Kent Thompson's legacy: Giving sound to unheard voices

Photo gallery: A retrospective of Kent Thompson’s years in Denver

Kent Thompson: A retrospectiveTo see more photos, click the forward arrow on the image above.

Thompson will leave as acclaimed playwright Theresa Rebeck once described him in everyday action: Walking the walk.

By John Moore
For the DCPA NewsCenter

When Kent Thompson was hired as Producing Artistic Director of the DCPA Theatre Company in 2005, he announced two essential goals: To increase the presence of women and minorities on Denver Center stages, and to rebuild the company’s dormant new-play program into one of the most vital in the country. He has achieved both and more.

Thompson, only the third Producing Artistic Director in the nearly 40-year history of the Theatre Company, announced his resignation this morning, effective March 3.

Kent Thompson. Then and Now“Serving as Producing Artistic Director for the past 12 seasons has been a fulfilling and rewarding period of growth and achievement,” Thompson said before going back to work on rehearsals for The Christians, opening January 27 in The Stage Theatre – his 21st production as a director at the Denver Center.

Upon his arrival in June of 2005, Thompson identified a problem: 54 of the most recent 55 Theatre Company productions had been written by men. In addition, the company had not produced a play by a Latino playwright in six years.

“We have worked to diversify our programming, company and staff to create a theatre that better reflects the communities we serve,” said Thompson. Twelve years later, the proof of his promise is forever sealed into Denver Center’s well-trod boards:

  • Thompson co-founded the $1.2 million Women’s Voices Fund, which has enabled the company to commission new plays by 20 female playwrights and hire 23 female directors. In total, Thompson has produced 31 plays written by women as part of the mainstage season.
  • He also has produced 23 plays by writers of color and hired 17 directors of color.
  • One of Thompson’s most significant achievements has been the creation of the Colorado New Play Summit, which after 12 years has established itself as one of the top new play festivals in the country. The Summit has workshopped 50 new plays, leading to 27 fully produced world premieres as part of the mainstage season. He has commissioned 44 new plays, supporting playwrights to create new work for the Theatre Company.

“Kent Thompson absolutely walks the walk,” said Rebeck, whose plays Our House and The Nest came into being through the Colorado New Play Summit. “But to me, the thing that is electrifying about Kent is that he went out in front of everybody 10 years ago and said, ‘We are not doing enough plays by women.’ I wish more people knew about what is happening in Denver.”

Kent QuoteThompson also kept a promise by completing the 10-play August Wilson “decade cycle” started by his predecessor. Under Donovan Marley, the late director Israel Hicks directed eight of the 10 Wilson plays at the Denver Center. Having worked with him several times elsewhere, Thompson asked Hicks to direct the final two plays, making Hicks the first and still only director to helm all 10 of Wilson’s plays for the same theatre company. That is an achievement Denzel Washington (Fences) is now undertaking on film.

DCPA President and CEO Janice Sinden called Thompson “an exceptional artistic leader,” citing many of his other accomplishments including “his creation of Off-Center to develop innovative and immersive programming, and a robust commissioning program.” Another achievement was commissioning and staging the adaptation of three plays from the works of quintessential Colorado novelist Kent Haruf that came to be known as The Plainsong Trilogy.

“With the support of so many at the DCPA and in the Denver community, the Theatre Company’s efforts have brought national acclaim and foundation support to the DCPA, Denver and Colorado,” Thompson said. (Story continues below.)

Photo gallery: Productions directed by Kent Thompson

Kent Thompson: Plays directed in Denver
To see more photos, click the forward arrow on the image above.

Through it all, Thompson’s mantra has been relevance – “making our theatre engaging, thrilling and thought-provoking to audiences and artists,” he said. “We seek to create theatre that evokes discussion, serves as a town hall of ideas and relevant issues while producing new plays that will advance the American Theatre.”

He often said his legacy would one day be judged on the success of the new-play program, and specifically whether the plays he nurtured went on to additional stagings by companies around the country. More than a dozen plays that were nurtured in the Summit have gone on to have 70 subsequent productions at some of the country’s leading theatres, including Playwrights Horizons, Victory Gardens, Theatre Works, South Coast Repertory, The Women’s Project, Trinity Repertory, The Magic Theatre, INTAR and Primary Stages. Some of these successful plays include The Whale, 1001, The Legend of Georgia McBride, Lydia, Our House, The Most Deserving, Sunsets and Margaritas, and FADE.

Prior to Denver

After a decade-long career directing across the U.S. and Canada, Thompson was hired in 1989 as Artistic Director at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. He inherited two theatres in an idyllic cultural park in Montgomery but also a modest endowment. And 16 years later, he left it with $18.5 million. He also launched the Southern Writers’ Project, a new-play festival that produced 16 world premieres, including Romulus Linney’s adaptation of A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines. Thompson directed the premiere and the first follow-on production at the Signature Theatre in New York as the opening show of its 10th season. His tenure culminated with a production of Macbeth he toured to 13 military bases around the country.

Thompson diversified casting, programming and staff, and built strong relationships with the African-American community, as well as African-American playwrights, directors, designers and actors. He took that same approach with him to Denver, where the population is about 31 percent Latino.

