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

    by John Moore | Mar 29, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

    More 2017-18 'In the Spotlife' profiles:

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

    More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

  • Meet Denver's Jack Stephens of 'ELF the Musical'

    by John Moore | Dec 15, 2017
    Jack Stephens Elf

    Jack Stephens of Eaglecrest High School is the Company Manager for the national touring production of 'ELF The Musical,' visiting the Buell Theatre through Sunday (Dec. 17).

    Company manager of ELF The Musical, playing through Sunday, Dec. 17, at the Buell Theatre. He was the Company Manager for the Blue Man Group when it visited Denver in 2014    

    • Hometown: Denver
    • Home now: The road
    • High school: Eaglecrest in Aurora
    • Training: University of Colorado Denver
    • What's your handle? @sirjackstephens on Instagram
    • What's playing on your your Spotify? Adam Young's various "film scores." Known more popularly as "Owl City," he set out on a project last year to compose one film score per month. And he did it. The scores are for films that don't really exist —  but as you listen, you can imagine those cinematic visions playing out before you. And the sheer scope of his project speaks to his talent and proclivity as a musician.
    • One thing we don't know about you: Even if I see a large, scary spider, or some similar creepy thing, crawling around my house, i can't bear to harm them, so I catch and release.
    • How should we nurture the next generation of theatregoers? I'd love to see shows get back to "event theatre." In the 1990s in particular, when a big Broadway show came to town, it was a real event. Audiences were exposed to all sorts of fascinating behind-the-scenes information on how the show was created. Also, having quality, affordable theatre — even on a small scale, where storytelling is strong and one's imagination muscles are flexed. Making theatre available to a diverse array of audiences is important. 
    • What do you hope the audience gets out of seeing ELF The Musical? I hope our show puts them in the Christmas spirit, and I hope it reminds everyone to prioritize the important things in life. 
    • One thing you want to get off your chest: It is unwise and unfair to make broad, sweeping generalizations about groups or types of people based upon the actions or behaviors of only a few. I so wish more people in our government and in our society could understand this idea. 

    Read our 2014 interview with Jack Stephens

    ELF The Musical: Ticket information
    elfAt a glance: Based on the beloved 2003 film, ELF The Musical is a modern day Christmas classic that is sure to make everyone embrace their inner ELF. Variety proclaims, “ELF is happy enough for families, savvy enough for city kids and plenty smart for adults."

    • National touring production
    • Performances through Dec. 17
    • 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
    • ASL Interpreted, Audio-Described and Open Captioned Performance: Dec. 16, 3 p.m.

    ELF The Musical. Jeremy Daniel Photography. The cast of 'ELF The Musical,' which comes to Denver's Buell Theatre from Dec. 13-17. Jeremy Daniel Photography.

    Previous NewsCenter coverage of ELF The Musical
    How ELF became an instant holiday tradition on stage and scree

    More 2017-18 'In the Spotlife' profiles:
    Meet Katie Drinkard of Off-Center's The Wild Party
    Meet Hugo Jon Sayles of Su Teatro's I Don't Speak English Only
    Meet Autumn Hurlbert of Something Rotten!
    Meet Zak Reynolds of DCPA Education's The Snowy Day
    Meet Rachel Kae Taylor of DCPA Education's The Snowy Day
    Meet Christy Brandt of Creede Rep's Arsenic and Old Lace
    Meet Deb Persoff of Vintage Theatre's August: Osage County
    Meet Monica Joyce Thompson of Inspire Creative’s South Pacific

    More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

  • 2017 True West Award: Kenny Moten

    by John Moore | Dec 07, 2017
    2017 True West Award Kenny Moten. Photo by John Moore


    Day 7: Kenny Moten

    Motones vs. Jerseys
    Miscast 2017
    Aurora Fox Cabaret Series
    Owner, Narrative Creative Consulting

    By John Moore
    Senior Arts Journalist

    If you think being a performer is hard, try being a performer and the owner of your own entertainment and consulting company. Kenny Moten makes the transition from actor to producer to businessman and back again in same manner that often describes his rich singing voice: Smooth as silk.

    Moten is among the very few performers who also knows how to run a business.

    Kenny Moten“It’s rare because owning an entertainment business is brutal in a way that is very different from the way performing is brutal,” said Moten’s frequent creative partner — and employee — Jalyn Courtenay Webb. “When you’re the boss, you are not only responsible for yourself, but for the people you hire and the team you put together. But Kenny has just the right temperament for it. He does everything with integrity. He’s a solid human being.”  

