    John Ashton: 2017

    • Directed A View from the Bridge for The Edge Theatre*
    • Played Efram in The Edge Theatre's The Nance
    • Played Charlie Aiken in Vintage Theatre's August: Osage County
    • Appeared in five plays for Benchmark Theatre's Fever Dream Festival
    • Played Rudy in Netflix's Our Souls at Night, with Robert Redford and Jane Fonda

    *This production was staged in December 2016. The True West Awards consideration period runs from December through November of each calendar year.

    About The True West Awards: '30 Days, 30 Bouquets'

    The True West Awards, now in their 17th year, began as the Denver Post Ovation Awards in 2001. DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore — along with additional voices from around the state — celebrate the entire local theatre community by recognizing 30 achievements from 2017 over 30 days, without categories or nominations. Moore's daily coverage of the DCPA and the Colorado theatre community can be found at MyDenverCenter.Org

    A look back at the history of the True West Awards

    The 2017 True West Awards

  • 2017 True West Awards: Six set-sational set designs

    by John Moore | Dec 23, 2017

    True West Awards 2017 Scenic Designers 800


    Day 22: Six set-sational set designs

    Markas Henry, Curious Theatre’s Appropriate
    Roger Hanna, Bas Bleu Theatre Company’s Elephant’s Graveyard
    Lori Rosedahl, OpenStage’s The Flick
    Robert Mark Morgan, Creede Repertory Theatre’s General Store
    Christopher M. Waller, Benchmark Theatre’s Smokefall
    Jason Sherwood, Off-Center’s The Wild Party

    By John Moore
    Senior Arts Journalist

    The magical worlds scenic designers conjur on Colorado stages come in all scopes and budget sizes. And in 2017, the challenges thrown their way were thrillingly varied and exhilaratingly executed. Just by way of example:

    • Two Degrees. Robert Mark Morgan. Photo by John MooreRobert Mark Morgan integrated actual panes of slowly melting ice into his set for the DCPA Theatre Company’s world-premiere play Two Degrees (pictured right). Eagle eyes might have noticed the ice slowly dripped throughout every performance to subtly reinforce the play’s climate-change theme.
    • Jonathan Scott-McKean dug a 5-foot grave out of a stage that’s only about 20 feet wide in Miners Alley Playhouse’s A Skull in Connemara.
    • Buntport Theater’s wholly original The Crud was exactly that — A huge pile of cast-off objects, toys and appliances that represented the crud on your floor and the crud in your head and the crud in the world. You know: The crud.
    • And Brian Mallgrave, who so consistently makes magic at the Arvada Center, somehow devised a way for three actors to splash about on water in the mesmerizing The Drowning Girls even though the stage has no drainage — and the entire set had to be regularly cleared to make room for other plays being performed there in repertory.

    And those aren’t even the amazing scenic designs we are focusing on today.

    The True West Awards are not about “bests,” so singling out just one compellingly executed design this year seemed entirely inadequate. So instead, we chose to spotlight six inventions of varying scopes and budget sizes that have just two things in common: The sets are themselves essential characters in all of their stories, and each presented boggling challenges for their creators that begged for playful innovation.

    Please don’t think of these six as comprehensive. They are meant instead to be representative acknowledgements of all scenic designers bringing new worlds to life throughout the Colorado theatre community:

    Curious Theatre’s Appropriate:

    2017 True West Award  Markas Henry. Photo by Michael Ensminger

    • Scenic Designer: Markas Henry
    • Playwright: Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
    • Director: Jamil Jude
    • The challenge: It’s not every day a script’s final two pages are entirely instructions for what must happen with the set pieces, lights and sound. The traditional “last word” of the play has been taken out the mouths of actors here and given over instead to Henry, Sound Designer Jason Ducat and Lighting Designer Richard Devin. The story’s setting is an old mansion on a now abandoned, hand-me-down ex-slave plantation. And in a dance of technical synergy, we see the literal crumbling of an old way of life disintegrating into the earth.
    • Markus Henry: “The script calls for a chandelier to crash to the floor, but Jamil wanted to do something that felt a little more final than that. And so, to 'up the ante' a little bit, I came up with the idea that a beam should come down to signify that the house was falling down. It was simple stagecraft involving a rope and pulley, and it was all done manually: No motors and no techno gadgetry. It’s an old-school trick. But we thought that would be a fitting metaphor for ushering in a new sense of humanity. Sometimes it’s good that things come crashing down."
    • Jamil Jude: "Markas took on the Herculean task of making a house collapse on itself every night for six weeks. Most would run away from that challenge, but Markas ran to it and kicked its butt." 

    Bas Bleu Theatre Company’s Elephant’s Graveyard

    2017 True West Award Roger Hanna

    • Scenic Designer: Roger Hanna
    • Playwright: George Brant
    • Director: Garrett Ayers
    • The challenge: The setting of this play is a dirt floor on the grounds of a 1916 circus where witnesses tell us the true tale of the tragic collision between a struggling circus and a tiny town in Tennessee that resulted in the only ever-known lynching of an elephant. And here, that meant covering the stage with 15 metric tons of dirt.
    • Roger Hanna (who doubled as Lighting Director): “Our biggest challenge was how to make our empty space actually look like an empty space. We achieved that by adding mirrors in the windows and extending walls to make the space closed off. Our production manager naturally wondered if we couldn’t just paint the floor brown, rather than shovel in all that dirt. Fortunately, the whole creative team and cast was on board with the dirt, and Jonathan Burns found a way to make it happen. Once the dirt was down, I was concerned with how the actors would know where to stand for each light cue since there’s no way to use spike tape on dirt. But that worry proved unfounded. It was really a joyous collaboration from start to finish, thanks to the smart way Garrett, and the company, and the staff, and the volunteers all embraced the style of the show."

    OpenStage Theatre’s The Flick

    2017 True West Award Lori Rosedahl

    • Scenic Designer: Lori Rosedahl
    • Director: Sydney Parks Smith
    • Playwright: Annie Baker
    • The challenge: The Flick takes place in a dilapidated old movie palace, so it must at once reflect the grandeur of a time gone by, while still making it abundantly clear that time certainly has, in fact, gone by.
    • Sydney Smith: “Annie Baker deals in realism with everything she does, and we wanted our audiences to be able to really smell the mildew and the rancid popcorn butter. Lori started by building a truly lovely movie theatre that she then tore down and deconstructed to make look like it had existed for enough years to become run down. Then her Set Decorater, Starla Kovar, went in and put fake gum under the seats and actually glued popcorn into the seat corners. She also created old puddles of spilled soda and put stains on the rug that no one could really identify."

    Creede Repertory Theatre’s General Store

    2017 True West Award Robert Mark Morgan

    • Scenic Designer: Robert Mark Morgan
    • Director: Christy Montour-Larson
    • Playwright: Brian Watkins
    • The challenge: There’s a monster living under the floorboard of Mike’s faltering general store on the Eastern plains of Colorado. It growls. It shakes the foundation. There’s a pit, a snapping bear trap, lots of rope and tons of crazy light and sound cues. By the end, this violent confrontation between man and metaphor takes a considerable physical toll on the set. Actor Logan Ernstthal calls General Store “a beautiful beast of a play.”
    • Artistic Director Jessica Jackson: "Rob’s designs do everything at once: They tell the story, define a world, and also work beautifully within a repertory season. They embody the transformative, sophisticated, imagination-over-spectacle aspect of rep that defines the Creede Repertory Theatre. What's also great about Rob is that, despite being the smartest guy in the room, he’s also the nicest. He's not just there to design a set. He works like a true ensemble member.” 

    Benchmark Theatre’s Smokefall

    2017 True West Award  Christopher M. Waller

    • Scenic Designer: Christopher M. Waller
    • Playwright: Noah Haidle
    • Director: Rachel Rogers
    • The challenge: Haidle’s modest, magical play tells the story of one family that learns, through the course of generations, that life can change in an instant. Changes to the set at intermission must communicate to the audience in one visually visceral moment that many years have gone by in this same house. You know this because there is now an overgrown apple tree whose branches have infiltrated the house from the outside and are now growing freely throughout several rooms. And in this story, that really means something.
    • Rachel Rogers: “What I love about working with Christopher is his collaborative spirit. One of of my favorite aspects of his Smokefall design is that he gave the kitchen a half wall. That brilliantly helped delineate the house and created a metaphorical nest where the mother at the center of the story continually retreats. His solution for adding the tree into the home after intermission was also inspired, as it continued the theme of magic rather than attempting to be entirely realistic."

    DCPA Off-Center’s The Wild Party:

    2017 True West Award Jason Sherwood

    • Scenic Designer: Jason Sherwood
    • Writers: Michael John LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe
    • Director: Amanda Berg Wilson
    • The challenge: The Wild Party was performed environmentally under The Hanger at Stanley Marketplace. Audiences were first led into a vaudeville-style theatre and then invited to join the performers for a party on the other side of the curtain — which was revealed to be a sprawling Jazz Age, New York apartment. Now, the Hangar is 18,500 square feet. But once you put 15 actors, a band and 200 audience members inside the apartment (with furniture for them to sit on), Sherwood was left with mere nooks and crannies that could be used as viable playing spaces. And it was a musical, so, you know — there's dancing. And as a piece of on-site, environmental theatre: The whole thing had to be built from scratch.
    • Amanda Berg Wilson: "Any time the actors and the audience are all in the same space together, it's a huge challenge for the Scenic Designer. There was nowhere for the actors to perform that was wider than a few feet. But the way Jason did it was brilliant. He really wove these little threads throughout the room so there was never any one obvious place for them to play. Even the aisles were genius. And the way he filled the space and the walls was incredibly detailed. He absolutely ran with the idea that this was a downtown crowd of true bohemians. They were maxilamists, and that was evident in every detail of the set, which Jason saturated with color."

    More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

    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.

    About The True West Awards: '30 Days, 30 Bouquets'
    The True West Awards, now in their 17th year, began as the Denver Post Ovation Awards in 2001. DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore — along with additional voices from around the state — celebrate the entire local theatre community by recognizing 30 achievements from 2017 over 30 days, without categories or nominations. Moore's daily coverage of the DCPA and the Colorado theatre community can be found at MyDenverCenter.Org

    A look back at the history of the True West Awards

    The 2017 True West Awards

  • 2017 True West Award: Meridith and Gary Grundei

    by John Moore | Dec 22, 2017

    2017 TRUE WEST AWARDS Gary Grundie Meridith C. Grundei


    Day 22: Meridith C. Grundei and Gary Grundei

    The Catamounts
    Naropa University

    DCPA Theatre Company
    Colorado Shakespeare Festival
    Bar Choir
    Stories on Stage
    The Singing House Productions
    Pipedream Productions
    Visionbox Studio

      Local Theater Company
    Theatre Playback West

    By John Moore
    Senior Arts Journalist

    Gary and Meridith C. Grundei are proof that the couple that rocks together, rolls together.

    On Sept. 29, the free-spirited pair packed up a used R.V. and hit the road with their daughter to travel the United States and Mexico for a year. They’re having what they are calling “an improvised year” in what already has been a fairly improvised life together so far.

    The Grundeis are couple of unconventional artists, and nothing if not an unconventional couple. Meridith is a director and Gary a composer, but both are performers to the bone, and neither is confined to a single discipline. For example, one of their popular fringe acts has them playing a brutal, drunken couple hilariously called Jack and Coke.

    Burns and Allen, they are not. Funny, they most definitely are.

    GerRee Hinshaw, who partners with Gary on a traveling rock flash-mob called Bar Choir, calls them The Fabulous Grundei Duo: “They are the rare couple who can collaborate with each other and still be friends — and keep all their other friends,” she said.

    One of their points of connection, says Amanda Berg Wilson, Artistic Director of the Boulder-based collective known as The Catamounts, is that they both have strong and compatible but individual artist identities.

    “Meridith has a very playful sense that dovetails nicely with Gary’s improvisational taste in music and art,” Berg Wilson said. “They’re always up for an adventure as artists and in life, and this road trip is certainly proof of that.”

    Their first stop was for their daughter to meet her birth family. Subsequent adventures already have been had in Georgia, Cincinnati, New Orleans, Florida and two unexpected weeks in Nashville following a breakdown. But the unexpected is kind of the point. Friends believe, but no one is ever really sure, that they are presently in Mexico.

    Meridith C. and Gary Grundei True West Award Photo by John MooreThe Grundeis hit the road at the height of a prolific period of ongoing and eclectic creative activity spanning theatre, music, academia, improv comedy, performance art and more. Their list of creative undertakings for 2017 is all the more impressive given they did it all in only nine months.

