Photo by Chris Howard for Denver School of the Arts.
2015 TRUE WEST AWARDS: 30 DAYS, 30 BOUQUETS
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.
Yet 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.
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.
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.
ABOUT THE TRUE WEST AWARDS
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 THE 2015 TRUE WEST AWARDS TO DATE
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