High-school theatre set Pekarek on a path toward international stardom, a Greeley legend … and a Denver Center commission
Neyla Pekarek was snake-bitten by the theatre as a student at Overland High School in Aurora. If not, she says, she never would have had the courage to answer a Craigslist ad from a local folk band needing a cello player. If not, she never would have joined the Denver-based, internationally adored band The Lumineers. If not, she would not have played two sold-out concerts at Madison Square Garden last year, or had the life-changing experience of opening for U2 on the 30th anniversary tour of “The Joshua Tree.”
And she certainly would not be introducing audiences to a little-known Colorado legend named Rattlesnake Kate when she launches the summer season of Mixed Taste: Tag Team Lectures on Unrelated Topics at 7 p.m. on Wednesday (July 11) at the Denver Center’s Seawell Ballroom.
That was some snake bite.
“I was pretty shy, but I found my people through the theatre program at Overland High School,” Pekarek told the DCPA NewsCenter. “They were the people who made me feel like it was OK to be the weirdo that I was.”
Pekarek took up the cello at age 9. But it was a passionate choir teacher named Darin Drown (now at Grandview High School) who got her into singing. She eventually played Cosette in Overland’s production of Les Misérables in Aurora. (Although, like most actresses, she really wanted to play Eponine.)
“Orchestra kids by nature are a little bit introverted,” Pekarek said. “It took a lot to pull me out of my shell — and I never went back in.”
MCA Denver and the DCPA’s adventurous Off-Center wing are again partnering up to present Mixed Taste on Wednesday nights through Aug. 22. Pekarek is leading off the series with master sommelier Rona VanSlyck talking “Rattlesnake Kate and Rosé.”
During her scheduled between-albums sabbatical from The Lumineers, Pekarek has been developing a chamber folk opera on the life of Katherine McHale Slaughterback. “Rattlesnake Kate,” as she is better known, was a Greeley farmer who reportedly fought off 140 rattlesnakes to save her 3-year-old son in 1925. She then famously made a dress from their skins.
“That snake attack could be the climax of Kate’s story, but I actually think that’s where her life begins,” Pekarek said. “I picture a woman who lived totally outside of the mold and was certainly ahead of her time.”
Pekarek is the first writer to be commissioned by new DCPA Theatre Company Artistic Director Chris Coleman. Pekarek will develop Rattlesnake Kate into a full-fledged musical with the help of script writer Karen Hartman and local dramaturg Heidi Schmidt. A commission means the Denver Center will provide Pekarek with full technical, workshop and other support, with a right-of-first-refusal to premiere the musical when it is completed. “I am so thrilled that other people are excited about the story the way I am,” Pekarek said.
First, though, is Mixed Taste. Both featured participants on Wednesday will be given 20 minutes to address their seemingly unrelated subjects, followed by questions from the audience.
“It’s going to be a 20-minute introduction to Rattlesnake Kate’s life,” Pekarek said. “I am going to play four of the songs, stripped back and solo, with some storytelling mixed in.”
And what a life. Kate McHale was born near Longmont, in 1894. She was a nurse during World War II, after which she made her living farming on Colorado’s Eastern plains. She also held a variety of odd jobs over the years, including taxidermist, midwife and bootlegger. She was married and divorced six times and had one child, a son named Ernie Adamson — through there is some dispute as to whether he was adopted or born to Kate out of wedlock.
Rattlesnake Kate earned her nickname when she and Ernie went out looking for ducks left by hunters the night before. As Kate dismounted her horse to open a gate, she realized she had wandered into a rattlesnake migration. She shot at them with her .22 shotgun until she ran out of ammo, then pulled down a “No Hunting” sign and beat the rest of the rattlers dead. It took her more than two hours — all with Ernie strapped to her horse not 60 feet away.
“If you have met any 3-year-old, you know they don’t sit still for very long,” Pekarek said. “I really wonder, if Kate had been on her own, if she would have had the perseverance to kill all of those snakes. But a mother’s rage is something quite different.”
Word of the snake-slaying quickly spread, and reporters were soon to follow. Which all makes for great storytelling fodder. But Pekarek is just as interested in the 40-year love-letter affair Kate kept with Colonel Charles D. Randolph, aka Buckskin Bill.) Something about this woman defying convention and surviving on her own for so long speaks to Pekarek — and, she believes, will speak to other women in 2018.
More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter
“I think it is really important to be telling stories about women like Rattlesnake Kate right now,” she said. “I was never so aware of being a woman before I got into the music industry, which is such a male-dominated business. And I am in a band with all men, with a lot of male managers and tour managers. If you are a woman, you just have fight a little harder to have your voice heard.
“So when I discovered the life of Rattlesnake Kate, I identified with her so much. This is a strong feminist story about someone who lived outside the lines of what femininity was expected to be at that time — and she wasn’t willing to back down.
“Kate said constantly: ‘I am the boss of me,’ and that has become my mantra.”
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.
Mixed Taste: Ticket information
Even mismatched subjects will find common ground in a lecture series that can go pretty much anywhere.
• 7 p.m. every Wednesday from July 11 through Aug. 22
• Seawell Ballroom, Denver Performing Arts Complex
• Tickets: $20