    Topping that list is Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage for The Catamounts at the Dairy Arts Center. This was truly event theatre: A blood-pumping, leather-clad, sexy-weird gypsy-punk musical adaptation based on the ninth-century epic poem, backed by a live band playing an original score written by the composer of Broadway’s The Great Comet of 1812.

    Meridith was the director while Gary was music director, bandleader and even the actor who played King Hrothgar of the Danes in sexypants. He was the embodiment of a true rock star as the king who entreats Beowulf to get rid of the man-eating monster Grendel.

    In most musicals, the man at the piano sits at that piano and plays. But Gary Grundei just plays in every sense of the word. On stage and in life.

    “He jumped fully into it,” Berg Wilson said. “He had a great sense of humor about it. He’s a super-compelling performer with this fabulous, unique voice.”

    Berg Wilson called Beowulf “très Catamounts.” Westword’s Juliet Wittman called the free and fierce evening “a throbbing and raucous experience.” And that Meridith Grundei could take credit for the show’s precision, flow and eye appeal.

    Beowulf. Catamounts The staging earned a whopping nine Colorado Theatre Guild Henry Award nominations for The Catamounts, including best musical. Both of the Grundeis were individually nominated.

    Both Grundeis are in equal but separate demand. Beowulf was fully Meridith’s idea, one that was four years in the making. One of the reasons her husband decided to go all-in on it himself was the rare opportunity to work together with his wife on an extended theatrical project. At the time, Gary was composing music for the DCPA Theatre Company's provocative church-service play The Christians. But he declined a tempting offer to also play with the onstage church band he put together each night so he could do Beowulf with his wife instead.

    Gary separately collaborated on two other cool 2017 creative partnerships: First was Visionbox’s workshop production of a complex new musical called The Wild Hunt written by popular film actor Bill Pullman (currently starring in The Ballad of Lefty Brown). The other was the creation of a tantalizingly titled new musical called "__________”, An Opera with acclaimed local actor Ethelyn Friend. Grundei conducted live, improvised music at each performance in a Victorian house in old-town Lafayette for what was later described as "a singular opera experiment that found that sweet spot between Gertrude Stein, Spike Jonze and Kendrick Lamar."

    More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

    Meridith, meanwhile, is an actor, director, improviser and public-speaking coach who created her own traveling corporate training company called Red Ball Speaks. She played Curtis (Petruchio’s servant) in the Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s The Taming of the Shrew last summer and later accepted Pipedream Productions’ community-wide challenge to perform the one-person play White Rabbit Red Rabbit script unseen before opening an envelope containing that script before an already gathered audience.

    In September, she helped the second-year MFA students at Naropa University stage the devised piece Under Construction, written by Charles Mee, again with her husband as music director and sound designer.

    The Grundeis both have long ties to the DCPA Theatre Company. Gary started as a paid intern in 1997 and soon was hired on a big-shot sound designer. Over the years, he often has been commissioned to compose original scores for productions ranging from Plainsong to Shakespeare’s As You Like It to The Christians. Meridith has appeared in three Denver Center productions as an actor, most recently in Frankenstein and Off-Center’s Sweet and Lucky.

    True West Grundei Gary’s other great musical love is an irregular bit of flash-mob fun called Bar Choir with Hinshaw, host of the enduring monthly Freak Train at The Bug Theatre. “Choir is that thing you didn't know you need in your life,” Hinshaw said. “But once you've had it, you crave it at random times in your day.”

    The idea: The hosts put out an invitation on social media encouraging singers of all experience levels — including none — to show up at a hipster bar such as Syntax Physic Opera, learn three tunes from rockers who have included Pat Benatar and The White Stripes and, after a bit of instruction, perform them for a generally blown-away happy-hour bar crowd.

    Gary Grundei’s invitation for one and all to join in on the next Bar Choir (whenever that might be) is pretty much his clarion call for living an artistic life.

    “Everyone has a voice,” Grundei said. “If you can talk, you can sing. If somebody at some point in your life told you that you can’t sing, what the (bleep)? Are you going to believe that? The more you sing, they better you get. So come (bleeping) sing with us.”

    If life is an unpainted canvas, then the Grundeis are evidence that life is also a not-yet-traveled highway.

    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.

    Video bonus: Our visit to Bar Choir at Syntax Physic Opera

    To read more about Bar Choir, click here

    Meridith C. Grundei: 2017

    • Directed Beowulf for The Catamounts
    • Performed in Stories on Stage's Mother's Day program
    • Played Curtis in The Taming of the Shrew for Colorado Shakespeare Festival
    • Facilitator for Pain Management, a devised piece for Local Theater Company
    • Performed Red Rabbit White Rabbit for Pipedream Productions
    • Directed Under Construction for Naropa University masters students

    Meridith Grundei, a native of Fort Collins, has performed for the DCPA Theatre Company in Frankenstein, and for Off-Center in Sweet & Lucky and SWEAT. Other Theatre credits: The Misanthrope (American Conservatory Theatre), God's Ear, Messenger #1, Failure...A Love Story, Mr. Spacky, Mr. Burns, The Three Faces of Dr. Crippen, Spirits to Enforce (The Catamounts), Faith (Local Theater Company) and House of Yes (square product). Recipient of the 2011 Camera Eye Award and nominated as Best Actress in a Comedy by the 2012 Culture West True West Awards. She is married to frequent DCPA Theatre composer Gary Grundei.

    Meridith Grundei and Gary Grundei as Jack and Coke. Photo by John Moore.Gary Grundei: 2017

    • Composed music for workshop production of The Wild Hunt, by Bill Pullman, for Visionbox Studios
    • Composer of The Christans for DCPA Theatre Company
    • Music Director, Band Leader and performer (Rothgar) in Beowulf for The Catamounts
    • Co-host, Bar Choir (ongoing)
    • Music Director of Under Construction for Naropa University masters students
    • Composed music for Stories on Stage's Making Merry holiday program

    Gary Grundei, who is from Ohio, is a composer, pianist and teacher whose music has been heard at the Kennedy Center, DCPA Theatre Company, New York Stage and Film, Boulder Theater, Ogden Theatre, Boulder’s Chautauqua Community House, Vintage Theatre, Occidental College, and The Ohio State University. He also writes for and plays with the band High Fiction, and directs Golden Lotus studio in Lafayette.

    (Photo above and right: Meridith C. Grundei and Gary Grundei performing as as Jack and Coke. Photo by John Moore.)

    About The True West Awards: '30 Days, 30 Bouquets'

    The True West Awards, now in their 17th year, began as the Denver Post Ovation Awards in 2001. DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore — along with additional voices from around the state — celebrate the entire local theatre community by recognizing 30 achievements from 2017 over 30 days, without categories or nominations. Moore's daily coverage of the DCPA and the Colorado theatre community can be found at MyDenverCenter.Org

    A look back at the history of the True West Awards

    The 2017 True West Awards

  • 2017 True West Award: Logan Ernstthal

    by John Moore | Dec 21, 2017

    LOGAN ERNSTTHAL 2017 True West Award 2


    Day 21: Logan Ernstthal

    Creede Repertory Theatre
    Miners Alley Playhouse
    Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College
    Colorado Springs TheatreWorks

    By John Moore
    Senior Arts Journalist

    Logan Ernstthal is a big, burly, bearded mountain man of an actor with a glare as intimidating as the spelling of his last name. He is known for being versatile, ever-prepared and always collaborative. But also serious. … Super serious.

    Yeah, that’s what John Hauser thought, too, when the two began rehearsals for Miners Alley Playhouse’s A Skull in Connemara. Hauser quickly realized the big guy is really just a big kid at heart.

    “The first time Logan got a hammer in his hand and started pounding on some skulls, he was like a 5-year-old, he was having so much fun,” Hauser said.

    A Creede Repertory Theatre2017 was a remarkable year for Ernstthal for the dual opportunity to star in both Martin McDonagh’s dark-to-blood-red comedy A Skull in Connemara in Golden, followed by the world premiere of Colorado playwright Brian WatkinsGeneral Store to finish up his 10th summer season with the Creede Repertory Theatre. He rounded out his full year nicely with roles in the antique comedy Arsenic and Old Lace, the period romantic musical She Loves Me, the Chekhov adaptation Wild Honey and the boutique play Enchanted April.

    That eclectic slate tells General Store Director Christy Montour-Larson Ernstthal is an everyman kind of an artist with many colors on his palette. “He can be very funny, he can be very scary, he can be charming and he can break your heart,” she said. "He reminds me of James Gandolfini in that way.”

    (Photo above and right: Logan Ernstthal and Stuart Ryder in Creede Repertory Theatre's  'General Store.' Photo by John Gary Brown.)

    A Skull in Connemara and General Store offered big, meaty and physically demanding roles in two wildly different mysteries that actually had more in common than meets the eye. Ernstthal played Mike in one, Mick in the other. One had flying skulls and bloody hatchets; the other had axes, bear traps and a huge mysterious metaphor that was making all kinds of racket under the floorboards of Mike’s faltering general store on the Eastern plains of Colorado.

    In Skull, directed by Billie McBride, Ernstthal played an Irish gravedigger who comes under suspicion over his possible involvement in his wife’s sudden death seven years before. Westword’s Juliet Wittman said Ernstthal’s Mick “is convincing from his earliest moments — a quiet and apparently reasonable man with something threatening and unspoken at his core.”

    (Story continues below the photo.)

    John Hauser and Logan Ernstthal. A Skull in Connemara. Miners Alley Playhouse. Photo  by Sarah Roshan.
    (Above: John Hauser and Logan Ernstthal in 'A Skull in Connemara' for Miners Alley Playhouse. Photo by Sarah Roshan.)

    In General Store, whatever is lurking under Mike's floorboards is getting louder — and hungrier. Mike is a decent, hardworking friend and father trying to stave off the ravenous creature below. And if that makes Mike the American Dream in Watkins’ metaphor (and it does), you can infer what the insatiably, greedy creature below might represent.

    “Brian has written a play that’s about the fear of uncertainty,” Montour-Larson said. “It doesn’t matter how much work the little guy puts in day in and day out — in this world, he going to get screwed over by the system.”

    Ernstthal calls General Store “a beautiful beast of a play. It’s as if Sam Shepard and the Coen Brothers and Stephen King had a love child.” (I'll add: Raised by the kids from Stranger Things.)

    More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

    By the time the play ended each night, Montour-Larson said, “Logan was physically and mentally exhausted. He hoists, he pulls, he grapples, he goes down into the pit. He even gets squirted in the face with bile.”

    That's an underrated skill for an actor, Montour-Larson said: The ability to perform seamlessly with the demands of a show as technically challenging as General Store. Ernstthal had to be in perfect sync with everything from sound and light cues to a snapping bear trap, or the staging would lose all believability.

    "As the play becomes more parabolic each minute it goes on, so do the technical and acting challenges," Montour-Larson said. 

    Oh, and did we mention? The guy can dance. “In fact, I think it’s his ability as a dancer that makes him capable of so much physical exertion in our play,” Montour-Larson said.

    That’s just one reason Ernstthal is so widely thought of “an actor’s actor,” said playwright Jeff Carey, a graduate of the Denver Center’s National Theatre Conservatory masters program.

    “He can play anything," said Carey. "What makes him so specific is that he immerses himself in every role. More than that — he actually becomes the role.”

    Montour-Larson, who directed the world premiere of the DCPA Theatre Company’s Two Degrees in January, has worked with pretty much all of the top actors in the Colorado theatre community. “And I found Logan to be one of the most talented actors I’ve ever worked with,” she 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.

    Video bonus: Logan Ernstthal talks about General Store:

    Featured actor in the video above: Logan Ernstthal

    Logan Ernstthal: 2017

    • Mick Dowd in A Skull in Connemara for Miners Alley Playhouse
    • Frederick in Enchanted April at Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College
    • Teddy Brewster in Arsenic and Old Lace for Creede Repertory Theatre
    • Zoltan Maraczek in She Loves Me for Creede Repertory Theatre
    • Mike in General Store for Creede Repertory Theatre
    • Porfiry Seyonovich Glagolyev in Wild Honey at Colorado Springs TheatreWorks

    Logan Ernstthal is from Darien, Conn, and studied theatre at Ithaca College in New York and the University of Missouri at Kansas City. He also has performed in Colorado forColorado Springs TheatreWorks, Colorado Shakespeare Festival (Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night; Lord Stanley in Richard III and Long John Silver in Treasure Island. He also was an understudy for three roles in the DCPA Theatre Company's The Three Musketeers.  