    Moten is the creator and owner of Narrative Creative Consulting, which presents entertainment events and uses various art forms to help clients ranging from National Jewish Hospital to Snooze Eatery to the Denver Center shape their narratives, customer service, employee training and brand strategies.  

    Moten is also the co-creator, director, writer and a featured performer of a clever new musical form called Motones vs. Jerseys. In July, it was up for three Colorado Theatre Guild Henry Awards, including Outstanding Musical, for its nearly sold-out run at the Midtown Arts Center in Fort Collins.

    In September, Moten lent his support (and that smooth-as-silk singing voice) to the Denver Actors Fund by appearing in Miscast 2017 as one of the three Fionas singing I Know It’s Today from Shrek the Musical. In October, the Aurora Fox turned to Moten to launch its risky new monthly cabaret series with 12 O’clock Tales: An Evening of Songs and Stories. Both shows sold out, which Webb said is further indication of Moten’s popularity as a performer — and his business acumen. Both come from more than 20 years as a professional performer, Webb says.

    Kenny Moten Miscast 2017“Kenny’s name is synonymous with excellence, and people know that in our community and beyond,” she said. “He was not going to do his show in an empty house — and he certainly did not.”

    Moten caps a remarkable 2017 with a return next week to Motones vs. Jerseys as part of a unique new creative partnership with BDT Stage in Boulder. "MvJ," as the kids call it, is a feel-good, nostalgic evening featuring the music of Motown and The Four Seasons — along with their many ancestors and descendants — in a good-natured competition. After two teams of four performers each rock out a playlist spanning Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, The Beach Boys, The Beatles, Bruno Mars and many more, the audience chooses a winning team using their cell phones to vote.

    (Pictured right: Kenny Moten with his 'Miscast 2017' co-stars, Margie Lamb, left, and Hope Grandon. Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter,)

    It’s a concept Moten first developed with Chris Starkey, now of Imprint Group DMC. After several refinements, Moten unveiled a slick new version of the show last year at the Midtown Arts Center, where it received a standing ovation “every single night,” said Webb, who is both the show’s Music Director and nightly emcee. “And let me tell you, I’ve never seen that happen at any dinner theatre before in my life.”

    Motones vs. Jerseys opens on Dec. 10 and will play on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday nights through Jan. 23, playing in rep the rest of the week with BDT Stage’s holiday staging of Annie.

    More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

    Moten, who is originally from Hagerstown, Md., graduated from Highlands Ranch High School and the University of Colorado Denver. He transitioned from Barnstormer to leading man with a remarkable 2005 performance in Ain’t Misbehavin’ at the late Country Dinner Playhouse opposite now Denver First Lady Mary Louise Lee. Westword’s Juliet Wittman called Moten not only “a wonderful singer with a voice full of poignancy and power,” but also “a charming and seductive performer who brings impressive precision and a smooth, lean elegance to the stage.”

    Other major credits include Swing at the Candlelight Dinner Playhouse and Altar Boyz at the Clocktower Cabaret, but it wasn’t long before Moten was off to New York. He re-settled in Fort Collins a few years ago and has since been on a roll that has not only furthered his personal and professional interests, but has gainfully employed dozens of local actors and crew members on his many public and corporate projects.

    “The thing I love about Kenny is that he’s so fun, but he’s also completely no-nonsense when it comes to the work,” said Webb. “He expects the highest quality and the highest level of performance possible from his performers, and we respect that. He knows what he wants — and he goes out and gets it."

    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.

    Motones vs. Jerseys: At a glance

    • Dec. 10-Jan. 23
    • BDT Stage, 5501 Arapahoe Ave., Boulder
    • Performances Sunday, Monday and Tuesday evenings. Dinner seating begins at 6:15, with the show to follow at 7:45
    • Featuring Brian Cronan, Will Hawkins, Brian Jackson and Jacob Villareal as The Jerseys, and Christian Mark Gibbs, Anthony McGlaun, Kenny Moten and Alejandro Roldan as The Motones.
    • Call 303-449-6000 or bdtstage.com


    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: Motones vs. Jerseys at the 2017 Henry Awards

  • 2017 True West Award: Haley Johnson and Sydney Parks Smith

    by John Moore | Dec 05, 2017
    2017 True West Awards. Haley Johnson. Sydney Parks Smith


    Day 4: Haley Johnson and Sydney Parks Smith

    August: Osage County
    Vintage Theatre, Aurora
    OpenStage Theatre, Fort Collins

    By John Moore
    Senior Arts Journalist

    "I'm in charge now!"

