2015 True West Award: Christopher L. Sheley

Christopher L. Sheley, 4000 Miles, Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. Photo by Jeff Kearney.
Photo by Jeff Kearney for the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.


​Today’s recipient: Scenic Designer Christopher L. Sheley,
Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center Theatre Company’s 4000 Miles

Today’s presenter: DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore

How detail-oriented is Christopher L. Sheley? The Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center Theatre Company’s Resident Set Designer placed dead bugs inside the hanging light fixtures in the Greenwich Village apartment he created for 4000 Miles, one of the most fully realized productions on any Colorado stage this year.

In Amy Herzog’s play, this apartment belongs to 91-year-old New Yorker named Vera, inspired by the playwright’s own grandmother. The level of detail Sheley achieved in re-creating it in Colorado Springs was so meticulous, audiences came early and stayed late to take it all in: The parquet floors, the massive shelves of books, the fade around the wall art, the hanging hints of the owner’s radical past. It all bore artful consideration.

Sheley and the Fine Arts Center are a perfect match: A theatre company housed within an art museum and, for a decade now, a scenic designer who creates worlds on stage that are themselves works of art. 

Scott RC Levy QuoteNext to a wall phone in the kitchen, Sheley posted a sheet listing the names and phone numbers Grandma Vera might actually call – written in actor Billie McBride’s own handwriting. Sheley even mixed dirt into the wall paint to indicate age and sun-weathering. The apartment looked – and even smelled – like it was lifted right out of the Village. That’s because that was a real coffee maker brewing up the grounds in that kitchen.

Sheley is a master of hyperrealism, which was necessary to help the four actors tell this story with authenticity. Levy and Sheley were also acutely aware that the playwright had spent a lot of time in the real New York apartment that inspired it. “We wanted to honor that, and to get it right,” Levy said.

They got it right, all right. And a big reason the apartment looked so jarringly real was because Sheley shrank the actual dimension of The SaGaJi Theatre’s proscenium – and added an actual apartment ceiling. You almost never see room ceilings in plays performed at theatres. Ceilings are mostly implied because they have to allow for the stage lighting hanging from above to get through. Not here.

Sheley got the inspiration – and the confidence – that he could pull off the concept from having seen the Denver Center Theatre Company’s 2012 production of The Whale, designed by Jason Simms.

Benjamin Bonenfant and Billie McBride in '4000 Miles,' Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. Photo by Jeff Kearney.“When we saw The Whale, we realized it was possible to pluck out a legitimate-looking apartment in all the right measurements and transfer them right onto the stage,” Levy said. It helped that Sheley’s work was perfectly complemented by Holly Anne Rawls’ lighting design, right down to the hallway bleed under Vera’s front door. The set was also recently honored with a Pikes Peak Arts Council Award.

Sheley, a native of St. Louis, came to the Fine Arts Center in 2005 and quickly established himself as among the most gifted scenic designers in Colorado. He won 2006 and 2010 Denver Post Ovation Awards for designing Pirates of Penzance and Sweeney Todd, respectively. Levy says Sheley’s greatest strengths are collaboration, detail and tirelessness.

(Photo above right: Benjamin Bonenfant and Billie McBride in ‘4000 Miles.’ Both appeared in the DCPA Theatre Company’s recent world-premiere staging of ‘Benediction.’ Bonenfant is currently appearing in the DCPA’s ‘A Christmas Carol.’ Photo by Jeff Kearney for the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.)

And Sheley is apparently not without a sense of humor. In a wink to the Fine Arts Center faithful, he hung an original Lew Tilley painting on Vera’s wall. Tilley was a beloved local painter, poet and actor. He was also Sheley’s predecessor as the Fine Arts Center’s resident scenic designer before his death in 2005. Also hidden among the books dominating Vera’s shelves, Sheley slipped in an unseeable copy of a 2011 American Theatre Magazine that spotlighted 4000 Miles’ off-Broadway debut on its cover. That production starred Denver native Gabe Ebert in the role of the wayward cyclist grandson who has shown up on his grandma’s apartment with both bike and baggage in tow.

Levy’s staging of 4000 Miles was a real treasure in the Colorado theatre season, in large part because os the nuanced performances by McBride, Benjamin Bonenfant, Rachel Baker and Erica Erickson. But Sheley gave them a 4,000-mile head start by depositing them, and the audience, immediately into the literal world of the play.

(Note: ‘4000 Miles’ will be staged next from Jan. 29-March 6 by Miners Alley Playhouse in Golden. Click here for information.)

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

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

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