    About The True West Awards: '30 Days, 30 Bouquets'
    The True West Awards, now in their 17th year, began as the Denver Post Ovation Awards in 2001. DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore — along with additional voices from around the state — celebrate the entire local theatre community by recognizing 30 achievements from 2017 over 30 days, without categories or nominations. Moore's daily coverage of the DCPA and the Colorado theatre community can be found at MyDenverCenter.Org

    A look back at the history of the True West Awards

    The 2017 True West Awards

  • 2017 True West Award: Kevin Landis

    by John Moore | Dec 20, 2017
    2017 True West Awards Kevin Landis


    Day 20: Kevin Landis

    University of Colorado Colorado Springs
    Curator: Prologue series

    By John Moore
    Senior Arts Journalist

    If you’ve studied theatre at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs over the past eight years, it’s likely you’ve had Allison Janney drop by class. Or Oskar Eustis. Or Olympia Dukakis. Or Sarah Ruhl. Or Tina Packer. Or Charles Busch. Or Brian Dennehy. This list goes on and on.

    In Colorado Springs!

    James Lipton has nothing on UCCS associate professor Kevin Landis, whose full title literally has 24 words in it. Distilled: Landis runs the Theatre and Dance program at UCCS, and he curates Prologue, one of the most remarkable ongoing success stories in all of theatre academia.

    Quote Kevin LandisThe free series consists of theatre talks, performances and hands-on workshops featuring some of the most important theatre-makers working in the United States today. This isn’t just Inside the Actors Studio. It’s Inside the Actors, Directors, Playwrights and Designers Studio.

    “I want to put students in the room with the greatest artists and art thinkers in the country,” said Landis. “Not because meeting famous people is fun — though it sometimes is. But because this is where they can learn and expand their artistic potential.”

    Seriously, do these students know how lucky they are?

    Landis says the more appropriate question is this: “Do we know how lucky we are? We, as a community, to have these students? These tireless creators of art, sometimes holding down two jobs and rehearsing into the night. I hope we realize we how lucky we are to have them. Students are first for me. Without the students, Prologue doesn’t happen.  

    But, by the way, the answer to both questions is yes.  

    First case in point: UCCS senior Brittany Merritt, who enjoys getting to hear from famous people, but she says what’s better as a student is the opportunity to work one-on-one with the visiting artists during master classes. Especially the ones you’ve never even heard of —  “amazing professionals who work in the trenches and make the true magic of the American theatre,” as Landis describes them.  

    Our 2010 advance interview with Oskar Eustis

    Merritt cited a visit by Arthur Strimling, founder of Roots and Branches Theatre in New York and an expert on issues of ageism in the American theatre. “After that workshop, I was able to view intergenerational theatre in a new light,” Merritt said.

    A True West Award Kevin Landis Allison Janney(Photo at right: Landis at a Prologue event with Allison Janney, currently starring in the film 'I, Tonya.')

    Second case in point: Actor Sammie Joe Kinnett, himself a newly minted 2017 True West Award winner, was a student at UCCS in 2016 when the Prologue guest was actor John Douglas Thompson, who at the time was starring as Louis Armstrong in Satchmo at the Waldorf  for TheatreWorks. That’s a professional regional theatre company that started out as an outreach program for the college, and still remains located on the campus working in a strong partnership with UCCS. Prologue guests and themes often coincide with the plays TheatreWorks is staging.

    “As a student, I got to take an audition master class with John Douglas Thompson," Kinnett said. “We each performed our pieces for him, and he gave notes and worked them with us.”

    (Story continues below the video.)

    Video bonus: Our coverage of Oskar Eustis at Prologue:

    Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public Theatre in New York, spoke at 'Prologue' in 2010 about the making of 'Angels in America,' the state of theatre criticism, his goal of making all theater free, and the crisis of black leadership in the American theater. Video by John Moore.  

    Coming up in 2018, Landis will bring back Eustis for a third time, along with Fun Home composer Jeanine Tesori just as her Tony-winning musical is about to have its first three homegrown Colorado stagings (Feb. 18). Then, actor Brian Quijada, who performed in Victory Jones and the Incredible One-Woman Band at the Denver Center’s 2014 Colorado New Play Summit, will talk about race and class in the American Theatre (Feb. 25). He will be followed later in the spring by esteemed actor Sam Waterston.

    How does Landis get all these people to come to Colorado Springs? He must either be the most well-connected man in theatre — or he knows where the bodies are buried.

    It’s pretty much the former.

    Landis hails from Sacramento and holds five academic degrees, so we’ll just skip ahead to the Ph.D. in Drama from Tufts University in Medford, Mass. Landis is nothing if not a renaissance man, having studied everything from contemporary avant-garde theatre to Native American melodrama to Nordic art to American drag to “performance analyses of evangelical church services.”

    More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

    But he knows pretty much everyone who is anyone in the American theatre from working with Eustis at the Public Theatre in New York, where Landis continues to hold the title of “Scholar in Residence,” and uses his influence to get Colorado students internships there. The Public nurtures a huge catalog of emerging new work, with recent titles ranging from Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson to Fun Home. So when Landis asks you to come for a visit to Colorado Springs, you generally say yes. “And even when he doesn’t know someone, he just pretty much calls them up on the phone and asks them,” said Drew Martorella, Executive Director of UCCS Presents. “And you’d be amazed by how many of them say yes.”

    Landis says Eustis once told him something that he internalized as the following: “I realized early that theatre is a small-enough world that I could probably figure out how to get in a room with almost anyone,” Landis said. “Once I was there, I knew I could hold my own. But getting in the room is still the hardest part.

    A True West Award Kevin Landis Women in Technical Theatre"I took this to heart, and when I came to UCCS, I wanted to give our students what I had been privileged to have during my education: Access. I was taught by Oskar Eustis, Tina Packer, Paula Vogel and was classmates with Sarah Ruhl. These are amazing people who live to connect artists and promote art. 

    “But connecting the community — students, TheatreWorks patrons and just curious people who happen to come in to our free talks — to great artists is also important. I noticed when I came to Colorado Springs a vibrant arts community that somehow felt ignored on the national level. I bring people here as much to show them our community as to highlight the artists. The regional and national dialogue is so important in a country as sprawling as ours.”

    (Pictured at right: The 'Women in Technical Theatre' prologue, from left: Ruth Sternberg (Head of Design at the Public Theatre), Kevin Landis, Kristen Robinson, Jennifer Reiser and Lauren Duggin.)

    Brittany Merritt realizes that without Landis on campus, “I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to not only meet and work with these artists,” she said, “but I’ve also been able to see that the options are endless in what I choose to do. Never have I had a professor who truly cared like Kevin has.”

    So that’s it. I’m changing the question:

    Does UCCS know how lucky it is to have Landis?

    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.

    Kevin Landis: At a glance

    • Ph.D. in Drama, Tufts University, Medford, Mass.
    • Dissertation: Republic of Dreams: Stacy Klein and the Double Edge Theatre, 2009
    • M.F.A. in Acting, Brandeis University, Waltham, Mass., 2005
    • M.A. in Theatre Theory, Brown University, Providence, R.I., 2001
    • B.A. Colby College, Waterville, Maine, 1998

    Kevin Landis is an associate professor and director of the Theatre and Dance Program in the Department of Visual and Performing Arts at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. He has co-authored the book Cultural Performance: Ethnographic Perspectives on Performance Studies with Suzanne MacAuley. He is currently writing a manuscript about the contemporary history of the Public Theater in New York. Landis is an MFA-trained actor and member of the Actor's Equity Association. He specializes in physical theatre training derived from his work with Grotowski's lead actress, Rena Mirecka.  

    About The True West Awards: '30 Days, 30 Bouquets'

    The True West Awards, now in their 17th year, began as the Denver Post Ovation Awards in 2001. DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore — along with additional voices from around the state — celebrate the entire local theatre community by recognizing 30 achievements from 2017 over 30 days, without categories or nominations. Moore's daily coverage of the DCPA and the Colorado theatre community can be found at MyDenverCenter.Org

    A look back at the history of the True West Awards

    The 2017 True West Awards

    Prologue guests: 2010-17

    • Rebecca LaRoche: Merry Wives in the Garden
    • Murray Ross: Nicola Tesla
    • Jim Burkhardt: Electrical Magic Show
    • Oskar Eustis: The State of American Professional Theater
    • The Double Edge Theatre: Laboratory Theater in America
    • Hal Cannon: Cowboy Poetry
    • Dr. Teresa Meadows and Melody Fisher:  French Farce and Flight Attendants
    • Dr. Laurence Senelick: Gogol, Chekhov and Revolutionary Theater
    • Dr. Kevin Landis: Chekhov and Psychological Gesture
    • Judaism on Stage: Members of the Colorado Springs Jewish community
    • Robert Von Dassanowsky: On Hitchcock
    • Young Jean Lee: On the Writing of Church
    • Tina Packer: Women of Will
    • Richard Schechner: The New Avant-Garde
    • Eric Hill: Suzuki Training in America
    • Tennessee Williams Roundtable
    • Sarah Ruhl: American playwrights
    • Vince Russo and Ed Ferrara: On Wrestling
    • Robert Rais: On Improv and What’s Funny
    • Leeny Sack: Devising Theatre
    • Elissa Authur and Modern Art Roundtable: The Making of Red
    • Ann Dobyns: The Text of Everyman
    • A True West Award Kevin Landis Michael FriedmanMichael Friedman and Oskar Eustis: Making Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (pictured at right in 2013; photo by John Moore)
    • Murray Ross and Kevin Landis: Ibsen and the Wild Duck
    • John Douglas Thompson: Acting Shakespeare
    • Anthony Davis: Seven Guitars and American Blues
    • Murray Ross: Talking Salesman
    • Brian MacDevitt: Tony Award Winning Lighting Design
    • Booze Roundtable and Tasting
    • Landis and VonDassanowsky- Facets of German Expressionism
    • Mistress Djuna: Being a Dominatrix
    • Dody DiSanto: Clowning and Servant of Two Masters
    • Leah Chandler-Mills: On Auditioning
    • Thomas Andrews: On Ludlow, 1914, a collaboration between TheatreWorks and The LIDA Project
    • Charles Busch: Psycho Beach Party and American Drag
    • Brian Dennehy: Acting in Film and for Stage
    • Clancy Martin: On Lying
    • Lisa D’Amour: American Playwriting and Detroit
    • Suzanne MacAulay: History and Psychology of Folktales
    • Landis and Ross: Absurd Theatre
    • Bil Lepp: Telling Tall Tales
    • Ben Brantley, Matt Wolff and Lisa Kennedy: The Great Critics
    • Tina Packer and Jon Jory: Great American Writing and Acting
    • John Lahr: The Works of Nöel Coward
    • Dr. Kevin Landis: Ibsen and the Scourge
    • Olympia Dukakis
    • Governor John Hickenlooper
    • John Douglas Thompson: Making Satchmo
    • Jim Jackson and Birgitta DePree: On Clowning and Dario Fo
    • Martile Rowland and Murray Ross: Cowgirls and Opera
    • Jeffrey Horowitz: Shakespeare in America
    • Honey and String Theory
    • Carey Perloff, Polly Carl, Tina Packer and Teresa Meadows: Prologue Town Hall
    • Allison Janney
    • Matt Wilson: The World of Commedia dell'Arte
    • Sally Hybl and Dr. Kevin Landis: Christmas Culinary Delights
    • Dr. Tom Connolly: Becoming the Hairy Ape
    • Idris Goodwin, Rhiana Yazzi and Aaron Carter: Prologue Town Hall, Race and the American Theater
    • Jay Duckworth: Propmaster to Broadway and the Public Theater
    • Karenleigh Overmann: The Novel to the Stage
    • Jay O. Sanders and Maryann Plunkett: Acting in the Park
    • Arthur Strimling: Heisenberg Generations
    • Ruth Sternberg: Women in Technical Theatre
    • Max Shulman: Chekhov and Dramaturgy
    • Christy Metz: Holiday Displays

    Upcoming in 2018:

    • Oskar Eustis and Jeanine Tesori: Fun Home (Feb. 18)
    • Brian Quijada: Race and class in the American Theatre (Feb. 25)
    • Sam Waterston (TBA)
  • 2017 True West Award: Lenne Klingaman

    by John Moore | Dec 19, 2017

    2017 True West Awards Lenne Klingaman Hamlet


    Day 19: Lenne Klingaman

    Colorado Shakespeare Festival
    National touring production of Waitress

    By John Moore
    Senior Arts Journalist

    For Colorado Shakespeare Festival Director Carolyn Howarth, the question wasn’t, “Why a female Hamlet?”

    It was, “Why not a female Hamlet?”

    Howarth says she wasn’t trying to be radical when she cast Lenne Klingaman to play one of the greatest roles ever written — for a man. She was just bored with the same old, same old. “I had seen dozens of productions of Hamlet, and I just couldn’t get excited about it,” she said.

    But then she got in touch with Hamlet’s female side.