    It's one of the most visceral, gut-scraping lines you'll ever hear in a theatre, and it marks a dramatic turning point in Tracy Letts' Pulitzer-winning family fracas August: Osage County. In that one moment, the eldest daughter of perhaps the must acidic matriarch in the American theatrical canon forcibly wrests that crown right out of her mother's clenched fingers. Only the crown, in this case, is a pill bottle. But Barbara is not rescuing her mother. Not by a long shot. She's becoming her.

    True West Haley Johnson Sydney Parks SmithThe mother is Violet Weston, a pained and profane Okie with cancer of the mouth — medically and metaphorically. Violet pops out furious epithets — most aimed at her three daughters — as quickly as she pops in pills. Her spawn all bear varying degrees of the inherited burns they surely will pass down to their own children. Seriously, Violet is a sniper on par with a Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant. It's a bucket-list role for any seasoned female actor.

    But the part of Barbara, a Boulder mom whose marriage is crumbling, presents a plum challenge all its own. And in 2017, we got to see two highly accomplished area actors tackle it in different but effective ways: Sydney Parks Smith for OpenStage & Company in Fort Collins and Haley Johnson for Vintage Theatre in Aurora. And they had formidable scene partners in Colorado legends Denise Freestone and Deborah Persoff, respectively, as their poisoned Vi's.

    Parks wears Barbara's accumulating disappointments like a suit of armor, and she's just itching to take it into battle. Johnson, who has made her mark for a decade playing wounded birds, grew teeth here that eventually sprouted into fangs. The mother-daughter conflict builds to a battle of ill-wills that left audiences gasping from Fort Collins to Aurora. All culminating in that one haunting line — "I'm in charge now!" — that can be delivered every which way from a declarative whisper to a savage declaration of war. We're witnessing a brutal metamorphosis where Barbara becomes the unshrinking Violet.

    More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

    The two actors have more than Barbara Fordham in common: Smith is the Associate Artistic Director of OpenStage and Johnson is the Producing Artistic Director of the new Benchmark Theatre, which is finishing up its first season with the world premiere of a freaky-fun new play called Smokefall, playing through Dec. 23 at the Buntport Theater.

    Haley Johnson Sydney Parks SmithSmith won the Colorado Theatre Guild's Henry Award and the OpenStage OPUS Award for Outstanding Actress for her performance as Barbara. Northern Colorado theatre critic Tom Jones called her performance "dynamite."

    Says OpenStage Director Dulcie Willis:
    "Sydney is a highly passionate, focused and dynamic actor. Her work as Barbara perfectly illustrated her deep commitment to nuanced character development. She understood the play inside and out and never, ever stopped working to find the most effective moment-to-moment choices in each scene. Her natural strength and intense zest for life served her thoughtful approach to Barbara while leading the entire cast through a beautiful and challenging piece of theatre. She really was the family heroine of our production."

    (Photos above: Sydney Parks Smith, left and Haley Johnson. Photos by Joe Hovorka and RDG Photography.)

    Says Vintage Theatre Director Bernie Cardell: "The magic of Haley Johnson is that not only can she tap into the broken heart of her characters, she can also find their humor.  She is not afraid to reveal her own wounds in order to find the deepest expression of truth on stage. Plus, she's kind of cool."

    The origin of the poison: Our interview with Tracy Letts

    Said Denver Theatre Perspectives reviewer Michael Mulhern: "Haley Johnson showed incredible range from fragile and bitter to powerful matriarch, and from defeated daughter to hopeful independence."

    Haley Johnson: 2017 at a glance

    Johnson is a graduate of Florida State University and the University of Colorado Denver. She has worked all around the metro area, including the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company, Edge Theatre, Miners Alley Playhouse and Spotlight Theatre Company. Notable roles include Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, Harper Pitt in Angels in America, Becca in Rabbit Hole and Jessie in 'Night, Mother. She is also the producing artistic director of the new Benchmark Theatre.
    • The Nether, Morris, Benchmark Theatre
    • August: Osage County, Barbara Fordham, Vintage Theatre
    Sydney Parks Smith: 2017 at a glance

    Smith has performed and directed with OpenStage Theatre in Fort Collins for the past 20 years and serves as the company's  Associate Artistic Director. Notable roles include Claire in Proof, Kate in The Taming of the Shrew, Belinda in Noises Off and Hermia in Dead Man’s Cell Phone. As a director, her credits include Stage Kiss, True West, The Book of Liz and Dirty Blonde. She received the Founder’s Award for her outstanding contributions to OpenStage & Company.

