Incredibly, two inaugural members of the DCPA Theatre Company are back performing in Appoggiatura and Benediction
Denver native and original DCPA Theatre Company member James Newcomb found out you can go home again. He just didn’t expect home to be a T.S. Eliot poem:
“We shall not cease from exploration.
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
“I have been in sort of a ‘fugue’ state the whole time I have been back in Denver,” said Newcomb, invoking a term psychiatrists often use to describe the loss of identity one can feel when hurled into an unfamiliar environment. “I walk around downtown, and I don’t recognize my city. And it’s not just the new things. I am seeing things that never even registered with me when I was young.”
For Lawrence, coming back to work at the DCPA after 30 years “is like coming home,” she said. “Inside the theatre, it’s like Brigadoon coming back to life. But outside, it’s like Rip Van Winkle. It’s an entirely different city now.”
Newcomb, who plays hardware store worker Rudy in Benediction, is the son of the legendary Bev Newcomb-Madden, who has directed more theatre productions than any woman in Colorado theatre history. He was a resident company member when the DCPA launched on New Year’s Eve 1979. He was a mainstay for many of the next eight seasons, but he hasn’t been back since 1987.
Incredibly, Newcomb is not the only inaugural company member currently performing for the DCPA Theatre Company after three decades away. Darrie Lawrence, who is starring as Helen in the world premiere of Appoggiatura, was a company member for four of the first five seasons — and immediately regretted her decision to leave.
“I didn’t appreciate how good I had it here,” said Lawrence. By 1986, then-Artistic Director Donovan Marley was maintaining a resident company of about 24 actors, each of whom were signed to six-month contracts. That was fairly common practice at regional theatres around the country at the time, but it was ultimately economically unsustainable. Marley asked Lawrence to come back for the 1986-87 season, “and stupidly, I said no,” she said. “I thought, ‘Well, I have been in Denver for four years, so I ought to go out and see what I can do in New York.
“Well, it never got this good again,” she added with a laugh. “But what did I know? I was 32. I was naïve and not that experienced. I didn’t appreciate what I had.”
Newcomb – Jamie to his longtime friends – started his high-school years at George Washington, but transferred to Denver East when riots broke out over forced bussing. He later attended Colorado Women’s College and graduated into perhaps the friendliest economic era for artists in American history.
The regional theatre movement that was born in cities like Houston, San Francisco and Washington D.C. in the late 1940s and ’50s was finally coming to Denver. In the ’70s, Denver Post publisher Donald Seawell almost singlehandedly willed a true performing arts center into existence for the city. Even if it would be located in what was then considered perhaps the sketchiest part of downtown. Seawell built the Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex, which at the time included a 260-seat cinema, and modeled his vision after Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theatre. He hired as his first Artistic Director Sir Tyrone Guthrie, who died during construction.
President Carter had just passed CETA – the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act – which Lawrence said “was the first time in American history the federal government was literally underwriting the arts. That saved a lot of people’s butts. It was like a WPA (Works Progress Administration) for the arts.”
Newcomb was helping a friend named Mark Cuddy, now longtime artistic director of the Geva Theatre Center in Rochester, N.Y, to establish a children’s theatre program in Massachusetts through a CETA grant. The two then headed west “like the Clampetts of The Beverly Hillbillies,” he said. Their destination was Reno, Nev., to join Lon Winston, who now runs the Thunder River Theatre Company in Carbondale. Winston had secured a $35,000 state grant to create theatre in rural Nevada.
“We stopped in Denver and heard that the Denver Center was auditioning, so we both did it,” Newcomb said. “Mark got called to be one of the assistant directors, and they asked me to be in the company.”
Lawrence, who hails from North Carolina, was slowly building an impressive off-Broadway resume in New York when DCPA Artistic Director Ed Call came out to audition there. “I will never forget that day,” she said. “I walked out of the Times Square subway station right into a policeman with his gun drawn at someone he was arresting. I was just loopy when I arrived, but luckily Ed Call was notorious for taking more time than he should have, and I had to wait for two hours before he was ready to see me. I probably did a better audition than if he had been on time with the schedule.”
Lawrence had no trepidation moving across the country that first year to work for a nonexistent company. “Hell no,” she said. “It was a six-month job!”
The DCPA “had juice,” Newcomb added. “And it got even juicier to me after I got here,” Lawrence added. “I didn’t know anything about Denver or Ed Call or Don Seawell or Helen Bonfils. But now I tell everyone about them. Now I call myself ‘the ambassador from the past.’
When the acting company gathered for the very first time in 1979, they sat on concrete risers, because The Stage Theatre was still under construction with what was then a celebrated construct: The seats would be built atop a hydraulic system that would allow the seating configuration to change to accommodate any staging conceit, varying from 675 to 900 seats. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, the hydraulic system, which remains intact to this day, has never actually been put to use.