    Carolyn Howarth Quote “Pages and pages have been written about the femininity of Hamlet,” she said. “It’s all there in the text. So when you read it again with a woman in mind, suddenly all of these sexist lines that are so often stereotypically played by a man bounce out with all new meaning."

    Lines like: “Frailty, thy name is woman.” And, of course: “Get thee to a nunnery.”

    “There has never been an equivalent character to Hamlet for female actors," Howarth said. “It’s very uncommon for a woman to get to play a character with that kind of brain power, range, verbal dexterity and wit. So I thought, well why not let a woman take on the great questions of this play from a female perspective?”

    Howarth admits the journey started out as “a clever little experiment that maybe was going to fail badly" — until she saw Klingaman audition for the role. “She was luminous,” Howarth said. “Spectacular. I knew right then she had to do it.”

    Klingaman, who made for a lovely Juliet for the DCPA Theatre Company in 2013, was gobsmacked by the offer. She then plunged herself into the world — and the words — of the play like a swordsman. A female swordsman.

    “It was extremely empowering to work with Carolyn Howarth on a female Hamlet because it opened up this whole range of possibility of what acting can be, and of what women can do on the stage,” said Klingaman, a Minneapolis native who returns to her second artistic home of Colorado tonight in the first national touring production of the Broadway musical Waitress. “There was something so freeing about playing a role written for a man.”

    Klingaman’s Hamlet was filled with passion and clarity. As for her big “To Be or Not to Be” monologue? That was not even a question for Klingaman. “I don’t think the speech is about killing oneself,” she said. “It’s about action. It’s about what it means to truly live, which goes hand-in-hand with dying — the ultimate consequence of living.”

    (Story continues below the photo.)

    True West Awards Hamlet Lenne Klingaman Emilie O'Hara Phot by Jennifer M. Koskinen for the Colorado Shakespeare Festival
    Lenne Klingaman with Emilie O'Hara as Ophelia in the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's'Hamlet.' Photo by Jennifer M. Koskinen.

    Klingaman played Hamlet like an actor who loves her character with her whole heart. She embraced all the flaws, the joy, the wit, the desire, the intellect, the heart, the love — all of it. “Love drives this human,” she said. “Love for her father; for her family that’s been broken apart; for her mother, as conflicted as that is; for her friends. And so, when they wrong her, the pit of despair and pain runs so deep that not much can stop her.”

    Howarth says Klingaman surprised her — and herself — along her Hamlet way. “She plumbed the depths of that character in ways I never imagined,” Howarth said. “In fact, now I sort of have a hard time imagining the role as a man again.”

    It actually isn’t all that radical for a woman to play the master of melancholy as the mistress of moody. Colorado Shakespeare Festival Dramaturg (and DCPA Theatre Services Manager) Hadley Kamminga-Peck says more than 200 women have played the role, dating back to 1741 Dublin. But it has been rare for a female actor to play the prince as a princess. What added to the curiosity — and the controversy — of Howarth’s staging in Boulder was her decision to make Laertes and Fortinbras women as well, while pointedly leaving fair Ophelia as a woman.

    That made the forbidden love-hate relationship that drives the waif to suicide a lesbian relationship here. And that seismically shifted the world where this play existed into a strange and never-before seen kingdom. That and moving many crucial scenes into the snowy Nordic forest turned Howarth’s tragedy into a kind of Midwinter Night’s Dream.

    “Our understanding of gender today is so different from Shakespeare’s time," Klingaman said. "Some of our ideas of what might be feminine today are now more in line with might have been considered masculine in Shakespeare’s time. I wanted to open up a more fluid conception of masculinity and femininity. It's not just a question of one or the other."

    Our full interview with Lenne Klingaman on playing Hamlet

    The result was record-breaking attendance for an indoor Colorado Shakespeare Festival production. A.H. Goldstein, reviewing for Boulder’s Daily Camera, came to the conclusion that madness knows no boundaries of gender. The experiment succeeded, he wrote, because of Klingaman. “All of Hamlet's finest gut-wrenching and soul-searching moments find ample gravity in Klingaman's performance,” he wrote. “What's more, her soliloquies and queries offer Shakespeare's poetry in a new light.”

    Colorado Shakes Producing Artistic Director Timothy Orr found Klingaman’s performance to be incredibly powerful. “She was so alive in the moment and experienced every thought and action with fresh vision,” he said. “It was a pleasure, and astonishing, to watch each night.”

    But not everyone was pleased by the experiment. Some longtime subscribers refused to even attend the play. “Some of them thought what we were doing was just wrong,” Howarth said. Westword’s Juliet Wittman came out with an uncommon advance essay that declared: “It sounds beyond wrong" — before the production even opened.

    Cleary, Howarth was onto something. Shakespeare so rarely riles anyone up. The Boulder staging even caught the attention of The New York Times.

    More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

    “Listen, we need roles with greater range for women,” Howarth said. “And I hope our production encourages other theatres to cast women in traditionally male roles that both allow you to reimagine the play and promote more equality for women in the theatre. I’m also hoping there can be a sea change in the way we view classical theatre. Because if you are going to do the same plays the same way every time, then why even do them at all?

    True West Awards Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Lenne Klingaman Michael Bouchard Sean Scrutchins Photo by Jennifer M. Koskinen for the Colorado Shakespeare FestivalDoubling Klingaman’s summer fun was the Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s clever decision to stage Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead in repertory with Hamlet. That play takes place in the real-time world of Hamlet, but shifts the focus of the inaction to Hamlet’s presumed two best friends — the two tramps who also inspired Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. All the actors in Hamlet, including Klingaman, played their same roles in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern on the same stage and set as Hamlet.

    (Pictured above: Sean Scrutchins, Lenne Klingaman and Michael Bouchard in 'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.' Photo by Jennifer M. Koskinen.)

    It was around the time Hamlet opened that Klingaman was offered the role of Dawn in the first national touring production of Waitress, which opens tonight (Tuesday, Dec. 19) and runs through Dec. 31) at Denver’s Buell Theatre. Dawn is a woman Klingaman describes as a bit of a turtle who comes out of her shell through the bond of sisterhood with her fellow waitresses. And the story of how Klingaman got that job is straight out of Hollywood fiction. (Click here to read all about it.)

    The national tour opened just two months ago in Cleveland, where Klingaman was singled out for her “adorable nerdiness” by the critic from the Plain Dealer — which after her summer of intense brooding in Boulder, is proof-positive of the actor’s versatility.

    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.

    Waitress. Charity Angel Dawson, Desi Oakley and Lenne Klingaman. Waitress. Photy by Joan Marcus

    From left: Charity Angel Dawson, Desi Oakley and Lenne Klingaman in the national touring production of 'Waitress,' opening tonight in Denver. Photo by Joan Marcus.

    Lenne Klingaman at a glance: 

    • Hometown: Minneapolis
    • Home now: Brooklyn
    • College: BA from the University of California at Santa Cruz; MFA from the University of Washington
    • For the Denver Center: Theatre Company: Appoggiatura and Romeo and Juliet
    • For Colorado Shakespeare Festival: Record-breaking run as Hamlet; also Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Measure for Measure and The Fantasticks
    • Other regional highlights: Fingersmith (A.R.T.), Berkeley Rep, Shakespeare Theatre, South Coast, St. Louis Rep, The Jungle, Intiman.
    • TV: “Chicago Med,” “Cold Case,” “Welcome to Sanditon”
    • Album: “The Heart is the Hunter,” available on iTunes and elsewhere

    About The True West Awards: '30 Days, 30 Bouquets'

    The True West Awards, now in their 17th year, began as the Denver Post Ovation Awards in 2001. DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore — along with additional voices from around the state — celebrate the entire local theatre community by recognizing 30 achievements from 2017 over 30 days, without categories or nominations. Moore's daily coverage of the DCPA and the Colorado theatre community can be found at MyDenverCenter.Org

    A look back at the history of the True West Awards

    The 2017 True West Awards

    Video bonus: Lenne Klingaman's Waitress shout-out to Denver audiences:

    Lenne Klingaman talks about returning to Colorado in Waitress, through Dec. 31. 

    waitressWaitress in Denver: Ticket information
    Inspired by Adrienne Shelly’s beloved film, Waitress tells the story of Jenna — a waitress and expert pie-maker who dreams of a way out of her small town and loveless marriage. A baking contest in a nearby county and the town’s new doctor may offer her a chance at a fresh start, while her fellow waitresses offer their own recipes for happiness. But Jenna must summon the strength and courage to rebuild her own life. This is an uplifting musical celebrating friendship, motherhood, and the magic of a well-made pie.

    • National touring production
    • Performances Dec. 19-31
    • 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


  • 2017 True West Award: Helen Hand

    by John Moore | Dec 18, 2017
    2017 True West Award Helen Hand Firehouse


    Day 18: Helen Hand

    Firehouse Theater Company

    By John Moore
    Senior Arts Journalist

    A funny thing happened while Helen Hand was preserving her murdered brother’s legacy. She fell in love with his theatre. And with theatre itself.

    Since 2004, the Firehouse Theater Company’s Board President, de facto Artistic Director and yet still modestly self-described “non-theatre person” has produced 41 plays and created performance opportunities for more than 300 actors of all experience levels in the boutique theatre that now bears his name.

    If only her brother had lived to see this.

    Helen Hand Firehouse John HandJohn Hand, the founder of both Colorado Free University and Firehouse Theater Company on the historic Lowry Air Force Base, was robbed and brutally stabbed to death in March 2004 by a 19-year-old drug felon who was later declared unfit to stand trial for his murder. After his death, Helen made it her mission to keep both his school and community theatre alive even though, as a clinical psychologist, she knew nothing at the time about running a theatre company.

    Or maybe more she knew more than she thought. Because under Helen Hand's leadership, Firehouse has outlived hundreds other Colorado theatre companies that have come and gone over the past 13 years.

    The Firehouse story starts with John Hand, a free spirit who had run an antique shop, owned a deli, bought and sold real estate, and started Colorado Free University by the time he bought the Lowry firehouse as a satellite for his school in 1999. He was 52 when he had the epiphany to start a theatre company for beginners. He had acted in a random musical once, so ... why not? John Hand was preparing to open his first play, Arthur Miller’s The Ride Down Mt. Morgan, when he was murdered.

    In a twist at once both cruel and divine, it was Stacey Nelms, a Denver actor who would later perform and direct at Firehouse, who witnessed Amber Torrez stab an immigrant taxi driver from Ethiopia 39 times the very next night. She called police, who later determined Torrez had also murdered John Hand 24 hours before.

    To honor John, Helen cut back on her private practice and took over the school and theatre to keep them both going. And she's still doing both.

    A Helen Hand 300 Ride Down Mount Morgan“Helen really went outside her comfort zone,” said Firehouse Treasurer Kris Paddock. She formed an emergency board of directors and solicited outside contributions just to keep the company afloat. Six months after John Hand's death, The Ride Down Mt. Morgan (picture at right) finally opened — and the Firehouse Theater Company was officially launched. 

    “I think once Helen started hanging around with theatre people, she warmed up to the process and the people around her,” said Firehouse actor and board member Clint Heyn. "And now she is a theatre geek like the rest of us."

    She’s seen The Miracle Worker three times, he said of the company’s current offering. “She says it makes her feel all fuzzy inside.”

    Helen Hand Next Fall FirehouseHelen says running the Colorado Free University and the Firehouse Theater has been a way of staying connected to her brother in a positive, affirming way. “And it’s great fun to be able to give other people the opportunity to things in theater that he loved to do,” she said.

    But it has never been easy. She’s had to contend with ever-revolving board members and periods of audience deficits and revenue shortfalls. To keep the operation afloat, Helen started renting out the John Hand Theater to homeless theater groups such as Spotlight, Illumination, Silhouette and more — all of which found a place to play in the theatre John Hand imagined.

    In 2007, Lowry's Spotlight Theater became a permanent tenant, with both Firehouse and Spotlight producing up to five plays per year there. “Spotlight Artistic Director Bernie Cardell is fond of saying Spotlight does the comfort food that makes you laugh and goes down easy,” Paddock said, “while Firehouse explores the human heart.” That creative philosophy, she added, comes from Helen.

    A Helen Hand Arcadia Jamie Ann Romero Jona WaldmanFirehouse provides an opportunity for all to get involved with the theater from the novice to the experienced, Paddock said. Jamie Ann Romero, whose national standing was recently bolstered by two high-profile seasons with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, is one of a long list of accomplished actors who have performed for Firehouse (in Arcadia, pictured right with Jono Waldman). Others have included Emma Messenger (The Lion in Winter), James O’Hagan-Murphy (Murderer), Emily Paton Davies (Some Girls)  and Daniel Langhoff, who died of cancer in November less than a year after appearing in Firehouse’s The Crucible. But John Hand would be just as proud of all the names you've never heard of, Heyn said.