    • The Flick, Director, OpenStage
    • Don’t Dress for Dinner, Production Manager, OpenStage
    • Bright Ideas, Production Manager, OpenStage
    • August: Osage County, Barbara Fordham, Production Manager, OpenStage

    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

  • Denver Film Festival: Spotlight on 'Liyana'

    by John Moore | Oct 30, 2017
    Liyana. Aaron Kopp. Denver Film Festival

    Documentary brings vivid imaginations of young African orphans to life in glorious, haunting animation

    By John Moore
    Senior Arts Journalist

    Colorado connections: Married co-directors and producers Amanda and Aaron Kopp live in Denver. Amanda is a home-schooled Denver native who later attended the University of Colorado Denver. Aaron was raised in Swaziland and moved to Colorado in 2002. One of the producers is Denver's Daniel Junge.

    Bottom line: Liyana is an extraordinary testament to the transformative power of storytelling to infuse hope into the lives of five orphans in a remote part of Swaziland – not by merely telling them stories, but by placing the power of the storytelling both in their hands and in their fervid imaginations. “By allowing our young storytellers to take charge of the narrative," Aaron Kopp said, “we believe we can challenge dehumanizing stereotypes and transform beliefs.”

    Liyana/ Amanda and Aaron Kopp. Photo by John MooreThe film: Acclaimed South African storyteller Gcina Mhlope (also an Obie Award-winning actor) leads the orphans, all ages 10 to 12 on an intensive, three-week storytelling workshop in southeast Africa. The collaborative process wrests from their imaginations Liyana — an epic hero’s journey that is informed by the orphans' folklore, daily hardships and deepest fears. A documentary crew was not only on hand to chronicle the creative workshop, they then employed an animation team (led by astonishing artist Shofela Coker) to bring the children’s story to full and glorious life on the screen.

    (Pictured at right: 'Liyana' co-producers and directors Aaron and Amanda Kopp appeared last week at the Sie Film Center in Denver. Photo by John Moore.)

    So what’s the story? Together, the children brought to life a Swazi girl named Liyana who embarks with her trusty cow on a dangerous quest to rescue her twin brothers who have been abducted. Liyana faces overwhelming obstacles on an odyssey worthy of Homer. But given what these children have themselves endured, from child slavery to starvation to sexual assault to HIV, it can never be assumed that their story will have a happy ending. That they nevertheless tell it with the joy and craziness and humor of a campfire tale just makes the outcome that much more hauntingly endearing. “Because of their experiences in early life, these kids just have a way of looking at the world that I think can be instructive to the rest of us,” Aaron said.

    Go to the Denver International Film Center home page

    The filmmakers’ approach: At a pre-festival screening last week, the Colorado filmmakers were asked how they knew that these children would produce a story worthy of a documentary. In part, they said they had faith in Mhlope, who is a revered storyteller in Africa. “It was scary when we started because we didn't know what they were going to come up with,” Amanda admitted. But, Aaron added: “We were pretty sure if we put the children in the driver's seat, they would take us somewhere cool and weird. And they did."

    SwazilandWhat was the process? Storytelling decisions were made democratically under the guidance of Mhlope, who would present the children with empty plot points that they would flesh out. "She would say things like: ‘Our character needs a sidekick — so who is that going to be?' " Aaron said. "They were supposed to debate this for a while, but there was no debate on this point because they all wanted it to be her cow.”

    Side notes: The writing workshop was actually filmed seven years ago, but that was just the start of the filmmakers’ journey. That means the five children are now ages 16 to 18, and they were all flown to Los Angeles in June to walk the red carpet at the film’s premiere there. It was their first time outside of Swaziland. Some of them are now making promotional appearances, and filmmakers next hope to release their story as its own standalone graphic novel. … The Executive Producer of the film is the actress Thandie Newton, who is English and Zimbabwean and known for films such as Crash and on TV on NBC’s E.R.

    Final word: Ultimately, Liyana is a testament to teachers, and to all of those who employ art as therapy. “This film is really an ode to all of the great teachers I have had in my life,” Aaron said. Every teacher should feel more emboldened by their mission for having seen this film.

