'This is Modern Art' will make you look

Making of 'This is Modern Art'

Above: Our full photo gallery from the making of Off-Center’s ‘This is Modern Art,’ opening March 22. To see more, click on the image above. From left in first photo above: Denver actors Robert Lee Hardy, Jake Mendes and Marco A. Robinson. Photos by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter

Off-Center play starts a provocative conversation about art that controversial Chicago graffiti artists started in snow 

By John Moore
Senior Arts Journalist

Graffiti crews have been called vandals, criminals — even creative terrorists. What they are is artists, says director, playwright and artist Idris Goodwin. “And in 2009, some of those artists set out to make their voices heard and alter the way people view the world.”

Goodwin, also a full-time associate theatre professor at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, co-wrote This is Modern Art, a book and now proudly controversial stage play based on an incident when a graffiti crew created a massive tag on the outside of the Art Institute of Chicago’s new, multimillion-dollar Modern Wing. Under cover of snowfall, they painted a 50-foot mural bookended by the words “Modern Art … Made You Look.”

This explicit challenge of a powerful arts institution drew condemnation, outrage and, from many, celebration.

“They wanted to have a conversation around art and culture that I don’t think otherwise happens,” Goodwin said. “I think fine art has become very apolitical over the years, and that then fosters a certain apoliticism to class. These artists really wanted to have an open conversation about art but, unfortunately, that didn’t really happen.”

Instead, the anonymous artists went — and remain — underground. But Goodwin’s co-writer Kevin Coval found them and interviewed them, Studs Terkel-style, for the play.

This is Modern Art. Idris Goodwin Quote. Photo by John MooreThis Is Modern Art, which will be staged by the DCPA’s Off-Center from March 22 through April 15 in the Jones Theatre, offers a glimpse into the lives of graffiti artists and asks timeless questions about art: What is art — and who gets to say so? It also addresses the competing issues of artistic freedom and private property.

This is a story, Goodwin added, “that allows the audience to get to know a very particular culture that has its own history, and its own set of morals. It allows them to go along on this ride without actually getting any paint on their hands.”

Off-Center co-founder and curator Charlie Miller said Goodwin and Coval “take elements of hip-hop culture and put them onstage in a way that is both accessible to an audience who knows nothing about it, and to those who are deeply steeped in that culture. Idris makes the theatre a meeting place for both of those audiences.”

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

Miller said he is “proud to be doing this work and engaging the artists who are working on this project. And, most important, to be engaging our audiences in the tough conversation this play brings up.”

Goodwin knows the Denver Center’s traditional theatregoing audience base will be challenged. That’s the point, he said. 

“I have this fantasy where these seniors who are 65 and older come to see the show and suddenly get a late-in-life spark to write graffiti. That’s my goal,” he said. “If I can get at least three octogenarians thrown in jail after seeing this play, I will have done my job.’ ”

A THIS IS MODERN ART. Idris Goodwin. Photo by John Moore

Photo by John Moore.

Here are five more things we learned at the first rehearsal for ‘This Is Modern Art,’ followed by the announcement of the all-local cast and creative team:


Modern Art 800Small world. The world premiere of This is Modern Art was staged at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre in 2015 (pictured right). The director was Lisa Portes, who just happens to arrive in Denver next week to begin work on the Karen Zacarías comedy Native Gardens for the DCPA Theatre Company. The Off-Center production of This is Modern Art is being directed by Goodwin himself. “Idris is a wildly imaginative thinker,” Portes told the DCPA NewsCenter. “He knows the necessity of traditional structure well, and he also pushes against it in order to get to something else. This is Modern Art follows a pretty traditional structure, but its content is quite subversive.” Indeed, the staging was among the most controversial of the past decade. The play was presented as part of Steppenwolf’s Young Adult Series, and critics at the city’s two major daily papers bashed the morality of the piece. “There was a bit of a kerfuffle to say the least,” Goodwin said with a laugh. “For critics, the question became, ‘How dare you glorify anyone who challenges the law?’ To which we said: ‘Thank you for making us the N.W.A. of theatre,’ ” referring he said, to the polarizing gangsta-rap pioneers. Goodwin says he considers the scathing review by Hedy Weiss of the Chicago Sun-Times to be among his most prized possessions. “It reads like it is right out of the 1930s,” he said. “I kept waiting for the words ‘Reefer Madness‘ to appear.” A social media backlash accused the Chicago critics of being out of touch.

NUMBER 2This is a heist! In writing the play, Goodwin and Coval were inspired by the film Man on Wire, which chronicles Philippe Petit‘s renegade 1974 high-wire walk between the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center. “It’s a documentary, but it feels like a heist film,” Goodwin said. A heist film is a kind of crime film that focuses on the planning, execution and aftermath of a theft. “And that was the play we wanted to write,” Goodwin said.