By the time the DCPA celebrated its grand opening on Dec. 31, 1979, Denver was buzzing. “There was a frisson,” Lawrence said. A shiver of expectation and excitement. Lucille Ball, Henry Fonda, Lynn Fontanne and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. were among the luminaries who came out for a three-day extravaganza that was to be the start of no less than “The Denver Decade in the American Theatre.” That was the expectation – and there were signs all over the complex trumpeting it.
Newcomb and Lawrence were starstruck. On Jan. 2, the grand-opening weekend culminated with Ball presenting Fonda the American National Theatre and Academy’s prestigious National Artists’ Award. It was the first time the honor ever had been presented outside of New York or Los Angeles.
Newcomb was standing in one of The Stage Theatre’s lower hallways used by actors for their entrances and exits. But he couldn’t see the award presentation because, unconscionably, a member of the public – a very large member – had moved into the actors’ sacred space and was in the way. “So I said to him, ‘Excuse me, can you step aside?’ And he looked at me like I am a peon,” Newcomb said.
He had no idea the rather rotund man was Denver oil baron Marvin Davis, who inspired the character of Blake Carrington on the TV soap Dynasty – and was also a prominent DCPA donor. “There is a row in the Stage Theatre that has fewer seats than the others,” Newcomb said. “They are all slightly larger than the others seats. It’s because Marvin Davis wanted a seat that fit him, so they made him one that did. They still call it the Marvin Davis Row.”
But did he move?
“Yes, he did.”
Newcomb and Lawrence were among a whopping 40 inaugural company actors who christened the DCPA’s new stages with performances of The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Learned Ladies and Moby Dick Rehearsed. The company included a mix of soon-to-be Hollywood royalty such as Tyne Daly, Delroy Lindo and Tandy Cronyn, along with accomplished locals including the now all-lower-cased donnie l. betts and Jerry Webb. In the coming seasons, they would be joined by Mercedes Ruehl, Annette Bening and many more future stars.
It was a true repertory company back then, meaning all of the actors appeared in The Caucasian Chalk Circle, and then they were then divided up for Learned Ladies and Moby Dick Rehearsed. Daly was on her way to becoming a star – in fact, she left the run of The Caucasian Chalk Circle early to film a TV movie called The Women’s Room.
By the second season, Lawrence was cast to play the lead in Arthur Kopit’s Wings, a searing story that takes the audience inside the mind of a stroke victim who has lost her ability to speak. Lawrence was not yet 35, playing a woman of 75. She still considers it a pinnacle of her career. That same year, Newcomb was cast to play the pinchable J. Pierrepont Finch in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Together they then appeared in Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood, among others. Newcomb rejoined the company in 1987 for a seminal production of Orphans opposite Jamie Horton and James Lawless – “the three Jimmys,” Newcomb said.
In those early years, Newcomb immersed himself in all things DCPA. He directed three productions for the newly opened National Theatre Conservatory masters program, where Larry Hecht was Head of Acting and Leslie O’Carroll was a student taking Newcomb’s class in stage combat. Both are now his castmates in Benediction. “Isn’t that insane?” he said.
In the early days, Lawrence and the other guest actors were housed at the Camellia House Apartments at 1235 Grant St. Now they stay at Brooks Towers, where the DCPA owns three floors of rooms.
“It was a very sketchy area, both downtown and Capital Hill, and it was a pretty healthy walk to the theatre each day,” Lawrence said. “But we were driven home at night.”
The two have stories from those days that would take days to tell: The frightening night a distressed castmate went missing after news of John Lennon’s killing. The long-delayed discovery that nighttime passersby could actually look through the tinted dressing-room windows and clearly see the actors dressing and undressing. (The solution was to cover them with newspapers.) The free Christmas Day preview performance of Caucasian Chalk Circle – a four-plus hour play, by the way. “The only people who were left by the end were smatterings of homeless people who came in to get warm,” Newcomb said with a laugh. “But what a stunning show,” Lawrence said. “I had never been in a show of that scale before.”
Newcomb was unnerved the day Learned Ladies director Gene Lesser walked into the first technical rehearsal wearing black jeans, boots that came up to his knees, a black turtleneck, and a coat.
“He got up and started to say, ‘Now, I don’t want anybody to feel tense when it comes to tech. We are just going to be working through the show and adding lights and sound, and I just want everybody to take it easy,’ ” Newcomb said.
“And then he took his coat off … and he’s wearing a swastika.”
He meant it as a joke. “But it was like, wow!” Newcomb said.
“And he’s Jewish!” Lawrence added.
By their own assessment, the quality of productions at the DCPA began at world-class from Day 1. “Absolutely,” Lawrence said. Critics from Newsweek, Time Magazine, the Wall Street Journal and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune all came to Denver and reviewed that first season of shows – favorably.
Eventually, Lawrence and Newcomb went down their own nomadic paths, as artists do. They are enjoying being back in Denver performing in different world premieres, but for different reasons.
