2014 True West Award: Wendy Ishii




“Life changes in an instant. The ordinary instant.”

Author Joan Didion called the first year after the sudden, separate deaths of her husband and daughter “The Year of Magical Thinking.” For anyone who has ever lost a loved one, it is a year of hard, sweet wisdom. A yearlong crash-course in learning how to stop believing in magic.

I have called Wendy Ishii “The Tornado” for years. Not to imply that she is a destructive weather system who leaves carnage in her wake. … Necessarily. No, because she is a benevolent force of nature. Then again, I have often seen audience members left with exposed entrails after seeing her perform as, say, Mother Courage, or as stroke victim Emily Stilson in Wings. Ishii has been invited to perform at festivals and conferences in Australia, Great Britain, Canada, Israel and South Africa. Her work in Samuel Beckett’s plays has been noted in books, articles, journals and academic papers, and is included in the Beckett Archives. Ooh-lah-lah.

Want more? Ishii was named Colorado’s Theatre Person of the Year by the 2008 Denver Post Ovation Awards. Three years later, she was nominated for a Bonfils Stanton Livingston Fellowship. She received the CSU David Lord Award for “Distinguished Contribution to the Performing Arts” and was honored as a “Woman of Vision” by Colorado Women of Influence. This year she hosted Lest We Forget: A weekend of Holocaust remembrances through film, stage and panel conversations.

On-stage, Ishii is like the roles she stoops to conquer: She’s a shape-shifter who glides easily from contemporary to classical to avant-garde freak. Off-stage, “The Tornado” gets what she wants. Twenty-three years ago, she wanted an intimate boutique theatre in downtown Fort Collins, and she got it. Ten years ago, she wanted to move into a larger performing arts center in the desolate north of Fort Collins, and she got it. She brags about her lack of business acumen, but she is credited for leading the charge of new business “across the tracks” a decade ago, and Bas Bleu is now surrounded by five dozen apartments, a distillery, a brewpub, a high-tech innovation hub and restaurants. She made that happen. Or, at the very least, she blew the first domino down.

Say no to her at your own peril.

Yet life said no to Ishii this past year, in unnervingly Didion-like ways. And her losses only began with the death of her daughter-in-law, a young mother of three, from cancer. Her accumulation of bereavements seemed to be the theatre gods’ way of saying, “You’re going to live this play? Then you are going to live this play.”

Ishii has spent a year now living this play, called, yes, The Year of Magical Thinking,  performing it from Boulder to Fort Collins. And she is not the same for it. On or off stage.

Didion’s 2007 memoir was brought to Broadway by no less than Vanessa Redgrave. But as evidently suited as Redgrave was for the role, it calls on different and more dangerous emotional reservoirs than we have seen from Ishii before. Didion is hardened. Brittle. Acerbic. Pithy in a Dorothy Parker way. Ishii is kind of a human globule of goodness. This tricky, nonlinear script called on Ishii to zig and zag through the minefields of untenable grief while taking turns as razor-sharp and shivery as a mountain drive on ice. This is the rare kind of acting challenge where anything less than a virtuoso performance could be considered an abject failure. 

But from the moment The Tornado started to blow, we could see that Ishii (as directed by Oz Scott) was going to be OK. Because underneath all that body armor of a woman the New York Times called “a Cassandra-like creature, a prophetess at a temple of doom,” was the face of Ishii. The wry and wounded, human and relatable face of a woman whose life, of late, has been much-too-closely imitating her art. A woman, like Didion, who is slogging on with gusto. Not so much a severe weather pattern but a warm, seductive breeze coming from a woman who is saying a necessary and heartfelt goodbye to her life as she once knew it:

“I love you even more than one more day.”


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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