2019 True West Awards GerRee Hinshaw. Freak Train. Photo by John Moore

2019 True West Award: GerRee Hinshaw

2019 True West Awards GerRee Hinshaw. Freak Train. Photo by John Moore

Photo by John Moore

Day 10: Actor, singer and variety host lets freaks’ flags fly

There is a real generosity of spirit about longtime Denver cultural icon GerRee Hinshaw: Actor, singer and host of Denver’s longest-running open-mic variety show, Freak Train.

“Working with GerRee is like working with a hug,” said Helen R. Murray, who directed Hinshaw in her starring performance in the Aurora Fox’s immigration musical Miss You Like Hell.

Hinshaw has been one with Denver’s freaks since the summer of 2000, when Joel Harmon and other members of The Bug Theatre community were looking for ways to fill the historic theatre that is now about the last surviving reminder of its northwest Denver neighborhood, pre-mass gentrification.

Freak Train, held every last Monday, is a monthly talent apocalypse that draws musical freaks, comical freaks and, last month, even vomiting freaks. The first 12 to sign up get five minutes to basically do anything they want as long as they don’t harm themselves or others. The all-comers crapshoot draws freaks with ukuleles, freaks who juggle, freaks with glitter, freaks with cancer, freaks with serious performance dreams and freaks with alternatingly horrifying and bona-fide talents.

Freak Train passed a once unfathomable milestone in August when it began its 20th year, with Hinshaw as host or co-host since the very beginning – although her unseen partner in the booth, Alex Weimer, calls himself “the only living person who has seen every single Freak Train” (an accurate if freaky choice of words, when you think about it.) That’s an estimated 215 Freak Trains that have given nearly 2,600 freaks their five minutes of friendly infamy on the stage. Perhaps most remarkably, Hinshaw and Weimer have never paid themselves a dime from the still modest $5 admission fee.

‘Working with GerRee is like working with a hug.’ – Helen R. Murray

They keep doing it, Weimer said, “because it’s fun, and because it gives artists a chance to get up on the stage and find their voice.”

The Train keeps a rollin’ in large part, he said, because Hinshaw creates a such a safe space. “I think our success has a lot to do with GerRee because she’s a very good host, she’s not mean to anyone – and she doesn’t take any crap. That, and how she ends the show is legendary.”

She ends it with an original gospel song that she writes as the show goes along. It’s a witty and lyrical recap mixing praise and politics that Hinshaw booms out with a powerful, bluesy voice that ensures every Freak Train crescendos to its final stop at the station. No one comes to Freak Train for the talent – but they do come for Hinshaw, Weimer said. That and the free Great Divide beer. “Let’s face it – free beer never hurt anyone,” he said.

Hinshaw says she still does it “because every time we see new freaks take the stage, it just proves that this very special performance space is needed in Denver.”

Read John Hendrickson’s 2009 Denver Post feature on Freak Train 

GerRee Hinshaw brings another Freak Train into the station. Photo by John Moore.

2019 was a huge year for Hinshaw beyond Freak Train, most notably her powerful turn as the matriarch in Miss You Like Hell, Quiara Alegría Hudes’ seemingly ripped-from-the-headlines story of a free-spirited, undocumented immigrant who swoops in on the angry teenage daughter she abandoned back in Philadelphia. Her intent is presumably to make amends – but she really needs her as a character witness in her upcoming deportation trial.

GerRee Hinshaw Miss You Like Hell Aurora Fox

GerRee Hinshaw, center, and the cast of ‘Miss You Like Hell.’ Courtesy The Aurora Fox.

The musical was first introduced to local audiences by Curious Theatre in 2009 as a then-developing non-musical play called 26 Miles. And it was clear even a decade ago that Hudes had created a powerhouse and utterly original new character for the stage in Beatriz. Back then the plot was a simple road-trip comedy with no deep political overtones. But the musical Hudes and composer Erin McKeown delivered to the Aurora Fox gave Hinshaw and her castmates significantly greater stakes to play. Alex Miller of OnStage Colorado called Hinshaw’s performance a powerhouse. Beatriz, The Denver Post’s Lisa Kennedy added, “is one of Hinshaw’s most substantial roles yet,” one that builds to an ending musical moment from Hinshaw that only Freak Train audiences have been privy to much in recent years.

What most appealed to Hinshaw “beyond the painful relevance” of the musical, she said, is that “it wraps us all in the arms of a mother and daughter reaching for one another.”

Murray says Beatriz is of those roles Hinshaw was destined to play. “She just walked into the audition and took it from anyone else who wanted it,” she said. “And I can tell you, it’s a such relief for any director to know your leading role is in the hands of someone who gets it completely.”

Murray also found in Hinshaw a creative partner “who is warm and inviting and welcoming, but also challenging and smart.” Playwrights often go to Hinshaw when they are developing new work for those very reasons. She’s known both for her collaborative spirit and razor-sharp creative instincts. Writers bring Hinshaw into the process because they know she will ask the kinds of questions that will make whatever they are working on better. In 2019, Hinshaw participated in development readings of Discount Ghost Stories for Local Theater Company, Andrew Rosendorf’s Refuge for Curious Theatre and Jessica Kahkoska’s Denver Center-born In Her Bones.

Audiences will have three chances to see Hinshaw this month. She will perform along with Karen Slack and longtime DCPA Theatre Company favorite Jamie Horton in this month’s edition of Stories on Stage, called Making Merry. Hinshaw will read “O’Brien’s First Christmas” by Jeanette Winterson on Saturday, December 14, at the Nomad Playhouse in Boulder, and on Sunday, December 15, at the King Center on the Auraria campus (303-494-0523 or storiesonstage.org). She also will make an appearance at Steven J. Burge’s December 18 cabaret at the Vintage Theatre, Homo for the Holidays. And while The Bug Theatre often takes December off for the holidays, there will be a year-ending edition of Freak Train on Monday, December 30 (303-477-9984 or bugtheatre.info).

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

Photo gallery: Ride on the Freak Train

Photos by John Moore.

About The True West Awards: ’30 Days, 30 Bouquets’

The True West Awards, now in their 19th year, began as the Denver Post Ovation Awards in 2001. 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 2019 over 30 days, without categories or nominations. Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S. by American Theatre magazine in 2011. His daily coverage of the DCPA and the Colorado theatre community can be found at MyDenverCenter.Org

Read up on all of the 2019 True West Awards