Difficult transition year in Summit County culminates with artistic director’s resignation after 13 years
When a Breckenridge Backstage Theatre actor died suddenly in 2009, Artistic Director Christopher Willard quoted Irving Berlin in explaining his decision that the show must go on. “Theater people smile when they are low,” Willard said.
Willard is smiling today, having announced his resignation from leading the venerable, 44-year-old mountain theatre 80 miles west of Denver for the past 13 years.
“I am pretty low,” said Willard, whose resignation is effective at the end of September. “But I am also feeling incredibly proud of what we have been able to accomplish here over the past 13 years.”
In that time, Willard produced 126 shows, including 12 world premieres, and directed 70. He oversaw the $3 million renovation and expansion of the theatre in 2016, grew the staff three-fold and the children’s theatre program by 500 percent. The company is currently presenting an outdoor community production of Annie with a cast of 57, mostly children who live in the area. But perhaps most impressively, former Executive Director Mark Lineaweaver said: Under Willard, Backstage’s operating budget has nearly tripled to $500,000, and attendance has grown from about 2,000 a year to 14,000. Summit County has a population of about 30,000.
Lineaweaver said Willard’s legacy will be solidifying the underlying fabric of the community. “People who never would have met became lifelong friends because of the art that Chris produced,” he said.
But the Backstage Theatre has been in financial and administrative turmoil throughout the past year. On Monday, Board President Nina Jannetti named Debbie Trevino the company’s fourth Executive Director since Lineaweaver resigned in the summer of 2017.
In July, Jannetti issued a public apology for a satirical sketch Willard performed at the theater’s annual fundraising event that poked fun at President Donald Trump. “Please know that this will not happen again,” the apology read. Erin Gigliello, who followed Jill Boyd and Lineaweaver as Executive Director, resigned a day after the apology was issued, along with one board member.
Given the current political climate, Lineaweaver admitted that the company’s gala “probably isn’t the best forum to do satire when you are asking people for money. But the board’s promise that it would never happen again surprised me,” he said.
Jannetti did not return a request for comment. But today’s Summit Daily quoted a statement from the board saying its members were sad to see Willard go.
“Chris has worked tirelessly to deliver high-quality productions in our community,” the statement read. “We are grateful for his endless dedication to the theatre over the past 13 years, and we wish him continued success in the future.”
Willard said one reason he stayed in the job for so long is because company founder Allyn Mosher, who started the theatre in 1974 with Shirley Martin, still lives in town. “I’ve gone on as long as I can because of his dream,” Willard said. “I believe in that dream, and my biggest regret is that I don’t know what is going to happen to it now.”
Willard has been a mainstay in the Colorado theatre community since he moved to Colorado in 1996 to work the summer season for the Central City Opera. Later that year, he was hired as the Arvada Center’s facilities coordinator and house manager. His first performance as an actor was as the understudy to Bryan Foster and Duane Black in a legendary production of Greater Tuna at the old Vogue Theatre. He soon found himself acting and directing in children’s productions at the Arvada Center, which sparked a lifelong advocacy for youth theatre.
“There is nothing more important,” Willard said. “Where else are you going to get your future theatregoers unless you inspire them at an early age?”
Before moving to Breckenridge, Willard directed shows at the Country Dinner Playhouse, Arvada Center, Town Hall Arts Center, Theatre on Broadway, Colorado Springs TheatreWorks and Miners Alley Playhouse.
Willard pursued the opportunity to succeed Jeremy Cole as the Backstage Artistic Director in 2005 because, he said, he was inspired by John Hand, the founder of the Colorado Free University who was murdered while helping a stranger. “That woke me up to the fact that I should try to challenge myself to do more,” he said.
At Backstage, Willard provided a regular employment pipeline for Denver-based actors, directors, choreographers and crew, giving many of them career boosts along the way. One example: Geoff Kent, who has risen from DCPA Theatre Company fight director to actor to director of DCPA Cabaret’s An Act of God in the Garner Galleria Theatre. Willard gave Kent his first opportunity to direct back in 2007 — a children’s production of The Hobbit. Today Kent called Willard “an unsung treasure of the Colorado theatre world.
“I remember telling Chris I was planning to direct a cowboy version of Macbeth,” Kent said. “His reply was: ‘Well, we better let you practice first.’ And before I knew it I was in production meetings for The Hobbit with giant puppets, glowing swords and all. Chris has a panache for seeing a spark in someone and then giving them an opportunity to explore and succeed at it.”
Willard was known for producing seasons with wide family appeal, including musicals (Beauty and the Beast) and comedies (The Full Monty), but also for staging challenging dramas such as 2017’s Red, about the painter Mark Rothko. He also was known both in Breckenridge and Denver as a master of shepharding the one-person show, including Karen Slack’s triumphant The Syringa Tree and Murphy Funkhouser’s Crazy Bag. In 2013, he was among the True West Awards’ nominees for Colorado Theatre Person of the year. As an actor, he was nominated for a 2018 Henry Award as best actor in a musical for Backstage’s The Producers.
Lineaweaver said Willard’s legacy will include giving thousands of children in a small mountain town the opportunity to perform. He quoted Abbey Austin, who choreographed Backstage’s production of The Lion King Jr., as saying: “You get to ski world-class mountains and you can put on The Lion King Jr.? You don’t know how lucky you are here.”
It’s far too soon for Willard to worry about legacy. But he hopes he is remembered for this: “I was able to grow the theatre,” he said. “I gave people a lot of opportunities. But for everything I gave, I got much more in return. I hope I have inspired people and that they got some enjoyment from the time I have spent here.”
For now, Willard has no specific career plans. “Right now, I am going to rest,” he said. “I have worked hard for 13 years and now I am going to have a breather.”
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.
Christopher Willard: Shows directed at Breckenridge Backstage Theatre:
- Billy Elliot
- The Toxic Avenger
- Avenue Q
- The Full Monty
- The Syringa Tree
- School of Rock
- Disney’s Beauty and the Beast
- The Fantasticks
- Annie, 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
- Hidden (World Premiere)
- Reefer Madness
- Love Loss and What I Wore
- The 10th (World Premiere)
- The Little Mermaid Jr.
- Hyronomous A. Frog – The Frog Prince
- Babe the Sheep-Pig
- Wine & Song
- All in the Timing
- A Rocky Mountain Christmas (World Premiere)
- Our Teacher’s A Troll
- Little Me (Concert Version)
- Fully Committed
- Aladdin and the Glass Slipper
- Matt & Ben
- On Golden Pond
- A Tuna Christmas
- The Music Man
- Crazy Bag
- The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs
- The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe
- Completely Hollywood Abridged
- The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
- Shrek The Musical
- Bye Bye Birdie
- Zompocalypse…Later (World Premiere)
- A Christmas Story
- Pirates of the Fourth Grade (World Premiere)
- Mary Poppins Jr.
- A Puppet Christmas Carol
- Easy Living
- All in The Timing
- Office Space the Musical – A Parody
- The Wedding Eve (World Premiere)
- The Storyman Presents Peter Pan (World Premiere)
- A 1950s Backstage Holiday
- Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book (World Premiere)
- Over The River and Through The Woods
- The Roadhouse (World Premiere)
- The Witches, Charlie and Knickerbocker’s Big Live Show (World Premiere)
- Dog Park
- The Year of Magical Thinking
- Buyer and Cellar
- Charlotte’s Web
- Backstage to Hollywood
- Curves Ahead (World Premiere)
- The Lion King Jr.
- She Loves Me
- Cannibal! The Musical
- Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
- The Gingerbread Man
- Enchanted April
- The Vagina Monologues