“I would be excited to come back to Denver and the DCPA to do anything,” Lawrence said. “But I am especially excited to be doing a beautiful, exciting new play like Appoggiatura.” The play is about three people sharing grief in Venice. Lawrence plays an ex-wife who has had to share her husband’s love.
”I mean, ask me how many times I have done Driving Miss Daisy, Steel Magnolias and On Golden Pond,” she said. I’m not senile, crippled or mean yet, so I am having a great time doing this play.”
Newcomb spent 14 acclaimed years as a company member with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland and now lives in San Diego. He was elated to be invited back to appear in Benediction, but he admits, his primary interest in saying yes was more personal that professional.
“I want to be here to be with my family now,” said Newcomb, whose mother and father are both in their late 80s.
Bev Newcomb-Madden remains very much active in the local theatre community – at age 87, she will be directing The Spitfire Grill for Vintage Theatre Productions opening June 26.
Jamie Newcomb and his sisters, Glenna and Claudia – a longtime DCPA employee herself – grew up in theatre. Bev Newcomb-Madden got her start producing theatre for a church group called Saints & Sinners, and then was brought in by Henry Lowenstein to direct (mostly) children’s shows at the former Bonfils Theatre on East Colfax. “She taught theatre to kids in our basement after school,” Jamie said, “and so everybody in the family was involved in it.”
But immersing himself into the world of Benediction has been surprising to Newcomb. In the final chapter of Kent Haruf’s remarkable Plainsong trilogy, Newcomb plays one of the men who will be entrusted to run the small-town hardware story after the impending death of the man who started it. He can’t help but think of his own father.
“When I came in, I was quite emotionally taken with the subject matter of the play, and about my connection to Colorado,” said Newcomb. “In an odd way, by working on Benediction, I am getting in touch with where I am from for the first time. I have never thought of myself as a plainsman, because I was an inner-city kid. But I was an inner city kid in the plains. That’s all I knew, so Denver was urban to me.
“But I am becoming acutely aware of this ‘great plains light’ more than I ever have been previously. When you look at that the big Colorado sky, all of this underneath is pretty small.
“There is just something about this play, and Kent Haruf’s writing, that I find tremendously moving. And the creative process has been incredibly kind and generous. Like the T.S. Eliot quote … I am experiencing it for the first time.”
The first DCPA Theatre Company season: 1979-80
The Caucasian Chalk Circle
by Bertolt Brecht
Directed by Edward Payson Call
Moby Dick – Rehearsed
Adapted by Orson Welles
From the novel by Herman Melville
Directed by William Woodman
The Learned Ladies
by Jean Babtiste Molière
Directed by Gene Lesser
by Steve Tesich
Directed by Edward Payson Call
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Gene Lesser
Note: Join us for Page to Stage, a free noontime conversation with Benediction cast members on Tuesday, Feb. 10, at the Colfax Tattered Cover, 2526 E. Colfax Ave.
Benediction: Ticket information
- Performances run Jan. 30 through March 1
- Space Theatre
- Performances daily except Mondays
- Call 303-893-4100, or go to the Denver Center’s web site at www.DenverCenter.Org
Our previous coverage of Benediction:
Kent Haruf: The complete final interview
‘Benediction’ opens as a celebration of ‘The Precious Ordinary’
Video: Your first look at Benediction
Doris Duke Foundation awards $125,000 for Benediction
DCPA to celebrate Kent Haruf on Feb. 7
Bittersweet opening for ‘Benediction’ rehearsals
Kent Haruf, author of ‘Plainsong’ Trilogy, dies at age 71
Kent Thompson on the 2014-15 season, play by play
2014 Colorado New Play Summit will complete ‘Plainsong’ trilogy
Video: ‘Benediction’ reading at the 2014 Colorado New Play Summit
Appoggiatura: Ticket information
Performances run through Feb. 22
Performances daily except Mondays
Call 303-893-4100, or go to the Denver Center’s web site at www.DenverCenter.Org
Our previous coverage of Appoggiatura:
Video: ‘Page to Stage’ highlights with Appoggiatura cast
Opening night photo coverage
The mystery of Appoggiatura unfolds with tonight’s opening
Video: Our Appoggiatura montage of scenes
Interview: Playwright James Still is running to catch up to himself
Video: Talking Appoggiatura with James Still and Risa Brainin
Photos: Our Appoggiatura photos so far
Appoggiatura Director Risa Brainin named head of National Theatre Conference
Appoggiatura named to new DCPA Theatre Company season
Kent Thompson handicaps the season, play by play
Summit Soliloquy: James Still introduces Appoggiatura
Appoggiatura: So what’s in a name?
Our Appoggiatura “Meet the cast” video series (to date):
Meet Darrie Lawrence
Meet Lenne Klingaman
Meet Rob Nagle
Meet Nick Mills
James Newcomb and Jamie Horton in ‘Orphans’ in 1987.
Video: Meet Darrie Lawrence