    Length: 77 minutes

    Film web site: liyanathemovie.com

    Liyana+Film,+LA+Film+FestivalLiyana Denver screening schedule

    • Friday, Nov. 10, 6 p.m., at the Sie Film Center TICKETS
    • Saturday, Nov. 11, 4 p.m., at the Sie Film Center TICKETS
    • Sunday, Nov. 12 11 a.m., at the Sie Film Center TICKETS

    The Sie Film Center is located at 2510 E Colfax Ave., Denver, 80206

    Additional (non-screening) panel event:
    Bucking Long Odds, a conversation with Aaron and Amanda Kopp, moderated by Robert Denerstein, at 2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 11. at the Sie Film Center. TICKETS

    Check out our Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

  • In the Spotlife: Hugo Jon Sayles of 'I Don't Speak English Only'

    by John Moore | Oct 12, 2017

    Hugo Jon Sayles. Su Teatro

    Don Guillermo Aztlán in 'La Carpa Aztlán Presents: I Don't Speak English Only,' playing through Oct. 28 at the Su Teatro Performing Arts Center. 

    • Hometown: Denver
    • Home now: Denver
    • Hugo Jon Sayles High school: Denver South High School
    • College: University of Colorado Denver
    • What have you done for us lately? I directed A Good Child, Too Soon, and had my play mounted, Sisters, Sweetwater, both by The Source Theatre Company
    • Twitter-sized bio: A storyteller via voice, body, pen and spirit. A man who lives in and for the arts, the meaning of the heart and the joy of the distance traveled.
    • Web site: thesourcedenver.org
    • The role that changed your life: I played Johnny Williams in the African-American classic The River Niger, the first role I truly lived in every moment of show as the character, not Hugo, not the actor, but the painter/poet trying to find his battlefield.
    • viola-davis-fencesIdeal scene partner: Viola Davis on stage, because you see her telling the truth of the character, and living in each moment. It would probably easier because of how much she would give you in those moments that make up the play.
    • What is La Carpa Aztlán all about? The play speaks of Latino cultural pride in this Trump-ian era of intolerance. It is framed in a satirical Chicano traveling show called La Carpa Aztlán (The Aztlán Tent).
    • Tell us about the challenge of playing this role: The biggest challenge will be the physicality it will require to embody Don Aztlán. Then, the Spanish the company is loving me into.
    • What do you hope audiences get out of seeing your show? The immigrant soul.  Remember where you come from, and cherish those immigrant roots that came before you, and fortifies your spirit.
    • What's one thing we don't know about you? I started as a martial artist at age 11, and was an instructor at 16. .
    • What do you want to get off your chest? Monies should not be used to reward elitism in the arts. Case in point: In the 1970s, nationally ranked martial artists fought in tournaments here in Denver. So frequently would they lose to local fighters that they stopped fighting in Denver. Monies were awarded to those fighters. Money in the arts goes to a perceived notion of excellence, usually to those from elite areas of the country such as New York and Los Angeles.

    More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

    Su Teatro La Carpa Aztlan 2010
    Photo from Su Teatro's 2010 staging of  'La Carpa Aztlán Presents: I Don't Speak English Only.' 

    I Don't Speak English Only:
    Ticket information

    Su Teatro brings back its homegrown classic dystopian comedy that rises from the past to imagine a future world where all diversity is prohibited and any expression of 'the other' has been forced underground. The play with music is based on the Mexican tent-show tradition, which emerged during the 1920s in small towns across the Southwestern United States and Mexico. Carpas were looked at as lower-class entertainment, but some of Mexico's greatest performers came out of the carpa tradition, including the man Charlie Chaplin called the world's greatest comedian: Mario Moreno, better known as Cantinflas.

    • Written and directed by Anthony J. Garcia
    • Through Oct. 28
    • At 721 Santa Fe Drive
    • Tickets $17-$20
    • For tickets, call 303-296-0219 or go to suteatro.org


    • Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.
    • Sunday matinee on Oct. 22 at 2 p.m.

    Cast list:

    • Don Guillermo Aztlan: Hugo Jon Sayles
    • Elizabeth: Marialuisa Burgos
    • Carmen: Magally Luna
    • Violeta : Paola Miranda
    • Consuelo: Iliana Barron
    • Carlos: Aaron Vieyra
    • Tino: Adolfo Romero

    2017-18 'In the Spotlife' profiles:
    Meet Christy Brandt of Creede Rep's Arsenic and Old Lace
    Meet Deb Persoff of Vintage Theatre's August: Osage County
    Meet Monica Joyce Thompson of Inspire Creative’s South Pacific

  • 2016 True West Award: Yolanda Ortega

    by John Moore | Dec 19, 2016
    True West Awards Yolanda Ortego. Su Teatro


    30 DAYS, 30 BOUQUETS

    Day 19: Actor Yolanda Ortega

    Yolanda Ortega has created unique and interesting roles on Su Teatro’s stages for 42 years. But Executive Artistic Director Anthony J. Garcia considers her work in Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima this year to be no less than “the performance of a generation.”

