Terry Dodd: A playwright, director who bled empathy

Video highlights from the Terry Dodd Life Celebration on Nov. 28.

Local playwright was interested in real, deeply human stories that centered on characters working to reconcile past mistakes

Terry Dodd will be remembered as one of the most prolific local directors in the Colorado theatre community, as well as an accomplished playwright and screenwriter known for exploring deeply personal family issues. But he also will be remembered as a proud advocate for local theatre, for actors, and certainly for the projects he took on.

Dodd was interested in real, down-to-earth human stories that often centered on characters working to reconcile past mistakes. Asked in 2013 to describe his directing philosophy, Dodd said: “Love the play, cast well, always have something for the ear or eye for the audience, and be the best cheerleader going. Keep the drama onstage. And have fun.”

In one word, he said he thought the most important personal attribute in any good director is empathy.

Terry Dodd Quote.Dodd oozed empathy over four decades in the Colorado theatre community. He died Wednesday night of a massive heart attack at his apartment, according to his friend and neighbor, Bill Deal. Dodd, who had just turned 64 on Sept. 18, was taken to Denver Health Medical Center at about 6 p.m., but he did not survive emergency surgery, Deal said. The DCPA NewsCenter later confirmed the death with four independent sources, although Denver Health Medical Center said it was awaiting pathological identification through next of kin.

“Terry was an exceptionally kind and brilliant guy who did a lot for the local theater scene,” said Veronica Straight-Lingo, his friend and also a tenant in the apartment building where Dodd was proctor. Residents of the Executive House Apartments on Capital Hill were individually informed of the news this morning by building management, she said.

Dodd has directed dozens of local stage productions at the Arvada Center, Aurora Fox, Nomad Theatre and Bas Bleu, among many others. He considered a personal milestone to be his direction of the second half of the six-hour opus Angels in America, a 2004 co-production between Fort Collins’ Bas Bleu and OpenStage theatre companies.

“Two of the milestone productions in the history of Bas Bleu were directed by Terry – Angels in America and Three Viewings,” said Bas Bleu co-founder Wendy Ishii. “He made some major contributions to our theatre, and his willingness to come up from Denver to help us really elevated our place in the local theatre community.”

In 2008, Dodd came to the rescue of Bas Bleu when the director of The 1940s Radio Christmas Carol was hospitalized.

Laura Jones, who directed the first half of Angels in America with Dodd, remembers a moment during the summer just before the 9/11 attacks. “My husband and I did a houseboat weekend with friends on Lake Powell,” she said. “It was very hot, so we slept on the top deck under the stars. At one point, my husband said, ‘I feel like I’m in a Terry Dodd play.’ Terry loved that story.”

Dodd won the 2006 Denver Post Ovation Award for best year by a director for a lineup that included The Holdup; The Smell of the Kill; Private Eyes; The Caretaker; The Man From Nebraska; I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, and The Weir – all in one year.

He originated the annual theatre productions that are still staged each summer in the lobby of the downtown Barth Hotel, a venture that specifically raises money for Senior Housing Options to provide housing and essential services to more than 500 special-needs seniors. Dodd was a big proponent of site-specific theatre, staging Stanton’s Garage in an actual auto-repair garage (until it got shut down for doing so!) and Hot’l Baltimore in the lobby of the Barth.

“By seeing site-specific theater, I think the boundaries are opened up to an audience,” Dodd said in a Denver Post interview. “These plays greatly expand our ideas of where and how theater can happen.”

Dodd was nominated for a Henry Award for directing James O’Hagan-Murphy in the one-man RFK: A Portrait of Robert Kennedy, which began at the Vintage Theatre and was later re-staged at the Avenue Theatre and Town Hall Arts Center.

“That was a really lovely experience,” Dodd said. “When I first read the play, I broke out crying at the end.”

Listen in: Terry Dodd’s 2006 podcast interview with John Moore

Another personal favorite of Dodd’s was Picasso at the Lapin Agile, which imagines a chance meeting between a young Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso in 1904.

He also experienced some success as a screenwriter. “He co-wrote a screenplay in the late 1990s, and I remember the giddiness when he showed me the check for $200,000,” said his friend, Dave Maddux.

Dodd graduated from George Washington High School and the University of Colorado at Boulder. He was a professor at the University of Colorado-Denver and a Teacher at the Lighthouse Writers Workshop. His plays were produced nationally, and he was a member of the DCPA Theatre Company’s original Playwriting Unit in the 1980s alongside Molly Newman (Quilters) and Randal Myler (Love, Janis.) “Out of that came a script of mine called Goodnight, Texas, that in its original staged reading featured a young actress named Annette Bening,” Dodd said in a 2006 interview.

Terry Dodd considered his play 'Home By Dark' to be his favorite. It was staged at Curious Theatre in 2010 with Jake Walker, left, and Michael McNeill as Dodd's cop dad. Photo by Michael Ensminger for Curious Theatre Company

Terry Dodd considered his play ‘Home By Dark’ to be his favorite. It was staged at Curious Theatre in 2010 with Jake Walker, left, and Michael McNeill as Dodd’s cop dad. Photo by Michael Ensminger for Curious Theatre Company.