    (Note: Tonight, Monday, Dec. 18, Firehouse is presenting a special performance of ‘The Miracle Worker,’ directed by Peter Hughes, with all proceeds going to Langhoff’s wife for the care of their two infant daughters. Starts at 7:30 p.m. at the John Hand Theatre, 7653 E. 1st Place. Tickets: 303-562-3232 or firehousetheatercompany.com).

    John Moore's fuller report on the 2004 death of John Hand

    Heyn, who has been involved with Firehouse since 2004, thinks John Hand would be “extremely proud” to see the evolution of his company from a safe and welcoming place for novice actors into its present place as a respected member of the larger Colorado theatre community under his sister’s care.

    “John had a program at his school called ‘Hands On’ that would specifically give people a chance to do something they had never done before,” Heyn said. “So if you have never directed before, you would get a chance to direct. If you have acted in a supporting role, but never in a lead role, he would very intentionally give you a lead role. John wanted people to get better."

    Helen also believes in giving people a chance — and that comes straight from her brother’s legacy.

    Dell Domnik and Susie Leiser in Red HerringPaddock says the Firehouse Theater Company that just entered its teen years remains John's vision — “but Helen is the one who has kept that vision alive. She juggles so many balls in the air, from guiding the board to selecting scripts to raising funds to attending rehearsals.”

    She even has been spotted up on the roof checking for leaks. Hand has essentially been “on call” for whatever the theatre needs for 13 years now. All while also running Colorado Free University.

    (Pictured at right: Dell Domnik and Sue Leiser in Firehouse's 'Red Herring.')

    “Helen is still very much the driving force behind all Firehouse operations,” Heyn said. She recently succeeded in making the company eligible for SCFD funding (a sure sign of credibility) and she has secured several grants from the Lowry Foundation. As a result, the company is turning a profit for the first time. Hand has directed those first-time profits directly back into theater operations in the form of building improvements, higher stipends for the cast and crew, and expansion of the company’s outreach and education programs.

    Running any small theatre company always comes down to how you treat your people, and John Hand fundamentally believed in community over hierarchy, Paddock said. It's written into the company's mission statement: "Firehouse will be an open community of artists from all walks of life, creating quality productions for the community to enjoy, but never at the expense of being all-inclusive."

    More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

    And here is a perfect example of John Hand's mantra in practice under his sister's leadership: In 2015, Helen Hand went forward with a scheduled production of the demanding one-man play I Am My Own Wife just a few months after actor Greg Alan West had major surgery in preparation for upcoming heart and kidney transplants. “That meant that I had to perform the show with a bag full of large batteries and a controller under my costume,” West said. “I could barely walk a block without having to rest. There was always the possibility of a transplant happening at any time, but they stuck with me.”

    Helen Hand With Firehouse Board For Helen Hand, there was never any question West would play the role as long as he was physically up for it. Paddock says that tells you a lot about both Hand and West.

    “Helen does everything with humor, care and concern for all,” Paddock said. “She works very hard to ensure that everyone from the novice to the experienced feels supported and part of a family.”

    But she doesn’t do it alone. As Board President, Hand feels she has finally hit the sweet spot with a group (pictured right) made up of Paddock, Heyn, Kevin Rollins, Jeff Jesmer, Dell Domnik, Lorraine Scott, Julie Kaye Wolf, Deborah Montgomery and Mooey Hammond. And she owes much to the continuing presence of John Hand himself.

    “I miss him,” said Helen, “but he walks around with me all the time.”

    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.

    Firehouse Theatre 2017: 

    • A Suzanne Connors Nepi Firehouse 610Becky's New Car
    • Crimes of the Heart
    • Rock of Aging
    • The Mystery of Love and Sex (pictured at right)
    • The Miracle Worker (playing through Dec. 23)

    Firehouse Theatre 2018 (so far):

    • Feb. 17-March 17: Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde 
    • May 12-June 9: Superior Donuts

    A Helen Hand John Hand Theater. Photo by John Moore
    Photo by John Moore.

    About The True West Awards: '30 Days, 30 Bouquets'

    The True West Awards, now in their 17th year, began as the Denver Post Ovation Awards in 2001. DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore — along with additional voices from around the state — celebrate the entire local theatre community by recognizing 30 achievements from 2017 over 30 days, without categories or nominations. 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. His daily coverage of the DCPA and the Colorado theatre community can be found at MyDenverCenter.Org

    A look back at the history of the True West Awards

    The 2017 True West Awards

  • 2017 True West Award: Randy Chalmers

    by John Moore | Dec 17, 2017
    2017 True West Awards Randy Chalmers

    Main photo above: Randy Chalmers performed at 'Miscast 2017,' a benefit for The  Denver Actors Fund, in a number with 'In the Heights' castmate Jose David Reynoza that was spun as a comic competition between two male actors for the lead in 'Funny Girl.'


    Day 17: Randy Chalmers

    Breckenridge Backstage Theatre
    Town Hall Arts Center
    Inspire Creative and Parker Arts

    By John Moore
    Senior Arts Journalist

    Randy Chalmers is a young guy to already have a signature role, but the rising actor joined some heady company this year when he played the same character in Hairspray for the third different company and third different director.

    Only a handful of local actors have ever done it in Colorado, and the names are big: Joanie Brosseau (Evita), Billie McBride (Driving Miss Daisy), Margie Lamb as the mad mother in Next to Normal, Sharon Kay White as Adelaide in Guys & Dolls, Carla Kaiser Kotrc as Domina in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Scott Rathbun as William Barfee in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Carolyn Lohr (Kate Monster) and Leslie Randle (Bad Idea Bear) in Avenue Q, and the great comedian Bill Berry as Mr. Sowerberry (Oliver) among them.

    That overachieving Megan Van De Hey has played Patsy Cline four times in Always … Patsy Cline for four different directors. That's not everyone but ... it's a short list. (Side note: The legendary Melissa Swift-Sawyer has played Patsy five times for four directors in four states.)

    And this year, along came young Randy Chalmers.

    400 Randy Chalmers HAIRSPRAY Photo Becky TomaThe Colorado Springs native, whose very first postgraduate performance was a breakout turn as Seaweed J. Stubbs in Hairspray for Performance Now in 2014, joined that rarefied group this year by again playing Seaweed in back-to-back stagings of the sweetly subversive John Waters musical for the Town Hall Arts Center in Littleton and then Inspire Creative in Parker.

    How back-to-back? He was in performances for one when rehearsals began for the other.

    Chalmers’ roster of Hairspray directors goes like this, in order: Kelly Van Oosbree, Nick Sugar and Liane M. Adamo.

    (Photo above right: Randy Chalmers in Town Hall Arts Center's 'Hairspray.' Photo by Becky Toma.)

    One might imagine that playing the same role for a third time could start to become old hat for an actor. Van De Hey says “the difficulty comes in being open to new direction and not just re-creating the exact same performance.” Re-creation, she says, is easy. “Finding new is difficult.”

    But Tanner Kelly, the Music Director for Inspire Creative’s Hairspray collaboration with Parker Arts in July, said Chalmers approached the challenge as a professional in every sense of the word. “Though Randy was still playing Seaweed in another production, he was willing and ready to try our fresh take and adapt to what we wanted for our production,” Kelly said. “Not only did I love what he brought to Seaweed and to our version of Hairspray, I also loved what Randy brought to the table as a human being.”

    Seaweed is the charismatic son of R&B icon Motormouth Maybelle in the story, set in segregated 1962 Baltimore. He’s a charming, silky-smooth dancer but is only allowed to appear on a popular local TV dance show on the designated monthly Negro Day. And in falling in love with an impressionable white teenager, Seaweed turns a woke Penny Pingleton into a gleefully proud Checkerboard Chick. In Chalmers’ case, make that Checkerboard Chicks: Scene partners Chelsea Ringer, Cara Lippitt and Christy Oberndorf.

    (Story continues below the photo)

    Randy Chalmers True West Awards Seaweed
    Above: Randy Chalmers in three productions of 'Hairspray': Photos by Becky Toma (left), Pam Spika (middle) and RDG Photography (right).

    2017 was remarkable Chalmers for more than just Hairspray. The role that perhaps even more clearly signaled the emergence of a mature leading man was his follow-up performance in Town Hall’s In the Heights. Randy Chalmers Rose Van Dyne IN THE HEIGHTS Town Hall Photo By Becky Toma

    That's Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Fiddler on the Roof-inspired love letter to the gentrifying Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. Chalmers played Benny, a taxi-cab dispatcher who falls in love with the Puerto Rican boss’ daughter, Nina.

    “Chalmers smooth, riffy voice is exactly what the role requires,” wrote Broadway World reviewer Chris Arneson. Or, as esteemed Music Director Donna Debreceni puts it: “He’s got a voice like buttah.”

    Says Sugar, who has now directed Chalmers in five productions: “It's great to see Randy embrace his strengths and talents and shine as a performer. He continues to get stronger as a musical-theater actor with each show, and it's exciting to watch that growth come alive on stage.”

    (Pictured at right: Randy Chalmers with Rose Van Dyne in Town Hall Arts Center's 'In the Heights.' Photo By Becky Toma.)

    More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

    Chalmers graduated from General William Mitchell High School in Colorado Springs and attended the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley. His early credits in Denver include major opportunities made possible by the late, audacious Ignite Theatre, including Rent and Dreamgirls.  

    Audiences presently can see Chalmers in a completely different light this holiday season as a Wickersham Brother in Town Hall’s kid-friendly (and nearly completely sold-out) Seussical. He’ll follow that by playing Sebastian for Inspire Creative in the first homegrown production of The Little Mermaid since Disney first introduced the developing musical to the world here on its way to Broadway in 2007. The Inspire Creative production will play at the PACE Center from Jan. 19-Feb. 11.

    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.

    Randy Chalmers 2017: 

    • Destiny Walsh and Randy Chalmers at Miscast 2017. Photo by John Moore.Ensemble in Breckenridge Backstage Theatre's Toxic Avenger The Musical
    • Seaweed J. Stubbs in Hairspray, Town Hall Arts Center
    • Seaweed J. Stubbs in Hairspray, Inspire Creative and Parker Arts
    • Benny in In the Heights, Town Hall Arts Center
    • Wickersham Brother in Seussical, Town Hall Arts Center

    They said it:

    • Donna Debreceni, In the Heights Music Director: "Whether he is a Wick in Seussical; or a pig in Shrek; or Flick in Violet; or Seaweed in Hairspray; or most recently, an amazing Benny in In the Heights, Randy’s instincts and innate musicality are something I can always depend on and — most important — enjoy.”
    • Alisa Metcalf, Performance Now Artistic Director: “He’s very reliable, a hard worker and just a really sweet person … and super-talented to boot.”

    About The True West Awards: '30 Days, 30 Bouquets'
    The True West Awards, now in their 17th year, began as the Denver Post Ovation Awards in 2001. DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore — along with additional voices from around the state — celebrate the entire local theatre community by recognizing 30 achievements from 2017 over 30 days, without categories or nominations. 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. His daily coverage of the DCPA and the Colorado theatre community can be found at MyDenverCenter.Org

    A look back at the history of the True West Awards

    The 2017 True West Awards

    Video bonus: Inspire Creative's Hairspray cast appears at Alamo Drafthouse:

  • 2017 True West Award: Lauren Shealy

    by John Moore | Dec 16, 2017
    Lauren Shealy True West Award Photo by Emily Lozow


    Day 16: Lauren Shealy

    Lone Tree Arts Center
    Aurora Fox
    Denver Center for the Performing Arts

    By John Moore
    Senior Arts Journalist

    The thing Lauren Shealy brought to Evita was teeth.

    The thing she brought to Company was … passive-aggressive karate.

    The thing she brought to First Date was … dead Grandma Ida. Oh, and Google Girl.

    The thing Shealy brings to every role she plays is her depth of feeling as both an actor and as a human being on this planet.

    Lauren Shealy Quote True West AwardShealy is an accomplished, homegrown actress and vocalist who is as adept at playing comedy as she is the most ambitious woman in history. (Broadway history at least!) Her résumé is impeccable, with more than 20 years of knockout performances around the country including a national tour of South Pacific, off-Broadway and multiple productions at the Denver Center and throughout the Denver area. Shealy is a Littleton native who can be the picture of 1940s elegance one minute — and rip her shirt open the next.

    Shealy first came to the Denver Center for its 2011 production of I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change and returned for The Doyle and Debbie Show, Forbidden Broadway, A Christmas Carol, Sweeney Todd and now, the new musical comedy First Date.

    But the role that changed her life is the one that also changed her as a performer: Motherhood. Having a child left her raw, she says, and yet more brave. “My heart underwent profound renovations,” she said. “The current model has no walls, many doors – and seriously leaky faucets. Every day I wrestle with a delightful and terrifying mix of fear, love and humility.”