    Su Teatro is Colorado's "Locally Grown, Nationally Known" Chicano theater company based in its own performing-arts complex at 721 Santa Fe Drive. Ortega revisited two epic and signature roles in 2016, both spiritual guides of a kind: Tia in the massive original musical El Sol Que Tu Eres (The Sun That You Are), and the titular Ultima in Su Teatro’s polarizing stage adaptation of Anaya's novel, the most widely read in the Chicano literary canon since its publication in 1972.

    And Ortega played them just a few months after having had a double knee reconstruction in September of 2015.

    True West Awards Yolanda Ortego. The Sun That You Are. Photo by Steven AbeytaThe Sun That You Are is Garcia’s contemporary, bilingual reimagining of the Greek Orpheus-Eurydice myth infused with Aztec traditions such as the Day of the Dead. The result is a gritty adventure complete with drug lords, sassy gringas, mysticism and ruminations on the origin of love. With Ortega by his side, Orfeo must calm trembling mountains and ride enormous turtles on an epic journey toward the story’s inevitably tragic confrontation. It was introduced in 2005 as the most ambitious undertaking in Su Teatro’s history.

    Bless Me, Ultima is Anaya’s seminal coming-of-age story in 1940s rural New Mexico that has been both banned and celebrated for daring to show a protagonist who not only struggles for his Chicano identity, but with his deeply ingrained Catholicism.

    (Pictured above and right: Yolanda Ortega and Miguel Martimen in 'The Sun That You Are.' Photo by Steven Abeyta.)

    More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

    Ortega has been an ensemble actor with Su Teatro from its earliest days, one of the theatres born of the national protest movement of the early 1970s that used storytelling as a tool for radical social justice.

    Yolanda Ortega QuoteGarcia admits the movement was initially male-centric, from playwrights to actors. But Ortega hung in there, making the most of whatever roles she could get, eventually developing into a leading lady who has since tackled some of the great roles in the canon such as Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Federico Lorca’s Bernarda Alba. “It is that weight and experience and importance that Yolanda brought to her portrayal of Ultima,” he said.

    "The first and most obvious impression is Ultima’s presence. Yolanda enters with great carriage. Ultima is special and blessed by a spiritual power that commands respect and attention. That might be a difficult level for a lesser actor to reach.”

    But what particularly impressed Garcia was her interactions with a 9-year-old castmate named Christopher Pettis. “They were conversational and intimate,” Garcia said, “sometimes so quiet and intense that we feel we are intruders.

    "My fellow directors from around the country who have seen Yolanda perform are always taken with her ‘economy of action.’ Because of her tremendous presence, Yolanda can make so much happen with less. She is always at the center of the play without calling any attention to herself.”

    Anthony J. Garcia: On moving from marginalized to mainstream

    Ortega studied Public Administration at the University of Colorado Denver, which led to a 32-year career with Metropolitan State University of Denver. That means she both studied and later worked on the very same Auraria campus that displaced the bulk of Denver’s Mexican-American community nearly 50 years ago.

    Su Teatro was born, in large measure, from the broken promises of that angry time, and the company has worked over the decades to reunify the Westside community with its roots there, the spiritual center of which remains St. Cajetan’s Church on the Auraria campus. Ortega was a central figure in the difficult ongoing process of healing, and while she retired in 2004 as Metro State's Vice President of Student Services, she maintains an emeritus position with the university. She is now the owner of Encantada Catering, Inc.

    Yolanda Ortega/At a glance

    • High School: Dover (Delaware)
    • Colleges: Arkansas State, Wesley College (Deleware), Arkansas State and the University of Colorado Denver
    • Radio: Co-host of Cancion Mejicana on Sunday mornings on 89.3 FM KUVO
    • Career: Vice President Emeritus of Student Services at Metropolitan State University of Denver
    • Ongoing public service:  Special events programmer for Clínica Tepeyac (health services for the underserved). Serves on the Board of Directors for Escuela Tlatelolco (Denver Public Schools' alternative education for young Latinos). She is a  Governor’s appointee to the Auraria Higher Education Center Board of Directors and she also serves on the Denver Mayor’s Commisson on Cultural Affairs and Denver Latino Commission.
    The True West Awards, now in their 16th 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 2016 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


