Last week, not an hour after Claudia Carson first gathered this year’s 10 finalists for the Outstanding Lead Performer 2023 Bobby G High School Musical Theatre Awards, “it” happened – as it so often has since 2013: Competition dissolved into camaraderie right before her very eyes.
“The top priority for me, the minute I meet these kids, is to create a community and an ensemble and completely disengage them from any kind of thought of competition,” said Carson, the Denver Center’s longtime Education Program Manager.
Carson has had a hand in the Denver Center’s signature annual celebration of high school theater talent since its origin, and she has fully run the year-long program since 2015. (Seriously, she even creates the slide show of nominees.) Her favorite part of it all, hands down, is introducing the 10 nominees for Outstanding Lead Performer to each other a week or so before the actual ceremony, and then directing them in an original medley they then perform at the awards on the Ellie Caulkins stage. It is a process that creates bonds between participating students that can last a lifetime.
On this day, as one student finished her part of the medley, Carson asked the young man who was to follow her to grab her hand and sing his part – lyrics from the musical Bright Star – directly to her:
“I’m ready for my life to begin.
I’m ready for it all to start.
My heart’s about to bust.
Don’t lead the way.
I must follow my own bright star.”
“I had told the group, ‘Just really listen to those lyrics and think about what they mean to you in your life right now – because these are impactful times for a lot of you,’” Carson said.
And when the young man sang those words with utterly honest and truthful innocence, Carson started crying. “And I couldn’t stop,” she said. “It was one of those magical theater instants where everybody was right there in the same moment.”
Those are the moments Carson lives for – and has made possible time and again. Because in its first decade, the Bobby G Awards has engaged about 70,000 Colorado high-school kids, given nearly 3,000 of them the chance to perform on the Ellie stage, and has sent nearly 20 Outstanding Lead Performance winners on to participate in the life-changing national Jimmy Awards on Broadway.
“Claudia is just a full-on champion of high school theatre in Colorado.” said DCPA Executive Director of Education & Community Engagement Allison Watrous.
The 2023 Bobby G Awards will essentially tie a bow around Carson’s 20-year Denver Center career, one that’s had as many plot twists as Bright Star. She’s retiring effective June 1.
Carson came to the Denver Center in 2003 and stage-managed every show at the Garner Galleria Theatre for five years, including the longest-running musical in Colorado theatre history, I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change. She later took charge of the global expansion of the runaway hit The Secret Comedy of Women — Girls Only, then served as Executive Assistant to DCPA President Randy Weeks, who died in 2014.
Since fully taking over the Bobby G Awards, Carson has steadfastly worked to increase access and opportunity. “We started with 15 schools in 2013 – and this year we have 50,” she said.
In addition to the Bobby G Awards, Carson also administers Denver Center Education’s robust Middle & High School Playwriting Workshops & Competition for Grades 6-12. That’s another year-round initiative that starts with school workshops that nurture young writers and challenge them to write one-act plays – three of which are chosen each year to be developed and presented as professional readings at the annual Colorado New Play Summit.
“Claudia is just so joyful, so inspirational and so hungry to make an impact with students,” said Watrous. “She makes those programs possible with her year-round passion and commitment.”
Carson says it’s been an exciting ride to have had the opportunity to work in so many different areas at the Denver Center. But its craziest detour was being assigned to help DCPA founder Donald R. Seawell organize his considerable work closet. Seawell was a jet-setting visionary, producer and well-connected bon vivant…with a closet the size of an airplane hangar.
“Oh, it was the most amazing thing,” Carson said. “When I first walked in, it was just boxes upon boxes upon boxes and you couldn’t even walk through it all. I found a handwritten letter to Don from Katharine Hepburn. I found a typewritten letter from FDR and another from Bobby Kennedy thanking Don for sending condolences on John F. Kennedy’s death. I found pictures from the movie set of Sleuth with Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine. I mean, it was just phenomenal. But it took me three months of working 40 hours a week to finally get it all organized. But to have that opportunity to really spend time with Mr. Seawell toward the end, when he was still as mentally as sharp as ever, was just invaluable.”
Carson graduated from Denver East High School and studied journalism at Metropolitan State University Denver. She’s been a teacher since her early 20s, with a notable stint at Graland Country Day School. She’s worked as a stage manager for many area theater companies, including Curious Theatre and the Arvada Center.
But being able to work at the Denver Center for these past 20 years made for a kind of full-circle finale to Carson’s professional life in Denver theater. After all, she said, “I was born into a box” – the easier to be carried to her mother’s rehearsals.
Theatre, it is not an exaggeration to say, is in Carson’s DNA. Her mother, after all, was Bev Newcomb-Madden, who died in 2020.
With nearly 300 credits in her 92 years, Newcomb-Madden was the most prolific director in the history of Colorado theater. She raised three kids and taught them theater – along with gaggles of neighborhood kids – in the basement of their Park Hill home. She directed them in shows with titles like The King’s Creampuffs.
“Well, it was kind of inevitable that all of us kids would somehow be involved in theater,” Carson said with a laugh. Her sister, Glenna Kelly, is an actor who for years ran Kaiser-Permanente’s educational theatre programs. Brother Jamie Newcomb, now based out of San Diego, performed in DCPA Theatre Company productions of Benediction and All the Way.
“There’s no question that my mom’s influence on my life has been massive,” Carson said, “and I miss her very much.”
Theatre, it stands to reason, is also in her daughter’s DNA. Claire Carson studied at Denver School of the Arts and SMU and remains in Dallas doing a little bit of everything for the Kitchen Dog Theater. “She’s the marketing graphic design artist, she’s the administrative wonder, and she has gained a really great reputation in Dallas as a sound designer,” Carson said. She’s also written three plays that have been produced in Dallas, and she will be making her Kitchen Dog acting debut in a show that’s coming up soon. Talk about her mother’s daughter (and her grandmother’s granddaughter.)
But of all Claudia Carson has done in theater, and in so many varied capacities, DCPA Broadway Executive Director John Ekeberg said there’s no question she found her sweetest spot working with young people.
“Claudia is a sensitive, caring and compassionate person, and she really has an innate ability to connect with teenagers,” Ekeberg said, “But at the same time, she is also a quintessential stage manager and mother, which is probably why she is so good at both jobs. Part of being a good mom is being a good stage manager.
“She’s doing what she loves with the people she loves the most. For someone who has done so many things, that’s a pretty cool culmination of a pretty cool career.”
Before Carson retires to a life of golf…and possibly a future dog…and teaching a few classes at the Denver Center…and adjudicating high-school performances for the Bobby G Awards (if one can call all of that “retirement”), she will savor one more Bobby G Awards on May 18 – one where victory does not mean winning a trophy. “It means connecting, supporting, engaging, and giving nothing but your kindest heart,” she said.
“If there’s anything I’m most proud of, it’s that that’s the environment I have tried to create.”