    It’s no coincidence then that the newly leaking, vulnerable, karate-chopping Shealy just knocked three consecutive and very different roles right out of the park. This year she headlined a high-profile production of Evita at the Lone Tree Arts Center alongside a primarily New York ensemble and not only held her own, she had the trailing masses both onstage and in the audience pawing at her fur. It was a gutsy portrayal of a legendary figure whose disputed legacy remains passionately divided 65 years after her death.

    Opening yourself up so fully can both make an actor better, and leave her utterly vulnerable. It’s done both to Shealy.

    “Encountering my best and worst self also has invited me to look at my stage characters differently,” she said. “I have more empathy for them and less judgment. When I look at Eva Peron, for instance, I don’t see a power-hungry manipulator of men. I see a passionate woman who wants to matter; wants to be loved. I see a fighter who uses street sense, wiles and alliances to gain the mobility she needs to realize her dreams.”

    Our full interview with Evita star Lauren Shealy

    Director Gina Rattan believes the real Eva, at her best, was a woman not all that dissimilar to Shealy. “Eva was giving, purposeful and driven,” Rattan said. “She wanted what was best for her fellow man. She stood behind her word and her deeds.”

    Lauren Shealy True West Aeard Lone Tree EvitaThe downfall of many a portrayal of Evita has been presenting the ruthless First Lady with perhaps too much sympathy. Shealy bared both her fangs and her heart, which is what Rattan said made Shealy “a dream” to work with — the very same word First Date Director Ray Roderick separately chose to describe Shealy.

    “Not only is Lauren effortlessly talented and effervescently positive, she has the discipline of a drill sergeant,” Rattan said. “I admire Lauren’s generosity of spirit, shimmering voice and her ability to bring searing truth to even the smallest moments.” 

    (Pictured: The money kept rolling in for Lauren Shealy and Miles Jacoby in Lone Tree Arts Center's 'Evita.' Below: Shealy and Kyle D. Steffen as Sarah and Harry in the Aurora Fox's 'Company.' Photo by Jeremy Rill — who also played Bobby.)

    Shealy followed Evita with an all-star production of Company at the Aurora Fox. That’s Stephen Sondheim’s melancholy musical rumination on the relative merits of solitude versus coupling. Surrounding bachelor Bobby (played by a terrific Jeremy Rill) are five married couples who unknowingly make strong cases for either life direction.

    Lauren Shealy Kyle Steffen Company Aurora Fox Photo by Jeremy Rill Photography Shealy played Sarah, a wife who is deluding herself with food, opposite a husband (Kyle D. Steffen) who is deluding himself about booze. The two walked a very thin tonal line between playful and pathos when they finally broke into a comically antagonistic display of the marital martial arts.

    Then came her current, long-term commitment to First Date, a musical comedy that explores the common pitfalls and pratfalls of contemporary dating, all in one pair’s first blind date. Shealy’s task is to play all the voices inside the dating woman’s head, real or imagined.

    First Date reunites Shealy with Roderick, her director on the daddy of all relationship musical comedies, I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change. Roderick seeks out only the very best actors he can find, but he also proudly espouses choosing actors who show a kind generosity of spirit — actors like Shealy.

    “Lauren is as stunning and engaged in the process as she is onstage,” Roderick said. “She is a true pro with extraordinary range, and a dream to work with." (There’s that word again.)

    More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

    Actor Seth Dhonau has witnessed Shealy’s impressive range first-hand this year as her castmate in both Evita and First Date.

    denver-center_first-date_photo-by-emily-lozow lauren shealy“Working with Lauren, one can't help but strive to match the professionalism and preparation she so effortlessly brings to her roles,” Dhonau said. “Imbuing a performance with Lauren's positivity and energy is no small feat, and we're all so lucky to share the stage with her.”

    Audiences may not recognize the steely Argentinian in the taunting, imaginary ex-girlfriend Shealy portrays in First Date. And there’s no bigger compliment to Shealy, Rattan said.

    “I truly don’t know if there is anything she can’t do,” she said.

    (Pictured above right: Seth Dhonau, Steven J. Burge and Lauren Shealy in DCPA Cabaret's 'First Date.' Photo by Emily Lozow.)

    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.

    Lauren Shealy 2017: 

    • Evita in Evita, Lone Tree Arts Center
    • Sarah in Company, Aurora Fox
    • Woman I (six roles) in First DateDCPA Cabaret

    About The True West Awards: '30 Days, 30 Bouquets'
    The True West Awards, now in their 17th year, began as the Denver Post Ovation Awards in 2001. DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore — along with additional voices from around the state — celebrate the entire local theatre community by recognizing 30 achievements from 2017 over 30 days, without categories or nominations. 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. His daily coverage of the DCPA and the Colorado theatre community can be found at MyDenverCenter.Org

    A look back at the history of the True West Awards

    The 2017 True West Awards (to date)

  • 2017 True West Award: Chris Kendall

    by John Moore | Dec 15, 2017
    2017 True West Award Chris Kendall


    Day 15: Chris Kendall

    Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company
    Vintage Theatre
    Benchmark Theatre

    By John Moore
    Senior Arts Journalist

    Chris Kendall has an Everyman quality that not every man has.

    And it served the veteran actor well in 2017 when he played, essentially, every man in the history of time in An Iliad. And again as a lonely widower tending to a dingy South Philadelphia bar in Stella and Lou. And again as an aging father attempting to bridge a gap with his adult daughter in Birds of North America. And again as a grieving old Colonel whose encroaching dementia is picking off memories like apples off a tree in the current Smokefall (through Dec. 23).

    Chris Kendall Emma Messenger John MooreAs an actor, Kendall can play just about anyone. He is as sturdy as an oak, as honest as Abe and as reliable as a Rolex. Although he’d probably prefer we say “Timex,” because the one thing Kendall is not is flashy.

    To Emma Messenger, acting with Kendall “is like acting with a unicorn.” OK, so invoking a sparkly, mythical horned creature puts perhaps a too-fanciful spin on this particular point, but hear her out:

    “There is something so magical about the way Chris lives in the world of a play,” she said. "You always feel you’re in the presence of something alive, and that anything could happen.”

    Messenger was Kendall’s scene partner in Vintage Theatre’s charming two-hander Stella and Lou, which was so well-received in 2016 that this year the pair took it on the road to the Dairy Center in Boulder and the Barth Hotel in Denver as a benefit for Senior Housing Options. (Photo at right by Christine Fisk.)

    Lou is Kendall’s kind of guy: A simple man whose compacted grief has him retreating further into his loneliness — until sweet Stella enters the bar.

    Kendall tends to make his biggest impressions as an actor when he goes small. He’s just so natural and unassuming in the way he carries himself on a stage that sometimes you forget he’s playing a role. Ironic then, that after years of steady and reliable performances on stages all over Colorado, he delivered perhaps the crowning achievement of his career this year in a performance that was of — literally —  mythological proportions.

    (Story continues below the photo.)

    True West Awards Chris Kendall Iliad Michael Ensminger
    Chris Kendall in 'Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company's An Iliad at the Dairy Arts Center. Photo by Michael Ensminger. 

    An Iliad
    , staged by the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company, is a one-man retelling of Homer’s epic poem. And a one-man meditation on perpetual American conflicts from Boston to Colorado Springs. Kendall, known only as The Poet, presents himself in the present day as a tired old garbageman long cursed like Midas to wander the centuries telling his cautionary, first-hand account of the Trojan War until such a time when mankind actually heeds his lessons and puts an end to war itself.

    But as we know only all too well, war has been a constant throughout recorded history. And as America continues to be mired in the longest war in its history, we have little reason to believe it ends here.

    In making The Poet’s case, Kendall transcended time and type. He delivered a physical, raging performance that rattled the cages of all who saw it — and perhaps a few long-disintegrating bones left scattered over time throughout the battlefields of history.

    “The biggest challenge for Chris was that the role is just such a monstrosity,” said his director, Stephen Weitz. “It’s an incredibly physical, emotional, draining role that requires not only stamina but 100 percent, absolute commitment at all times. Chris was out there on the wire all by himself.”

    Writing for getboulder.com, Beki Pineda said Kendall was just right for the challenge. "He has the stature, the age and the gravitas to pull it off," she said. "Like Odysseus, The Poet is an old soldier who just wants to go home. His genuine fatigue and disillusionment lend a poignancy to his mission. This is a tour-de-force performance that holds you by the heart until Kendall lets you go."

    Had Kendall left the stage after An Iliad and never come back, it would have been the theatrical equivalent of Elway walking off the field after winning his second straight Super Bowl and never returning. But that Kendall came back to BETC just a few months later to play a stoic old birder only demonstrates his sweeping range.

    "His simplicity on stage can also be heartbreaking," said Lindsey Pierce, who played Kendall's daughter in the world premiere of the modest two-hander called Birds of North America by Anna Moench.

    More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

    Kendall, who graduated from the abandoned old Cathedral High School in downtown Denver and Colorado State University in Fort Collins, is presently wrapping up his triumphant year playing another heartbreakingly specific old man whose greatness has been gradually robbed by time in Noah Haidle’s Smokefall, one of the richest new paintings of an American family in years. It’s a fanciful play but deeply rooted in relatable family dynamics.

    Chris Kendall Smokefall McLeod9CreativeKendall plays a loving old military man who goes out for his daily walk and never comes home, leaving his pregnant daughter to forever wonder if simply he got lost, or simply lost her. The five-person play, running through Dec. 23 at Buntport Theater, is a comparative epic for Kendall considering he only shared the stage with three actors in his three preceding 2017 plays combined.

    (Pictured right: Chris Kendall, Sarai Brown and John Hauser in Benchmark's 'Smokefall.'  Photo by McLeod9Creative.)

    “One of the things I've loved most about working with Chris is that he's always willing to play in rehearsal,” said Smokefall director Rachel Rogers. “He creates a fun rapport with his castmates. He comes into the first rehearsal already performance-ready, but he continues to refine his characters with an honest nuance.”

    If there is a commonality to the four indelible old men Kendall portrayed this year, it’s perhaps their accumulated sorrow and fatigue over time. But the difference between The Poet and The Colonel is as stark as the difference between macro and micro. Kendall clearly can do both large and small … and everything in-between.

    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.

    Chris Kendall 2017: 

    • The Poet in An Iliad, Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company
    • Lou in Stella and Lou, Vintage Theatre

      (At the Dairy Center in Boulder and the Barth Hotel in Denver)

    • John in Birds of North America, Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company
    • Colonel/Johnny in Smokefall, Benchmark Theatre (through Dec. 23 at Buntport Theater)
    • Lou in Stella and Lou, Vintage Theatre

    About The True West Awards: '30 Days, 30 Bouquets'
    The True West Awards, now in their 17th year, began as the Denver Post Ovation Awards in 2001. DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore — along with additional voices from around the state — celebrate the entire local theatre community by recognizing 30 achievements from 2017 over 30 days, without categories or nominations. 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. His daily coverage of the DCPA and the Colorado theatre community can be found at MyDenverCenter.Org

    A look back at the history of the True West Awards

    The 2017 True West Awards

  • 2017 True West Award: Maegan Burnell

    by John Moore | Dec 14, 2017
    2017 True West Award Meagan Burnell Arvada Center


    Day 14: Maegan Burnell

    Arvada Center Stage Manager

    By John Moore
    Senior Arts Journalist

    Maegan Burnell moved to Colorado to become a stage manager and fell in love with a stage manager and is soon moving to Chicago so they can both be stage managers together.

    We're talking a two-logistician family.

    “If those two ever have a kid,” Director Robert Michael Sanders said of Burnell and Jonathan D. Allsup, “he’ll be born with head-sets on and holding a spreadsheet.”  

    Today’s True West Award is a parting shot. Because Burnell is moving true east. And the Arvada Center’s Lynne Collins, for one, is “desperately sad we are losing her."

    Stage managers are the chief practitioners of what are often called the invisible arts. They are highly organized, detail-oriented, no-nonsense train conductors who are inordinately calm in the midst of chaos. And if they are doing their jobs well — you in the audience will never know they even exist.  

    “Stage managers are the unsung heroes of what we do,” said Collins, who was hired as the Arvada Center’s Artistic Director of Plays in 2016 to create a company of recurring actors to perform a four-play repertory season. It was Collins’ job to run that operation. It was Burnell’s job to help build that operation from scratch.

    “The logistics of stage-managing a repertory company are enormous,” Collins said. “In our case, it means you are running three productions at the same time. It means managing overlapping actor calendars. It means keeping track of hours and rehearsal spaces."

