2014 True West Award: Kristen Samu and Denver Actors Fund volunteers




On her Facebook profile, actor Kristen Samu quotes Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor who was known for his staunch resistance to the Nazi dictatorship. He was imprisoned in a concentration camp and executed by hanging just two weeks before Allied forces liberated his camp. Bonhoeffer said: “In ordinary life, we hardly realize that we receive a great deal more than we give, and that it is only with gratitude that life becomes rich.”

The extraordinary Samu has been giving throughout her rich, ordinary life.

Kristen and her husband, Mitch, did not know Shelly Bordas when the call went out to the local theatre community in 2013 to help the young mother with stage-4 brain cancer to take her son, then 3, on a Disney cruise. The Samus hosted a benefit concert at their church in Littleton that drew all-star names including Megan Van De Hey, Thaddeus Valdez, Sarah Rex, Joanie Brosseau-Beyette and many more.

When the call for went out last year for volunteers to join The Denver Actors Fund‘s new “Action Teams,” Samu was one of nearly 60 members of the local theatre community to sign up, making for what has since come to be affectionately called “an army of angels,” headed by Shannon McAndrews. These volunteers might be called on to run errands, give rides, provide child or pet care, or build things like ramps or handrails. Samu volunteered to chair what has turned out to be the busiest team: Meal preparation and delivery.

Here’s how it works: Word gets to Denver Actors Fund that a member of the community is going through something that might make meal prep more of a burden. Perhaps they have been released from a hospital and are recovering alone; or maybe they have had a baby, or lost a loved one. The call goes to Kristen. She pinpoints the most convenient nearby volunteer, and coordinates delivery of the meal.


The Meal Team was born on April 12, when word came that actor and playwright Tracy Shaffer Witherspoon’s husband had died. Samu delivered a meal to Shaffer and her two sons by 4 o’clock that afternoon. It included homemade tamales and potato salad from Nathan Bock, and fruit salad and cherry pie (not homemade) from Rick Madden. Two days later, Shaffer posted this message on her Facebook page:

“I weep every day when someone from The Denver Actors Fund comes by with some love and homemade food. All of this at a time I can’t even think of cooking. Thank you from the bottom of my heart and the bottomless pit called a teenage boy’s stomach.”

Soon after, young mother GerRee Hinshaw would be returning home from an unexpected out-of-town funeral with a 2-year-old and no fresh food in the fridge. She later wrote:

“Grief is a messy process. It is distracting and confusing. It is painful and revealing. And because of The Denver Actors Fund, we did not go through it alone.”

Local theatre critic Craig Williamson’s wife needed cancer surgery, and he had three teenagers to feed. When actor Steven J. Burge took in Shelly Bordas’ young son for a guys’ weekend, it hit him – he had never prepared a meal for a child in his life. Samu’s response was swift — and delicious. None of those recipients even had to ask for help. Samu just gave it.

The initial plan was for the Meal Team to deliver one-off acts of kindness. Samu saw that as a fleeting gesture. So she has instead approached each request as necessitating a comprehensive meal plan. To date, eight recipients have received at least seven meals each, spread out over a week to maximize the benefit. She takes into consideration specific nutritional needs, allergies and special requests, tailoring each meal to each recipient. When stage manager Meghan Ralph had emergency surgery to remove her gallbladder, Kristen’s team delivered several homemade gluten- and dairy-free meals to her home.

The Action Teams are now about 9 months old, and to date, the Meal Team has prepared and delivered more than 50 meals and given out about 15 bags of groceries. That does not include the meals actor/chef John Arp delivered weekly to Boulder actor Chad Afanador, who was diagnosed with stage-4 Hodgkin’s lymphoma the same week that his wife gave birth.

Samu, a South Dakota native whose resume includes performing at the former Country Dinner Playhouse (My Way a Musical Tribute to Frank Sinatra), is a working mother who managed to run her business, EarthSky Productions, and work in an appearance in Miners Alley Playhouse’s recent musical, Songs for a New World. Westword’s Juliet Wittman called her soulful and “brilliantly funny.”

Samu’s True West Award is representative of all Denver Actors Fund volunteers and specifically members of her team. They include John Arp, Lauren Bahlman, Nathan Bock, Steven Burge, Rachel Fowler, Tammy Franklin, Kevin Hart, Twanna Latrice Hill, Heather Lacy, Paige Larson, Billie McBride, Boni McIntyre, Rick Madden, Amber Marsh, Debbie Minter, Heather Nicolson, Jeremy and Lyndsay Palmer, Beki Pineda, Onna Poeter, Laura Siebert, Karen Slack, Mare Trevathan, Winnie Winglewick and Patty Yaconis. 

For those interested in volunteering opportunities, the call will go out next month on the Denver Actors Fund’s Facebook page for people to sign up (or re-up) for the 2015 Action Teams.   

                                 2014 TRUE WEST AWARDS

1. Norrell Moore
2. Kate Gleason
3. Amanda Berg Wilson and Jeremy Make
4. Ben Cowhick
5. Robert Michael Sanders
6. David Nehls
7. Adrian Egolf
8. Emma Messenger
9. Buntport’s Naughty Bits
10. Tim Howard
11. Gleason Bauer
12. Daniel Traylor
13. Aisha Jackson and Jim Hogan
14. Cast of ‘The Whipping Man’
15. Rick Yaconis
16. Michael R. Duran
17. Laura Norman
18. Jacquie Jo Billings
19. Megan Van De Hey
20. Jeremy Palmer
21. Henry Lowenstein   
22. Sam Gregory
23. Wendy Ishii
24. J. Michael Finley
25. Kristen Samu and Denver Actors Fund volunteers
26. Matthew D. Peters
27. Shannan Steele
28. Ludlow, 1914
29. Spring Awakening and Annapurna
30 Theatre Person of the Year Steve Wilson

The True West Awards, which began as the Denver Post Ovation Awards in 2001, are the longest-running continuously administered awards program in Colorado theater. This year, the awards have been re-conceived to simply recognize 30 award-worthy achievements in local theatre, without categories or nominations. A different honoree will be singled out each day for 30 days.

The True West Awards are administered by arts journalist John Moore, who was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since founded The Denver Actors Fund and taken a groundbreaking position as the DCPA’s Senior Arts Journalist.

*The DCPA Theatre Company is not considered for True West Awards, which are instead intended as the DCPA’s celebration of the local theatre community.

Moore’s daily coverage of the Colorado theatre community can be found at MyDenverCenter.Org

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