“It’s very important for me to allow the Latino community to have an artistic voice,” he said when he was hired. Some of his landmark productions here have included Octavio Solis’ Lydia, and more recently Just Like Us, a close-to-the-bone adaptation of journalist Helen Thorpe’s true accounting of four straight-A Denver high-school seniors whose college opportunities become divided by their immigration status. The play was controversial, it was local — and it drew the largest Latino audiences of his tenure.

One of Thompson’s favorite quotes comes, appropriately enough, from Shakespeare’s All’s Well that Ends Well: “The web of our life is a mingled yarn, good and ill together.” And his life has not been without its challenges, on or off the stage.

When Thompson was interviewed and hired by the DCPA, there would be challenges and opportunities that have faced many theatres, notably the reductions in funding following the Great Recession. The DCPA closed its National Theatre Conservatory masters program in 2012. And as Thompson increased the commitment to new plays, he faced a difficult decision.

The resident theatre company concept had been dwindling nationally long before Thompson arrived. In Denver, the core company was down from a high of about 28 in the 1980s to about 12 in 2005.

One of the most difficult challenges for Thompson was publicly acknowledging in 2011 that, for all practical purposes, the days of audiences seeing many of the same actors in up to four plays in a single season were over. “And that was agonizing,” he said. “But we actually stuck it out longer than the vast majority of our (regional theatre) compatriots across the country.”

Moving forward, Thompson announced something he called a “frequent-flier company”— familiar actors from Denver and around the country appearing in one or more shows here every season or two.

A recovery of late

In recent years, as the economy has rebounded, Thompson continued to take bold, innovative steps to create the “next generation of theatre, artists and audiences,” by creating Off-Center in 2010. Last year Off-Center, which is responsible for creating fresh, environmental and mobile theatre experiences aimed at millennials, presented Sweet & Lucky in a 16,000-square foot warehouse, which made it the largest physical undertaking in DCPA history.

Always trying to find new ways to produce a new, engaging version of a classic, Thompson jumped at Artistic Producer Emily Tarquin’s suggestion that he direct Sweeney Todd, engaging Denver’s own gypsy punk band, the internationally beloved DeVotchKa, to re-orchestrate Stephen Sondheim’s score. They performed in every show – and had their necks sliced nightly onstage.

For all of his accomplishments, there is little question that Thompson’s tenure in Denver will be most remembered for his unyielding commitment to underrepresented voices.

“What that means for people who have been marginalized in the theatre is that Kent is affecting the reality of the world we live in,” said playwright Amy Gonzalez (September Shoes). “The world out there is made up of all sorts of people, and it is really exciting that Kent is respecting that in his choice of plays.”

For Rebeck, Thompson has been a champion of women, of audiences, and of common sense: “Women are more than half our audience and more than half the human race,” she said. “But for some reason, the rest of the American theatre is still catching up with Kent’s vision.”

In his statement this morning, Thompson wished the DCPA, the Theatre Company and the entire theatre community of Colorado “much success in the future.” Sinden said, “We will miss his commitment to artistic excellence and wish him the very best in his future endeavors.”

Thompson has been contracted to write a book on professional directing for a major publisher of drama and theatre books in the U.S. and the U.K. He plans to take the next few months to write his book, and then pursue other opportunities in the American theatre.

In the coming weeks, DCPA executive staff and Theatre Company leaders will create a transition team that will develop an interim plan, including a national recruitment effort.

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

Kent Thompson/At a glance

  • Served for eight years on the Board of Directors for Theatre Communications Group (TCG, is the national organization of not-for-profit theatre) and as its president for three years.
  • Artistic Director of the Virginia Shakespeare Festival, 1979-1981
  • Producing Artistic Director of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival 1989-2005
  • Producing Artistic Director of the DCPA Theatre Company from 2005-17
  • Served on peer review panels for the National Endowment for the Arts (also chair), TCG, Pew Charitable Trusts, The Fulbright Scholars Program, The Wallace Funds, The Doris Duke Foundation and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, among others.
  • Graduate of the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., Theatre and Speech, 1976. Phi Beta Kappa.
  • Graduate of the Guildhall School of Music & Drama in London, U.K., 1979. The Draper’s Guild of London Scholarship.

DCPA Theatre Company productions directed by Kent Thompson

  • The Christians
  • Sweeney Todd
  • As You Like It
  • Benediction
  • Hamlet
  • Just Like Us
  • Other Desert Cities
  • Irving Berlin’s White Christmas (twice)
  • The Taming of the Shrew
  • The Liar
  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream
  • Othello
  • Eventide
  • Noises Off
  • Dusty and the Big Bad World
  • Plainsong
  • Amadeus
  • Measure for Measure
  • A Flea in her Ear

Selected previous NewsCenter coverage:
The Christians: Five things we learned at first rehearsal
Where the blade meets the band: Kent Thompson on Sweeney Todd
Kent Thompson on The Bard, The Creature and the soul of his audience
2016-17 season: Two world premieres and a return to classics
Westminster High School tackles immigration with DCPA’s Just Like Us
How Thompson turned questions into exclamation points

Video retrospective: Kent Thompson on his commitment to new-play development:

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *