Avenue Theater changes direction under Gavin Mayer

Gavin Mayer.

The venerable yet ever-changing Avenue Theater is embarking on a new direction toward consistent, drama-based programming with the hiring of Gavin Mayer as its new Executive Director and Artistic Director.

The change is, in essence, a move from the comedy fringe back toward the center, Mayer says.

The Greeley native, who is best known as a director at the Arvada Center, has just announced The Avenue’s 27th year of programming – and the first “official season” in the theatre’s history. 

The slate includes Bright Ideas, a contemporary satire of parents who are willing to do anything to get their child into the best pre-school; the classic horse-eye-gouging Peter Shaffer psychodrama Equus; the return of The Avenue’s holiday tradition Santa’s Big Red Sack; a one-woman comedy tracing a woman’s life through her bras called Cups; the historical comedy Legacy of Light by Karen Zacarías (who also wrote last year’s Denver Center’s world-premiere immigration story Just Like Us); and a British coming-of-age drama called Beautiful Thing.

Mayer calls his inaugural slate “LGBT and feminist-friendly,” but one with a well-rounded and wide range of appeal for traditional theatregoing audiences whose expectations go beyond comedy.

The slate of directors will include Mayer, the very in-demand Christy Montour-Larson (DCPA’s Shadowlands and the Creede Rep’s upcoming August: Osage County), Colorado Theatre Guild President Pat Payne (Bright Ideas) and Kitty Skillman-Hilsabeck (Cups), who is best-known as the Arvada Center’s resident choreographer.

The only announced casting so far is tour-de-force local actor Megan Van De Hey, who will star in Joni Sheram’s one-woman comedy, Cups.

The late Joni Sheram performed her one-woman play 'Cups' throughout Colorado. Megan Van De Hey will perform it for The Avenue.  (Photo at right: The late Joni Sheram performed her one-woman play ‘Cups’ throughout Colorado. Megan Van De Hey will perform it for The Avenue.) 

The Avenue Theater has been in a state of transition and uncertainty for several years. Mayer believes he has been hired to ground, center and expand the operation, which audiences have lately known primarily as a place for sketch and improv comedy.

The theatre’s proud comedy tradition was once based largely on open-ended runs where productions could play for as long as there was audience demand. That history includes recurring stagings of the silly mystery Murder Most Fowl over 17 years – still the longest non-continuously running production in Colorado theatre history. But peppered in between have been significant if sporadic dramatic presentations, including landmark stagings of Mary Zimmerman’s watery Metamorphoses, which ran for nine months, and an award-winning dark comedy called Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead, which imagined the troubled Peanuts characters as troubled teens. High-profile stagings of the rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch took place in successive years. And several Avenue productions have run for two years or more, including Sylvia and Dearly Departed. The Avenue also birthed Girls Only: The Secret Comedy of Women, which transferred to the DCPA’s Galleria Theatre for two years and has been playing around the world ever since. 

Last year, The Avenue hosted Grounded, a searing drama about an American drone pilot who becomes pregnant, but that was staged by the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company, which rented the space.

Because The Avenue is itself a tenant and not a land owner in one of Denver’s hottest (and therefore most expensive) neighborhoods, Mayer feels it is all the more important to offer wide-ranging and dependable dramatic fare that for the first time can draw on season subscribers.

“We are creating programming that serves the core of who we think The Avenue audience is and always has been,” Mayer said, “but this is also about building a new audience from the ground up.” 

Robert Wells founded the Avenue Theater in 1985 at its original location 2 miles east at 17th Avenue and Vine streets. Wells ran the theater for its first seven years. He turned over operational control to comedy partner and former Denver theatre critic John Ashton in 1990. Ashton was forced out by his landlord to make room for an expansion of the brewery next door, and so in 2003 he moved The Avenue to its present location at 17th Avenue and Logan Street. In 2005, Ashton and business partner Robert Roehl sold the theater back to Wells and his business partner, Dave Johnson. There have been a series of administrative changes since 2011 that Mayer believes will end with him.

Ashton, now the President of The Avenue Theater’s board of directors, is eager to see how the change to a season format plays out. “I just did a show and squeezed it for all it was worth,” he joked.

Mayer graduated from Greeley Central High School and the University of Wyoming before receiving his teaching credentials at the University of Northern Colorado, where he currently works as an adjunct theatre professor. He received his masters degree from Roosevelt University and his MFA from Florida State. During his 10 years teaching and directing theatre at Pomona High School, he was brought on to direct teen theatre at the Arvada Center. That turned into an opportunity to direct mainstage shows including Legally Blonde, Miracle on 34th Street, Curtains, A Christmas Carol, The Great Gatsby, Harvey and She Loves Me. Next season, he will also direct the Arvada Center’s White Christmas and The Mountaintop.

A major component of Mayer’s agenda will be to incorporate his passion and experience for teaching. Throughout July, The Avenue will be presenting its inaugural Emerging Voices Series. As opposed to wildly successful teen playwriting programs at the nearby DCPA and Curious Theatre, Mayer is focusing on providing opportunities for student  directors. 

“I know from being a teacher that one of the biggest challenges my students face is finding opportunities to direct,” he said. “That’s where I came up with this initiative.”

Four Colorado students have been charged with taking on the real-life job of the theater director from start to finish — including submitting play proposals, hiring cast and crew, and running rehearsals on a tight budget. Here are the pays and their directors:

  • July 6-8: The Pillowman, directed by Trevor Hazell
  • July 10-11: Polaroid Stories, directed by Jackie Honold
  • July 16-18: The Clean House, directed by John Carter
  • July 28-30: Five Women Wearing the Same Dress, directed by Katherine Foote

  Read more about the teen directing program in this 5280 Magazine article.


(Descriptions provided by Avenue Theater)

Bright Ideas
By Eric Coble
Aug. 27-Oct. 3
Directed by Pat Payne
How far would you go for your child? For Genevra and Joshua Bradley, the question is no longer hypothetical. Their 3-year-old son, Mac, is next on the waiting list to get into the Bright Ideas Early Childhood Development Academy — and everyone knows once you’re in there, your life will unfold with glorious ease. Josh and Gen have had to scramble all their lives to get this far … and now they are one fatal dinner party away from the ultimate success as parents: The Right Pre-School. You may never look at pre-school the same way again…

By Peter Shaffer
Oct. 29-Nov. 21
Directed by Gavin Mayer
Dr. Martin Dysart, a psychiatrist, is confronted with Alan Strang, a boy who has blinded six horses in a violent fit of passion. This very passion is as foreign to Dysart as the act itself. To the boy’s parents it is a hideous mystery; Alan has always adored horses. To Dysart it is a psychological puzzle that leads both doctor and patient to a complex and disturbingly dramatic confrontation.

Santa’s Big Red Sack

Nov. 27-Dec. 20
For the seventh straight year, The Sack will be back. Santa’s Big Red Sack skewers all  things dear in the sketch comedy billed as “The holiday show you shouldn’t take your kids to.” This show has become an annual tradition for those seeking non-traditional holiday entertainment. It’s clever, witty, raunchy and relentless, and not for the easily offended. While the subjects may sound familiar – Santa’s reindeer, Christmas carols, bedtime stories, the Whos in Whoville, gift exchanges and good will – the scenes are delivered with a smile and a hint of political spice. Last year, the cast featured Jeff Kosloski, Dave Shirley, Jane Shirley and Derek Hartman.

By Joni Sheram
Jan. 21-Feb. 27, 2016
Directed by Kitty Skillman-Hilsabeck
Starring Megan Van De Hey
Joni Sheram’s one-woman play traces the milestones of a woman’s life through her bras, which she found to be a perfect metaphor for her larger tales of womanhood. The play, though not autobiographical, was an homage to her mother and grandmother. Sheram used bras to traverse the fictional life of a woman named Nora, from a 1950s training bra to the one she burned in the 1960s to her nursing bra, mastectomy bra and even the one she wore when she fell in love for the first time at middle-age. Sheram died of breast cancer in 2010.

Legacy of Light

March 10-April 16, 2016
By Karen Zacarias
Directed by Christy Montour-Larson
Two women scientists, living hundreds of years apart, explore the meaning of love, motherhood, family, art and science in this contemporary comedy. The play juxtaposes the story of Émilie du Châtelet, a mathematician, scientist, and lover of the great 18th-century philosopher Voltaire, who became unexpectedly pregnant at 42, and that of a 21st-century physicist desperately trying to conceive a child.

Beautiful Thing
By Jonathan Harvey
April 28-June 4, 2016
Directed by Gavin Mayer
Jamie and Ste (short for Steve) are teen-age neighbours in a working-class housing project in London. Jamie is bookish and shy while Ste is more athletic. Neither has an ideal home life: Jamie’s mother is bitter over her romantic life, but she’s willing to settle for a bloke named Tony and cover up her disappointment with scathing humour. Ste’s father and brother abuse him. After a fight, Ste asks Sandra if he can stay at her house. As their friendship grows, Jamie begins to realize he has stronger feelings for Ste. One night, after Ste suffers a particularly bad beating, the boys decide to experiment together and begin a tentative relationship. When Jamie’s mother hears the rumor that her son is gay, she confronts him, and he admits the truth.


The Avenue Theater is located at 417 E. 17th Ave.
Call 303-321-5925 or go to The Avenue’s online ticketing page

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