Dodd wrote 16 plays, “and he considered each of them his children,” Bill Deal said. “Terry had a difficult childhood, and he rose above it. He used to say it was a good thing that he found the arts, because they saved his life. He went on to become a proud gay man and activist.”

Dodd frequently mined his own past as a writer to explore complex family relationships. His autobiographical coming-out story Home By Dark, which was produced by Curious Theatre in 2010, focused on a charged confrontation between a father and son who are both harboring secrets. It was based on a snowy 1974 morning when a state patrolman – Dodd’s father – woke Terry with a pounding on his door. “It’s rare to see plays centering on father-son relationships,” Dodd said, “and that’s because men only talk when they are cornered … And my dad was cornered.”

Dodd’s Vaughn, NM, Christmas Eve, 1956, was a more sentimental memoir recalling a childhood trip to Roswell, N.M. in a raging snowstorm.

Dodd’s Amateur Night at the Big Heart began as a DCPA commission that went on to be fully staged at the Arvada Center in 1992 with David Ogden Stiers of M*A*S*H fame directing. It was later revived at the Aurora Fox in 2012 with Rhonda Brown starring. The story focuses on a group of beautiful losers in a bar in Pueblo called Big Heart. Dodd said the script owes a nod to The Time of Your Life and the TV show “Cheers.”

Dodd was also a voracious film buff who was working on a new play about Alfred Hitchcock called Hitchcock Dreaming.

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

“Terry Dodd was an important playwright not only in our past, but also for Denver and Colorado,” said DCPA Theatre Company Producing Artistic Director Kent Thompson. “He was really bright spirit.”

Dodd was beloved at the Lighthouse Writers Workshop, says program director Andrea Dupree. “He was a real heart of our organization,” said Dupree. “He was known for lovely quirks, like saying ‘dynamite!’ when students read their work aloud.

“He was just someone who was in it for the love of stories, and he passed that on to anyone he worked with. He mentored many of our students into having their work published and produced. He made their dreams come true. He was just the most genuine, kind and generous person.”

Given that Dodd was an expert in nearly every facet of storytelling, Ishii says she once asked Dodd why he never tried his hand at acting. “I thought he would be great at it, because when he gives notes as a director, he sometimes immediately accesses the character in a really wonderful way,” Ishii said. “But I remember him saying, ‘I can’t act. I’m too much in my head.’ ”

Given his longevity, Dodd worked with hundreds of actors, designers and technicians in the Colorado theatre community of all experience levels. One of them was Cat DiBella Lindsey, who appeared in several stagings of Three Viewings, three monologues set in a funeral parlor.

“I’m at a loss over this loss,” DiBella said. “I did my first play in Denver with Terry, and my last play in Denver with Terry – and almost all of my plays in Denver with Terry. Now that he’s gone, I feel like I’m mourning both the loss of Terry and the lost chances. I loved him, and I treasure the things we did get to do together.”

DiBella then added with a laugh, “Now who is going to hire me to play a hooker?”

A celebration of Terry Dodd’s life was attended by about 400 on Nov. 28 at the Arvada Center. Click here for video and photo highlights.

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.

Terry Dodd remembered

A photo retrospective on the works of playwright and director Terry Dodd, left. To see more photos, click the forward arrow on the image above.

Significant writings:

Home By Dark (produced by Curious Theatre), 2010, play
Stealing Baby Jesus,
Goodnight, Texas
(1986 DCPA Prima Facia presentation, and Colorado Council on the Arts fellowship winner), play
Vaughn, New Mexico, Christmas Eve 1956
, play
House Warming
(was chosen as a semi-finalist for the Humana Festival), play
Closer to Heaven
(2002 Colorado Council on the Arts Fellowship winner), film

Selected seminal plays directed include:

Angels in America, Bas Bleu and OpenStage, 2004
A Raisin in the Sun
, Arvada Center, 2005
Twelfth Night
(set in the 1960s), Victorian Playhouse, 2008
RFK: A Portrait of Robert Kennedy,
Vintage Theatre and others, 2013
99 Histories, Theatre Esprit Asia, 2013
A Steady Rain at the Edge Theatre, 2014

Additional reader comments:

“Terry had such an understanding of the West, and he made me love it through his eyes. He was smart, visionary and funny.” – Kathy Holt, Scenic Designer, Angels in America

“Terry was my playwriting teacher at DU and a constant source of support and encouragement from that moment on. He will be greatly missed. “Meghan Anderson Doyle, Costume Designer, DCPA Theatre Company’s ‘The Glass Menagerie’

My husband (Augustus Truhn) and I first met at the callback for Communicating Doors and were both cast, leading eventually to … well … our current lives together. Terry was always a friend to and cheerleader for us, personally and professionally. We will both miss him immensely.” Karen LaMoureaux

“Terry was one of the least pretentious people I’ve ever known about his art. He loved what he loved.  He’d fight for Shakespeare in Love or The Remains of the Day in a way that a lot of artists wouldn’t. I really got a kick out of that — and it humanized him to those who can feel left out of the discussions of “high art” (though he could talk about the highest of the highbrow, he loved it all).  His brand of artistic candor is rare, I think, and it was yet another of my favorite things about him. Andrea Dupree, Program Director, Lighthouse Writers Workshop

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