    Day 1: Jada Suzanne Dixon
    Day 2: Robert Michael Sanders
    Day 3: After Orlando
    Day 4: Michael Morgan
    Day 5: Beth Beyer
    Day 6: Patrick Elkins-Zeglarski
    Day 7: donnie l. betts
    Day 8: Night of the Living Dead
    Day 9: The Killer Kids of Miscast
    Day 10: Jason Sherwood
    Day 11: Leslie O'Carroll and Steve Wilson
    Day 12: Jonathan Scott-McKean
    Day 13: Jake Mendes
    Day 14: Charles R. MacLeod
    Day 15: Patty Yaconis
    Day 16: Daniel Langhoff
    Day 17: Colorado Shakespeare Festival costumers
    Day 18: Miriam Suzanne
    Day 19: Yolanda Ortega
    Day 20: Diana Ben-Kiki
    Day 21: Jeff Neuman
    Day 22: Gabriella Cavallero
    Day 23: Matthew Campbell
    Day 24: Sharon Kay White
    Day 25: John Hauser
    Day 26: Lon Winston
    Day 27: Jason Ducat
    Day 28: Sam Gregory
    Day 29: Warren Sherrill
    Day 30: The Women Who Run Theatre in Boulder
    Theatre Person of the Year Billie McBride
  • 2015 True West Award: Allison Watrous

    by John Moore | Dec 15, 2015
    True West Awards, Allison Watrous
    Photo by Chris Howard for Denver School of the Arts.


    ​Today’s recipient:
    Allison Watrous,
    DCPA Director of Education, director, actor and teacher

    Today’s presenter: Shawn Hann,
    Denver School of the Arts Director of Theatre

    After a recent local performance of the wrenching play Gideon’s Knot starring Allison Watrous, a student in the audience lit up and said, ‘That was the most amazing piece of theatre I have ever seen in my life.” The student's teacher is Watrous. 

    Watrous is an actor, director and big-time theatre educator. No matter the role, it seems, when it comes to lighting a fire under young people with a love of theatre, Watrous is kerosene.

    “I have never seen anyone with a greater ability to connect with people through art in so many different ways,” said Shawn Hann, Director of Theatre at Denver School of the Arts and today’s True West Awards guest picker.

    From the Denver Center for the Performing Arts to Denver School of the Arts to Golden to Auraria to even China, it’s unlikely anyone in the Colorado theatre community had a greater impact on more young theatre lives in 2015 than Watrous. After 17 years as a DCPA Teaching Artist, the Wheat Ridge native was named the DCPA’s new Director of Education a year ago. She now oversees classes for more than 65,000 students of all ages every year.

    Allison WatrousYet Watrous somehow has managed to continue teaching classes as a visiting artist at Denver School of the Arts and as an adjunct professor at the University of Colorado Denver. And her big year is ending with a huge accolade: She has been selected to teach Intro to Theatre for 40 students at the International College of Beijing from Dec. 20-Jan. 14.

    Watrous also found time this year to direct Brighton Beach Memoirs for Miners Alley Playhouse in Golden, and she starred in Gideon’s Knot for her own theatre company, Sis Tryst Productions. Watrous played a grieving mother who confronts an overwhelmed teacher after her son’s suicide.

    In short, Hann said, “Allison is everywhere.”

    In her first year running DCPA Education, the Denver Center entered into a partnership with the Denver Public Schools Foundation to both preserve and expand the 31-year-old DPS Shakespeare Festival, which draws more than 5,000 largely minority students from 70 schools to the Denver Performing Arts Complex, where they perform more than 640 short scenes, dances, soliloquies and sonnets.  

    Watrous also conceived and implemented “Shakespeare in the Parking Lot,” a new program that brings Romeo & Juliet to area schools in a 1980 Ford F-250 farm truck. DCPA Teaching Artists perform an abridged version of the romantic tragedy in, on and around the old beater, followed by companion classroom curriculum that relates issues of the play to difficulties in the students’ everyday lives.

    Watrous launched another pilot program that uses Shakespeare’s frequent use of gender-bending as a gateway to help students talk about the increasingly complex issue of gender fluidity in schools.

    Shakespeare in the Parking Lot. And after Westminster High School became the first high school in the nation to stage the immigration drama Just Like Us, Watrous and Artistic Director Kent Thompson visited with the cast at the school to offer their encouragement and insight. Thompson commissioned and staged the world premiere of the controversial story in 2013, and Watrous played a role in it.

    (Photo above right: John Hauser and Jenna Moll Reyes perform in 'Romeo & Juliet' as part of "Shakespeare in the Parking Lot." Photo by John Moore.)