    A stage manager’s job description can vary from theatre to theatre and show to show. Typically, they provide practical and organizational support to the director, actors, designers, stage crew and technicians throughout the production process. And after the opening performance, when it’s time for the director to move on, the stage manager becomes the law by running the show and standing in for the director in all matters.

    And Burnell, Collins said, “is phenomenal at all of that. She is calm and cool and collected and organized and compassionate and utterly without drama.”

    More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

    Burnell was a grad student when she was hired in 2012 as an assistant stage manager by the acclaimed Creede Repertory Theatre, which presents up to seven productions each summer in the San Juan Mountains about 250 miles southwest of Denver. Her boss was Allsup, who is now the cause of all the distress running throughout the Colorado theatre community because he’s the one she will be starting a life with in Chicago after the Arvada Center’s second rep season ends in May with All My Sons.

    Burnell, originally from Waterford, Mich., graduated from Central Michigan University and the University of Missouri-Kansas City's graduate program before answering the call from Creede. She was lured to Denver in 2014 to become the permanent Stage Manager (losing the “Assistant” from her title forever) of the Arvada Center’s highly accomplished children’s theatre program, starting with Billie McBride’s Lyle the Crocodile.

    In the short three years since, she has helmed mainstage productions at the Aurora Fox, Cherry Creek Theatre Company, The Avenue Theater, Slingshot Theatre and Vintage Theatre, working for an impressive roster of top-notch directors including Sanders, Christy Montour-Larson, Edith Weiss, Bev Newcomb-Madden, Warren Sherrill, Jim Hunt, Piper Lindsay-Arpan, Gavin Mayer, Pat Payne and DCPA Director of Education Allison Watrous.

    Notable credits include Porgy & Bess at the Aurora Fox and Tartuffe, which launched the Arvada Center’s rep company in 2016. And it can’t be underestimated, Allsup said, what it took to start that operation from nothing. Her impressive list of 2017 credits has included Bus Stop, The Drowning Girls and The Foreigner. Coming up, before she bolts: Sense and Sensibility and All My Sons.

    (Story continues below the photo.)

    Maegan Burnell Quote Robert Michael Sanders Miscast True West Awards

    But Allsup says what gives Burnell the most joy has been running the Arvada Center’s annual “teen intensive” — that’s a fully staged Broadway production for students, most recently no less than Les Misérables. That and volunteering to run big benefit events such as Colorado Theatre Guild’s Henry Awards and the Denver Actors Fund’s annual Miscast cabaret at the Town Hall Arts Center.

    “I love seeing the pure joy that she feels when she is working with students who are eager to learn,” Allsup said. “And I think she especially loves mentoring young theatre technicians at the Arvada Center more than anything.”

    Jonathan Allsup Maegan Burnell True West AwardsAs one of the state’s few gainfully employed, full-time stage managers, Burnell really has no free time for charity. But she makes time, Sanders said, because since the minute she landed in Creede, the Colorado theatre family has become her family. That was obvious enough last week when more than 700 packed the Arvada Center to celebrate the life of actor Daniel Langhoff. “You just don’t always see that in other cities,” Allsup said.  

    Allsup thinks Burnell can do just about anything, but he said the most difficult challenge she has ever taken on will simply be leaving the theatre community that has in short order gone from embracing her to utterly depending on her. “Colorado will always be the state that gave her the start of her career,” said Allsup, who was hired as the new Production Manager at Chicago’s Paramount Theatre seven months ago.

    “Maegan stepped into this community and she made a difference everywhere she went,” added Sanders. “She made a lot of places better while she was here.”

    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.

    Stage Manager Maegan Burnell 2017: 

    • Drowning Girls, Arvada Center
    • Bus Stop, Arvada Center
    • Les Misérables Teen Intensive, Arvada Center
    • The Foreigner, Arvada Center
    • Henry Awards, Colorado Theatre Guild
    • Miscast 2017, Denver Actors Fund

    About The True West Awards: '30 Days, 30 Bouquets'
    The True West Awards, now in their 17th year, began as the Denver Post Ovation Awards in 2001. DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore — along with additional voices from around the state — celebrate the entire local theatre community by recognizing 30 achievements from 2017 over 30 days, without categories or nominations. 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. His daily coverage of the DCPA and the Colorado theatre community can be found at MyDenverCenter.Org

    A look back at the history of the True West Awards

    The 2017 True West Awards

  • 2017 True West Award: White Rabbit Red Rabbit

    by John Moore | Dec 13, 2017
    True West Awards 2017 White Rabbit Red Rabbit


    Day 13: White Rabbit Red Rabbit

    Pipedream Productions, Denver
    Star Bar Players, Colorado Springs

    By John Moore
    Senior Arts Journalist

    Imagine walking into a theatre and having no idea what you were about to see.

    Now imagine being an actor walking onto a stage and having no idea what you were about to say.

    Now imagine being a 29-year-old playwright forbidden to leave your country.

    Those three imaginings were all realities that informed the most intriguing theatrical experiment of the Colorado theatre year: White Rabbit Red Rabbit.

    White Rabbit Red RabbitThat’s the name of a very meta, one-actor play written by Nassim Soleimanpour in 2010, when he was jailed in his native Iran for refusing to perform two years of required military service. Because he could not leave the country, Soleimanpour sent White Rabbit Red Rabbit out into the world like a message in a bottle, hoping someone might find it and perform it. Knowing that even if anyone did, he would probably never see it performed himself.

    “This was his way of traveling the world, essentially,” Dylan Clements-Mosley, Executive Director of Star Bar Players, told the Colorado Springs Independent.

    Adding to the intrigue: Soleimanpour included some party rules for every interested theatre company to follow: No director, no set and a different actor for every performance. The script must remain sealed until that night’s guinea rabbit, er, actor, enters the stage and begins to read aloud the 40-page script, which includes specific tasks for the narrator and audience to follow.

    We’d love to tell you more about the narrative’s twists and turns, but the biggest rule of Rabbit Club, as you might expect: No one talks about Rabbit Club.

    Now you might naturally assume from the playwright’s circumstances that his play must be a damning political screed. It turns out to be more of a thoughtful, allegorical rumination on many different ways we live in closed worlds. Starting with a playwright who is trapped in a cage — and an actor who is, in many ways, trapped on a stage.

    Sending the play out in the playwright’s stead, said acclaimed Denver actor Emma Messenger, “was like setting a balloon free into the atmosphere — and you have no idea where it will end up.”

    But it turns out, the balloon ended up on dry land throughout the world.  Over the past seven years, more than a thousand actors have performed White Rabbit Red Rabbit, including Whoopi Goldberg, Nathan Lane, Alan Cumming, Martin Short, F. Murray Abraham, Cynthia Nixon, Stephen Rea and John Hurt.

    More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

    It ended up in Colorado for the first time this year when two very different companies accepted the challenge to stage it: Pipedream Productions, made up of five unafraid youngsters from the University of Denver who took it on as just their company's second production; and the venerable band of Colorado Springs renegades known as the Star Bar Players.

    True West Awards 2017 White Rabbit QuoteThe DU whippersnappers assembled an ambitious roster of 21 actors any local casting director would drool over, including Messenger, Mare Trevathan, Luke Sorge, Adrian Egolf, John Hauser and Meridith C. Grundei (for starters). Clements-Mosely and wife Alysabeth Clements Mosley adopted a diverse, 10-show slate that included a mix of well-known Colorado Springs actors (Hossein Forouzandeh, Lynne Hastings), as well as community leaders such as the outspoken Rev. Dr. Nori Rost of All Souls Unitarian Church.

    That Pipedream Associate Artistic Director Ashley Campbell didn’t know Messenger didn’t stop her from asking the actor who has as many local theatre awards as Streep has Oscars. Messenger’s two-word, email response: “How terrifying!” Quickly followed by a terrified "yes."

    And it was terrifying, Messenger admits. “Until you actually stepped onstage,” she said. “And then, all of a sudden it became this instant connection between you and the audience and this unseen playwright whose words took on a life of their own.”

    True West Award White Rabbit Ashley Campbell At one point, Messenger said, “It got emotional for me, and it became hard to say the lines. It was like we were puppets. And the playwright was pulling the strings not only across continents, but through time.”

    The mission of the Pipedream collective, which includes Campbell (pictured right), Alexis Robbins, Tony Ryan, Trevor Fulton and Katie Walker, is to push the boundaries of the stage while bringing attention to notable causes. Both were accomplished with this self-funded undertaking — all proceeds went to three local charities that fight for animal rights, immigrant rights and free speech, respectively. (Just to give you another clue about the play’s themes.)

    2017 True West Award White Rabbit Jihad MilhemIn all, about 500 curiosity-seekers came out to see one of Pipedream’s 21 performances —  and many of those returned again and again to see how the tone and impact varied according to each narrator’s commitment and passion.  Campbell said audience members regularly milled around for an hour after each performance talking about the experience with the designated actor and fellow audience members. (Pictured above: Jihad Milhem.)

    By the way, the playwright eventually was freed and left Iran in 2013 for London, where he saw White Rabbit Red Rabbit for the first time. And because Soleimanpour has violated the rules of Rabbit Club and given away the ending of his own play in various YouTube videos, it’s not all that much of a betrayal here to say that the possibility of suicide is, understandably, one of the narrator's many touchpoints. And that’s the part that hit Campbell the hardest.

    2017 True West Award White Rabbit Adrian Egolf“There is this point in the play when he lists all these different ways you can commit suicide,” Campbell said, “and the last method he lists is 'suicide by life.' That was really meaningful to me because while we are all living, we are also all dying. And here was this writer who could not leave Iran — but he did not let that prevent him from doing what he loved.

    "There is something so magical about how you can create something when you are confined, and yet it still can be seen all over the world — even if you are not part of it.”

    White Rabbit, Red Rabbit was an ambitious theatrical experiment, an audacious social experiment, and a potent reminder of the power of spontaneous theatre.

    And as they sang in the Broadway musical Urinetown, you know — don't be the bunny.

    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.

    Pipedream Productions' Denver lineup: 

    • Adrian Egolf
    • Meridith C. Grundei
    • Luke Sorge
    • Anthony Adu
    • Emma Messenger
    • Ilasiea Gray
    • Ben Hilzer
    • Andrew Uhlenhopp
    • Erik Fellenstein
    • Jihad Milhem
    • Julie Wolf
    • John Hauser
    • Kelly Uhlenhopp
    • Sean Michael Cummings
    • Anne Penner
    • Chloe McLeod
    • Jonathan Edward Brown
    • Jeff Jesmer
    • Cooper Braun
    • Mare Trevathan
    • Susannah McLeod

    The Star Bar Players' Colorado Springs lineup:

    • Rev. Nori June Rost
    • Hossein Forouzandeh
    • Phil Ginsburg
    • Lynne Hastings
    • Stoney Bertz 
    • John Hazlehurst
    • Bob Morsch
    • Omid D Harrison
    • Jodi Papproth
    • Michael Lee

    The True West Awards, now in their 17th year, began as the Denver Post Ovation Awards in 2001. DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore — along with additional voices from around the state — celebrate the entire local theatre community by recognizing 30 achievements from 2017 over 30 days, without categories or nominations. 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. His daily coverage of the DCPA and the Colorado theatre community can be found at MyDenverCenter.Org

    A look back at the history of the True West Awards

    The 2017 True West Awards

  • 2017 True West Award: Josh Hartwell

    by John Moore | Dec 12, 2017
    True West Awards 2017 Josh Hartwell


    Day 12: Josh Hartwell

    Teaching Artist
    Dramatists Guild of America

    By John Moore
    Senior Arts Journalist

    Josh Hartwell has done enough this month to earn a True West Award for all of 2017. Oh, he’s made his mark as an actor, director, playwright, teaching artist and community organizer throughout the calendar year. But consider that Hartwell has written two new plays that are being staged at the same time at two different local theatres — and he’s performing in one of them.  

    Resolutions Andrew Uhlenhopp Karen Slack The Edge RDG Photography“I don’t think another Colorado playwright has ever had two professional premieres running concurrently at different theatres,” said Jeff Neuman, co-founder of the local writing group known as the Rough Draught Playwrights. Hartwell graduated from Longmont High School and Metropolitan State University of Denver. But the fact that he's a writer from Colorado only seems to make it harder for his work to actually be seen in theatres here, Neuman believes.

    “I don’t know if people really understand how difficult it is for a Colorado playwright to get produced in Colorado,” he said. “Many Front Range playwrights regularly get produced all over the world, but are unable to secure one single production in their own home state. I think that’s one of the reasons I’m so incredibly thrilled for Josh — and more than a little envious of him.”  

