2014 True West Award: Michael R. Duran




Michael R. Duran didn’t have to announce his return to Denver last year. It’s evident in his work: The dank, surrealistic warehouse in Curious Theatre’s Venus in Fur. The brightly hued and wonderfully economical SS American in Town Hall Arts Center’s Anything Goes. Life on the run for a young girl in Theatre Or’s Kinderstransport at the Mizel Arts and Culture Center. Duran, as he once had for 35 years, is back creating entire evocative worlds on stages large and small across the Denver area.

Duran’s history goes back to the glory days of Loretto Heights College and the Bonfils Theatre, where he was a personal mentee of the late, legendary producer Henry Lowenstein. As a grown-up, Duran established himself as a director, playwright, actor, stage manager and scenic designer. (Remember that pool of water that kept actors in the swim for nine months of Metamorphoses at The Avenue Theatre?) He also designed three national touring productions, and earned The Denver Post’s 2004 Ovation Award as Theatre Person of the Year.

Duran took his mid-life leave of us in 2009 to earn his masters degree at Tulane University in New Orleans. He came home to a professorship at Metropolitan State University and an appointment as resident scenic designer at the Lone Tree Arts Center. Since then, he has quickly re-established himself in the local theatre community.

His work in Curious’ Venus in Fur was particularly compelling – and even somewhat controversial. David Ives wrote his play to suggest the locale was a bare and spare rented warehouse with a suspect fuse box. But the where could have been anywhere. Here, a frustrated, misogynist playwright has wasted his day trying to find a substantive actress to play the lead character in his adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s novel, Venus in Fur. In the source story, the god Dionysus comes down and reduces the king of Thebes to “a mass of quivering feminine jelly in a dress.” Only here, it’s not Dionysus – it’s Aphrodite. And when lightning crashes and an impossibly late tart of a wannabe actress waltzes in hoping to be seen for the role? Well, she just might be Aphrodite herself. Over the next 90 minutes, she certainly seduces, teases and tortures the poor schlub down to … well, a mass of quivering feminine jelly.

Duran created a living, breathing character for actors Karen Slack and Brett Aune to dance in that challenged audience members to decide for themselves whether this was a literal studio – or if perhaps we had all somehow been transported to some kind of ancient, mythological torture chamber. The grimy windows; the ominously humming ceiling fan; the hanging chains and the red velvet divan suggested either a metaphorical prison cell — or a modern-day house of urban, erotic fetishes. Duran’s canvas certainly lent itself to an array of interpretations that Ives may or may not have intended. One reviewer came right out and said the play takes place “in a dilapidated old garment-district building in New York” – which the script says nothing about. That speaks to the power of a picture.

Now a full-fledged theatre professor, Duran describes his teaching philosophy thusly: “I firmly believe the desire to express oneself, our emotions, our dreams and passions is elemental to our very being. Throughout our work, our dress, our choice of associates, everyone without exception has an insistent desire for self-expression.”

And we’re all the better for having Duran back in Denver and expressing himself on area stages again.  

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

This video takes you backstage with Michael R. Duran on the making of the scenic design for Lone Tree Arts Center’s “Big River.”

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