NUMBER 3Crushing it. The Jones Theatre will be transformed into an abandoned warehouse that serves as the primary location for the story. The theatre walls will be covered in layers of graffiti, while the actual tag at the Art Museum will be depicted through a real-time animated projection so that the actors don’t actually paint during the performance. “It’s going to be really exciting,” said Scenic Designer Nicholas Renaud. Projection Designer Topher Blair has been consulting and collaborating with graffiti artist Robin Munro, founder of Colorado Crush, Colorado’s largest independent annual graffiti event that has transformed the two-block alleyway in RiNo now known as “Art Alley.” 

Read more: Is graffiti modern art … or urban terrorism?

NUMBER 4Opening doors and minds. There will be eight student matinee performances of This is Modern Art, Miller said, “because the questions this play asks are really important, particularly for high-school students. This play really lifts up these artists, who are people we don’t normally get to see on a stage.” There also will be a facilitated talkback after every student matinee to further the conversation. “We’re really excited that every student who comes will get to really get to dig deep into the themes and questions of the play as part of their experience,” Miller said.

NUMBER 5The more you know. If you are interested in the rich history of Chicago graffiti art and the story behind This is Modern Art before you attend the play, you can order the source book from Haymarket Books. “We wanted to do something different than just an acting edition of the play,” Goodwin of the book, which includes a foreword by Lisa Yun Lee, Director of the School of Art and Art History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “This play is about more than just this particular art crime,” Lee wrote. “ It is also about an ongoing kind of crime perpetrated by the powerful against those in the margins, a more universal history of oppression that takes place through the prescription of what is beautiful.” It is available in paperback ($11) or e-book ($6) form here. And you can read the foreword here.

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.

This is Modern Art: Cast and creatives

This is Modern Art Cast. Photos by John Moore

Clockwise from top left, actors John Jurcheck, Brynn Tucker, Jake Mendes, Robert Lee Hardy, Chloe McLeod and Marco Robinson. Photos by John Moore, filtered by Prisma. 

  • Written by Kevin Coval and Idris Goodwin
  • Directed by Idris Goodwin
  • Scenic Designer: Nicholas Renaud
  • Costume Designer: Meghan Anderson Doyle
  • Lighting Designer: Katie Gruenhagen
  • Sound Designer: Elisheba Ittoop
  • Projection Design: Topher Blair
  • Graffiti Artist: Robin Munro
  • Dramaturg: Kristin Leahey
  • Stage Manager: Rick Mireles
  • Casting: Grady Soapes


  • Robert Lee Hardy (DCPA Education’s The Snowy Day, Vintage Theatre’s A Time To Kill) as Seven
  • John Jurcheck (Curious Theatre Company’s Hand To God, DCPA Theatre Company’s Jackie & Me) as Ensemble
  • Chloe McLeod (Miners Alley Playhouse’s Fun Home, DCPA’s A Christmas Carol) as Selena
  • Jake Mendes (Aurora Fox’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch, DCPA Debut) as Dose
  • Marco Robinson (Miners Alley Playhouse’s Fun Home, Off-Center’s The Wild Party) as Jose Clemente/JC
  • Brynn Tucker (Local Theater Company’s The Rape of the Sabine Women, DCPA Theatre Company’s Frankenstein) as Ensemble

This is Modern ArtThis is Modern Art
: Ticket information

  • Presented by Off-Center
  • Performances March 22-April 15
  • Jones Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex
  • Call 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE

Selected previous NewsCenter coverage of Idris Goodwin:

Idris Goodwin is going places: From Curious’ Detroit ’67 to Denver Center
Graffiti: Modern art or ‘urban terrorism’?
Vast and visceral: Off-Center season will include This is Modern Art
Video: Victory Jones and the Incredible One Woman Band

About Off-Center

As the most unconventional line of Denver Center programming Off-Center specializes in unexpected experiences such as Sweet & Lucky, the first large-scale immersive show in Denver; and The Wild Party, a decadent, 360-degree party set in the Roaring ’20s. An Off-Center show is like no other theatre experience — by design. Off-Center focuses more on connecting people and upending expectations than on adhering to tradition. Off-Center wants you leaving a show thinking, “I’ve never seen anything like that.”

Cast and creatives for 'This is Modern Art' on the first day of rehearsal. Photo by John Moore.Cast and creatives for Off-Center’s ‘This is Modern Art’ on the first day of rehearsal Feb. 27. Photo by John Moore.

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