    Meanwhile, DCPA Education completed its second year-long, statewide teen playwriting initiative, which began with classroom workshops for nearly 3,000 students last fall. That inspired 158 original one-act play submissions. Three were selected to be workshopped and read by professional actors at the 2015 Colorado New Play Summit. The winning entry, The Tale of the Almighty Sword by Jack Hansen of Arapahoe High School, later received two fully staged performances at the Denver Center.

    And seriously? That’s just for starters.

    Last year, Denver School of the Arts became the first high school anywhere to stage both the DCPA-born The Laramie Project and its sequel, Ten Years Later. The companion plays explore the brutal 1998 murder of University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. Watrous directed The Laramie Project while Hann helmed the sequel. The plays were presented in repertory after the students spent several bitter-cold days in Laramie researching the murder first-hand. Hann said it was a profound experience for everyone involved.

    The achievement was recognized by the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which issued a statement calling the students' work no less than incredible. An excerpt:

    “It was inspiring to watch these student performers approach this production with such passion and responsibility for the history it captured, knowing the words that lived within the script were not written, but recorded.

    "There was a noticeable transformation that occurred over the course of a few months and daily rehearsals. These students became more than just actors — they became the catalyst for change. … On top of their own stresses, responsibilities and daily lives, the cast pushed boundaries to understand what it means to feel hate, anger and fear in their most extreme forms.

     “To Allison Watrous and Shawn Hann, we applaud your work to inform, comfort and guide these students through such an eye-opening and heavy production. … The courage, professionalism and determination of young minds can and should never be underestimated.”

    Hann said Watrous’ strengths as an actor – intelligence, vulnerability and generosity of spirit, are also what make her such an effective educator.

     “Allison has an amazing ability to paint the world of the play, giving context for these characters to live and breathe in our students,” she said.

    Watrous graduated from Wheat Ridge High School and Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, before earning her masters degree from the DCPA’s National Theatre Conservatory. Next year, she again will teach at DSA. She also will direct Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia – one of the great challenges any theatre company can undertake, much less a high school.

    The question is – how does she do it all while also running DCPA Education, a massive operation that offers a wide variety of theatre classes for every age and skill level? Her division also provides training, study guides, field trips and in-school workshops to help area educators activate a love of theatre in their students.

    “It’s just crazy what Allison is able to get accomplished,” Hann said. “When she got the promotion at the DCPA, we just naturally expected her to be less involved at our school. But she loves it so much that she will do whatever it takes to make it work. I think it’s because she is fed by the students as much as she feeds them.”

    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.

    Teen playwriting, Tale of the Almighty Sword. Photo by John Moore. The DCPA's second annual Regional High School Playwriting Workshop and Competition culminated in June with two fully staged performances of "The Tale of the Almighty Sword" by Jack Hansen of Arapahoe High School. Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.


    The True West Awards began as the Denver Post Ovation Awards in 2001. This year, 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 around the state 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

    Day 1: Rachel D. Graham
    Day 2: BALLS! A Holiday Spectacular
    Day 3: Creede Repertory Theatre's 50th anniversary season
    Day 4: Laurence Curry
    Day 5: Bernie Cardell
    Day 6: Susan Lyles
    Day 7: John Jurcheck​
    Day 8: Christopher L. Sheley
    Day 9: DCPA Education's 'Shakespeare in the Parking Lot'
    Day 10: Man and Monster: Todd Debreceni and TJ Hogle
    Day 11: Shauna Johnson
    Day 12: Geoffrey Kent and Benjamin Bonenfant
    Day 13: Sesugh Solomon Tor-Agbidye
    Day 14: Keith Ewer
    Day 15: Allison Watrous
    Day 16: Jonathan Farwell
    Day 17: Bob, Wendy and Missy Moore
    Day 18: Emma Messenger
    Day 19: Shannon McKinney
    Day 20: Mary Louise Lee and Yasmine Hunter
    Day 21: Charlie Miller and Emily Tarquin
    Day 22: Scott Beyette
    Day 23: Augustus Truhn
    Day 24: Jimmy Bruenger
    Day 25: The Masters of Props: Rob Costigan, Peki Pineda and Becky Toma
    Day 26: Jalyn Courtenay Webb
    Day 27: Andre Rodriguez
    Day 28: Rebecca Remaly
    Day 29: Mark Collins
    Day 30: Phamaly Theatre Company's Cabaret
    Bonus: Donald R. Seawell
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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