Sale of building will close LIDA Project's performance space

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Brian Freeland and wife Catherine at the opening of the Laundry on Lawrence space in 2011. Photo by John Moore

A once-thriving artists collective just north of downtown Denver will soon turn into a collective of trial attorneys.

The warehouse known as the Laundry on Lawrence at 27th and Lawrence streets is in the process of being sold to law firm, and the theatre will be converted into offices, Brian Freeland, founder of the venerable LIDA Project experimental theatre, confirmed today.

In 2011, Neil Adam and S. Brian Smith opened their fourth artists collective in the RiNo Arts District, and their first anchored by a live performance space. Adam and Smith divided the 20,000 square-foot warehouse that had operated for more than a century as public laundry into 30 individual artist studios, with the LIDA Project as the designated resident theatre company.

Freeland signed a six-year lease through 2017 to rent and run 90-seat theatre that soon became home to several other small, renegade theatre companies. Ripple Effect, And Toto Too, Maya Productions, Feral Assembly and Maya Productions have all staged productions there in 2014, and all are now scrambling to find new space.

The theatre closes for good with Sunday’s matinee performance of Maya’s Reason, a new play by Boulder’s Ami Dayan about soldiers with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Dyan is a DCPA commissioned playwright.

Because the sale is pending, the purchase price and the name of the law firm that is purchasing the building are being withheld. But more than a dozen tenants already have moved out, and Freeland said LIDA will be gone no later than Jan. 31.

Maggie Stillman, founder of the Ripple Effect Theatre Company, had hoped to make the theatre her company’s permanent home. She launched Ripple Effect with Waiting for Godot in September, and was well into plans for a March 13 opening of Lee Blessing’s hostage drama Two Rooms. Instead, the play will be staged in a non-theatre environ in The Bakery Arts Warehouse at 2132 Market St.

“I was completely blindsided,” Stillman said.

But this is not one of those dramatic “Lawyers-evict-artists” kind of stories, Freeland is sorry to say. “We were not evicted,” he said. “They simply gave us the option to vacate our lease, and we took it.”

And he saw it coming.

“There weren’t any artists left,” Freeland said. Instead, there were businesses and young professionals moving in.

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Over time, he said, the tenancy has shifted from hip young artists, and then to creative industries, and then to entrepreneurial businesses – a far cry from the bohemia of the beginning.

“But quite frankly, we always expected it to go away from the beginning,” Freeland said. “It was never a secret that they were going to sell the building at some point. It doesn’t make me happy, but this was probably the right time for us to leave anyway.”

By 2011, Adam and Smith had quietly built up RiNo as an artists’ mecca, starting with the Wazee Union artist collective, followed by 44 individual artist studios at 35th and Wazee streets; then the Walnut Workshop – 17 more studios two blocks to the east; and then the Laundry on Lawrence. But just three years later, only the Wazee Union is still fully functioning according to its original plan. And the owners divested themselves of that property more than three years ago.

If that sounds like a spectacular crash, Freeland says, it was more like a slow, three-year attrition. And it was actually the owners’ plan all along: To cash in on a temporary window of economic opportunity.

“Three years ago, RiNo was an attractive spot for an investor to provide work space for artists,” Freeland said, “and they provided it.” But RiNo is now one of the hottest real-estate neighborhoods in one of the hottest real-estate markets in the country.

Smith, a Denver native, is Managing Partner at zeroventures of Los Angeles, a company that invests in the early stages of ambitious and innovative start-ups. (He has not yet returned a request for comment on this story, which will be updated when he does.)

“Their business plan was to take blighted warehouses, subdivide them and turn them into viable spaces for artists to work at,” said Freeland. “But the demand isn’t the same now as it was three years ago.”

What’s changed? Three years of continuing economic recovery. Skyrocketing property values. And, of all things … legalized marijuana.

“Thanks to marijuana, warehouse space in RiNo is at a (bleeping) premium,” Freeland said. “There is no space left.” 

But Freeland isn’t stressed about it. Even though he moved his family to New York City a year ago and has split his time between Denver and New York since, Freeland said the LIDA Project will “march on unfettered” into its 21st year.

“Space has never been a defining thing for us as a company,” said Freeland, whose troupe has had more than six home bases in its 20 years … including the street. “Frankly, we never saw this as our ‘forever home.’”

In 2015, LIDA plans to bring Ludlow, its collaboration with Colorado Springs TheatreWorks about the historic mining massacre, to Denver. But that project already had grown too large for the Laundry, Freeland said, so he will rent out a larger theatre such as the Aurora Fox, Boulder’s Dairy Center or Metro State.

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When playwright Ami Dayan’s “Reason,” featuring Josh Robinson and James O’Hagan-Murphy, closes this Sunday, so too will the theatre it is being performed in. Photo by Una Morera.

Freeland said his company’s recent six-part dialogue on firearms titled Happiness is a Warm Gun will return in February, but those performances very intentionally take place not in the theatre but are hosted in area living rooms to spark neighborly, post-show discussions. He also plans to remount his award-winning production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape in New York – with original star Lorenzo Sariñana playing the menacing Yank who speaks entirely in Spanish and mostly to five female mannequins. And his core ensemble will soon dive into a new creation that will take 6-12 moths to develop. “None of those plans depend on finding a permanent home anytime soon,” Freeland said.

“We’ve had a very busy year, but when you think about it, we haven’t staged one show in 2014 in our ‘home’ theatre,” said Freeland.

Stillman believes the larger story here is the continued attrition of affordable performing spaces for theatre companies in the city of Denver. While mainstays like Buntport and Su Teatro are stabilized in the Santa Fe Arts District, there seems to be an ongoing exodus of grassroots theatre from Denver proper over the past five years. 

Paragon moved to RiNo and folded a month later. The Victorian Playhouse closed. Germinal Stage-Denver moved to Westminster. Vintage Theatre moved to Aurora. The Colorado Symphony Orchestra is leaving the Boettcher Auditorium behind. New theatres and arts centers have been built in Lone Tree, Parker, Creede and Grand Lake – everywhere but Denver.

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Freeland sees this as a real problem for the performing arts within the city of Denver.

“Denver is incredibly receptive to live music, the visual arts and even the culinary arts,” Freeland said. “But I think the performing arts are struggling for audiences at every level.”

When Stillman ponders her company’s impending homelessness, she puts it more bluntly.

“Artists are being driven out of central Denver,” she said, “and I don’t like that at all.”

Updates:
Susan Lyles, founder of And Toto Too, reports that her company – the only one in Colorado dedicated exclusively to producing new work by women playwrights – will be announcing its 10th season “in early to mid-January, along with a location for at least the spring show,” she said. There will be a SWAN Day performance on March 23 – that’s the new international “Support Women Artists Now Day” – to be announced later,  and the company’s annual summer Play Crawl along Tennyson Street will continue. “This is an unfortunate bump in the road for us – but we love a challenge,” Lyles said.


More on the story: 
From 2011: In Colorado, an unexpected building boom
From 2012: LIDA Project founder moving to New York
From 2013: Exit interview, LIDA Project founder Brian Freeland: ‘Director and designer of mayhem’

Lida_Project_Theatre_Close_800_3Hart DeRose before the opening of ‘The Hairy Ape’ at the Laundry on Lawrence in 2012. Photo by John Moore.

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