    Hartwell was commissioned by The Edge Theatre Company to create Resolutions (pictured above), a plum assignment that came with three stipulations, said Producing Artistic Director Rick Yaconis: “It had to be a holiday play that wasn’t about Christmas, it had to have the word resolutions in the title, and it had to be edgy,” he said.

    Side note: A commission is when a theatre company actually pays you to write a new play for them — the ultimate sign that a playwright has really made it. Because most playwrights pen their plays, submit them blindly to anyone with an address (digital, postal or otherwise) and then pray to the literary gods that someone actually reads them, believes in them and then stages them.

    Meanwhile, a little further west, Miners Alley Playhouse is currently staging Hartwell’s original and intimate spin on A Christmas Carol in downtown Golden with a cast of just six.

    Having the two new plays running at once, Neuman said, “Is a supremely exciting landmark for the local playwriting community, as well as a testament to Josh’s amazing skills and talents as a dramatist.”

    Josh Hartwell Christmas Carol Photo by Sarah RoshanIronically, both of Hartwell’s stories depict actors enjoying very — very — different holiday gatherings away from the stage. His family friendly take on A Christmas Carol (pictured right) drops us in on a group of merry actors who endeavor to stage Dickens’ classic right then and there, as swiftly and cleverly as possible. It stars Jim Hunt as the thespian who takes on Scrooge, with Hartwell among the ensemble playing several supporting roles.

    Miners Alley Playhouse audiences are lapping up the new take on an old favorite like sweet eggnog, and Artistic Director Len Matheo already has announced that Hartwell’s script will henceforth become the company’s annual holiday offering.

    “What I'm most excited about with this production is that this play is a heightened glimpse into us theatre folk,” said Hartwell, who finds it completely conceivable that off-duty actors sitting around a cozy fire at the holidays are compelled to re-enact their favorite Christmas stories. Lisa Kennedy of The Denver Post called the work a gentle, sweet and tender bit of nostalgia.

    Resolutions at the Edge is considerably more … well, edgy — as ordered. As in a 'Stephen King meets Quentin Tarantino popcorn pulp' kind of way. This group of former college thespian pals gathers every New Year’s Eve at a posh cabin in Vail to relive their Big Chill days and share their hopes for the coming year. But this time, one of the gang is a little ax-to-grindy, and let’s just say one of these buddies will soon be adding “reattach severed limb” to his list of New Year’s resolutions.

    Westword critic Juliet Wittman called the resulting world premiere, appropriately playing through New Year's Eve, "a swift, funny, clever, 85-minute holiday treat."

    More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

    Hartwell is a young writer with a veteran resume that includes productions in New York, Florida, Washington, Minneapolis, New Zealand and beyond. He’s a big-enough deal that he’s represented by the Abrams Artist Agency in New York City.

    Bad Jews Edge John Wittbrodt and Missy Moore. RDG Photography But writing is just a slice of his breakthrough, renaissance year. He directed two plays, including the comedy Bad Jews for the Edge (pictured right) and a milestone production of Hir at Miners Alley. That was a dark and difficult family drama that dared to include a transitioning teenager as part of a major subplot. Hartwell also continued to vigorously mentor student writers, both through Curious Theatre’s wildly successful Curious New Voices program and Denver Center Education’s year-round and statewide playwriting competition, which has Hartwell offering dozens of in-class workshops throughout the fall semester.

    Banned Together Josh Hartwell Miners Alley Playhouse Angels in America Photo by John MooreHartwell also stepped up into a major leadership role in the community when he took on producing Banned Together, A Censorship Cabaret, on Sept. 28 at Miners Alley Playhouse. MAP joined a national coalition of theatres in presenting an informal evening of censored theatre pieces to mark Banned Books Week in America and raise awareness about the ongoing issue of free expression in the live theatre (pictured right and below).

    An array of acclaimed local actors presented songs and scenes from controversial plays and musicals ranging from Cabaret to Fun Home to Rent to Spring Awakening to Angels in America. Hartwell read from the critical moment in The Laramie Project when murdered gay college student Matthew Shepard’s father addresses his son’s killer in court and bitterly spares him from the death penalty.

    Banned Together Miners Alley Playhouse Rent Photo by John MooreBanned Together was an important evening that Denver might easily have missed entirelyhad not Hartwell, Matheo and Hunt not taken the project on. (See video highlights below.)

    And while acting was low on his list of priorities this year, Hartwell is a company member at Curious Theatre, Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company and The Edge Theatre Company.

    If all that weren’t enough, Hartwell has worked tirelessly as Colorado's first regional representative for the Dramatists Guild of America, endeavoring throughout the year to both unite, grow and empower the local writer community.

    It’s been a busy year for a writer who has again proven that the pen is mightier than the pillow.

    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.

    Josh Hartwell: 2017 in review

    • Director, Hir, Miners Alley Playhouse
    • Teaching Artist, Curious New Voices, Curious Theatre Company
    • Director, Bad Jews, The Edge Theatre Company
    • Producer, Banned Together: A Censorship Cabaret, Miners Alley Playhouse
    • Playwright, Resolutions, The Edge Theatre Company
    • Playwright, A Christmas Carol, Miners Alley Playhouse
    • Actor, A Christmas Carol, Miners Alley Playhouse
    • Teaching Artist, Denver Center Education Student Playwriting
    • Dramatists Guild of America, Colorado Regional Representative

    Photo credits, from top down: Karen Slack and Andrew Uhlenhopp in 'Resolutions' (RDG Photography). Jason Maxwell, Meredith Young, Josh Hartwell and Ella Matheo in 'A Christmas Carol.' (Sarah Roshan Photography). John Wittbrodt and Missy Moore in 'Bad Jews' (RDG Photography). Josh Hartwell performing from 'Angels in America' for 'Banned Together.' Photo by John Moore. Abigail Kochevar, Steph Holmbo and ensemble performing 'Seasons of Love' for Banned Together.' Photo by John Moore.

    Video bonus:Our coverage of Banned Together


    The True West Awards, now in their 17th year, began as the Denver Post Ovation Awards in 2001. DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore — along with additional voices from around the state — celebrate the entire local theatre community by recognizing 30 achievements from 2017 over 30 days, without categories or nominations. 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. His daily coverage of the DCPA and the Colorado theatre community can be found at MyDenverCenter.Org

    A look back at the history of the True West Awards

    The 2017 True West Awards

  • 2017 True West Award: 'The Rape of the Sabine Women'

    by John Moore | Dec 11, 2017
    2017 True West Award Rape of the Sabine Women


    Day 11: The Rape of the Sabine Women by Grace B. Matthias

    Local Theater Company, Boulder

    By John Moore
    Senior Arts Journalist

    “The truth is like castor oil. It’s bitter to swallow and people don’t want it.
    Therefore, you make them laugh. And when their mouths are open … you pour it in.”

    Harold Clurman 

    The Rape of the Sabine Women by Grace B. Matthias was an uncomfortable play to watch. Not because Local Theater Company’s staging was unpleasant to sit through. It wasn’t. And maybe that’s what made it so uncomfortable to watch.

    The playwright is not named Grace B. Matthias — she is rather the primary character in the story. The actual playwright is Michael Yates Crowley, who adopted an unnervingly casual and outright comic tone for a play about sexual assault, homophobia and bullying at an Ohio high school. But rape as satire? With rim shots and punchlines? Isn’t that an affront to anyone who has ever been assaulted? Is this (male) playwright somehow trying to make rape … palatable?

    Sabine Women Photo by George LangeWell, no. But perhaps palatable enough so we can actually talk about the numbingly pervasive rape culture in America. “Sometimes you have to shock people to get to a truth,” said Director Christy Montour-Larson. “And what better way to shock people about sexual assault than to get them laughing about it?”

    Therein lies the eventual genius of this unsettling play that lingers in the brain for weeks afterward. Then again, a play this topical never has even a remote chance of dissipating when its subject matter reverberates anew with the drumbeats of the latest daily news cycle.

    (Photos on right and below feature Adeline Mann, Erik Fellenstein and Peter Henry Bussian of 'The Rape of the Sabine Women by Grace B. Matthias.' Photos by George Lange.)

    Time Magazine just named the Silence Breakers who fueled the #MeToo Movement its 2017 Person of the Year as a means of honoring those women who came forward in droves to accuse powerful men of sexual harassment and assault. The very subject of this play is the most significant news story of the year.

    Theatre rarely gets to matter in such an urgent way because it can take years for a company to bring a chosen play to full life on the stage. Local Theater, a strong, female-led company founded by Boulder’s Pesha Rudnick, caught wise to Crowley’s developing new work two years ago, first choosing to workshop it at its annual new-play festival, and then slotting it for full production in October. Many a play goes stale in the meantime. The reason this one didn’t is as old as time.

    “This play was topical long before the ‘Me Too’ movement,” said Montour-Larson. Sexual assault isn’t new. The whole point in referencing the Sabine Women in the story is that sexual assault has been going on for thousands of years.”

    True West ErikFellensteininTheRapeoftheSabineWomenbyGraceB.Matthias.PhotobyGeorgeLangeThe actual “Rape of the Sabine Women” was an incident from Roman mythology in which the men of Rome committed a mass abduction of young women from nearby cities. They were taken from families, treated as slaves and made to bear children. If you are looking for a historical bookend, look no further than the Nigerian girls kidnapped by Boko Haram.

    Given the falling dominoes from the rise of the #MeToo social-media moment, there is no question Americans are more awake to the issue of sexual assault than they were a year ago. And by staging Sabine Women now, Local Theater gave its audiences a context through which to keep that conversation going.

    In the play, an ordinary 15-year-old student has accused the two stars of the high-school football team of rape. The school's nickname? The Romans, natch. But if you’re expecting some deep and thoughtful exploration of the powerful ramifications of this accusation, well — hold on to your funny bone. Instead, the playwright points his sharp cynicism at every adult authority figure in the story, from a lawyer to a teacher to a journalist to a school official — all intentionally made into ridiculous caricatures.

    Adding to this incendiary pot are two very real personal crushes aimed at Jeff, our all-American rapist: Both the victim and Jeff’s closeted teammate Bobby are in love with him. Decades of pop culture have conditioned us to root for the golden boy and the unremarkable girl to hook up. Bobby, on the other hand, seems to be the playwright’s revenge against every repressed gay man who has ever turned his inner turmoil into an outward, toxic weapon.

    More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

    This is a very dangerous game Crowley is playing. But thanks to a devastatingly honest performance by Adeline Mann as the confused yet utterly real young Grace (surrounded by an impeccable ensemble of top-notch fellow actors), the audience is never allowed to fully give in to the hilarity because there are real physical and emotional consequences here.

    “The comedy in this play definitely hits different people in different ways based on their own politics and personal experiences," Montour-Larson said. "And that’s not only OK — it’s kind of the point.”

    Rape of the Sabine Women by Grace B. Matthias. Photo by George LangeWhat’s indisputable is the greater good Local Theater did by letting this particular Pandora out of her box. Local presented the play to the Boulder community in a responsible and comprehensive manner, with audience talkbacks and at least five public panels throughout the city. Local boldly demonstrated how theater can be a catalyst for dialogue by addressing urgent issues of the day in real time.

    “I believe theatre is at its best when it tells stories that people can relate to their lives right now,” Montour-Larson said. “Sometimes that story is Hamlet. Sometimes that story is The Crucible. And sometimes that story is The Rape of the Sabine Women by Grace B. Matthias. This is why theatre exists.”

    Local's mission is to discover and develop new American plays, and to date, all of them have felt similarly “of the moment.” “Last year, we presented The Firestorm — a play about race and politics and a marriage — right before the election,” said Local Theater Communications Manager Ted Stephens. “This year, we staged Sabine Women just as women were starting to step forward about sexual assault. And this spring, we will produce Wisdom from Everything, a beautiful world premiere about a young Syrian refugee trying to survive in a world with little agency, few rights and no country. And that one feels, unfortunately, incredibly relevant and important once again.

    “I suppose that's the advantage of presenting brand-new works — they can take what we are experiencing right now and invite our audiences to be part of some sort of change.”

    Theatre doesn’t get any better than that.

    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 Rape of the Sabine Women by Grace B Matthias cast list:
    • Peter Henry Bussian
    • Erik Fellenstein
    • Cajardo Lindsey
    • Rodney Lizcano
    • Adeline Mann
    • Matt Schneck
    • Mare Trevathan
    • Brynn Tucker

    Video bonus: Cast member Mare Trevathan

    The True West Awards, now in their 17th year, began as the Denver Post Ovation Awards in 2001. DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore — along with additional voices from around the state — celebrate the entire local theatre community by recognizing 30 achievements from 2017 over 30 days, without categories or nominations. 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. His daily coverage of the DCPA and the Colorado theatre community can be found at MyDenverCenter.Org

    A look back at the history of the True West Awards

    The 2017 True West Awards

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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