Thompson: Theatre Company turned questions into exclamation points

Selected images from the 2014-15 DCPA Theatre Company season. Photos by Jennifer M. Koskinen

An expanded New Play Summit, robust attendance and a slate of challenging new work all helped Kent Thompson overcome big challenges entering his 10th season.

Kent Thompson went into his 10th season as Artistic Director of the DCPA Theatre Company with some feelings of uncertainty. He came out of it feeling like things could not have gone much better – on stage or off.

“The beginning of the season was a time of both strategy and sacrifice at the same time,” Thompson said.

Kent Thompson2014-15 would be the first season in the company’s 36-year history without a company of resident actors audiences could expect to appear throughout the year. That choice was made in part because the company also made the strategic decision to offer eight shows in 2014-15, down from 10 the year before. The goal, Thompson said, was to focus more attention, time and resources on each individual offering. That would make for higher quality on both sides of the footlights – but it would also mean fewer jobs to go around for both actors and crew.

There was also much at creative stake with a high-risk season that started and ended with two big musicals (The Unsinkable Molly Brown and The 12), both of which brought big-name creative teams into the Denver Center’s artistic womb to work alongside the company’s pool of in-house designers and crew. The slate would include four world-premiere productions – fully half of the season – and seven titles that had never before been staged anywhere in Colorado.

“There was a lot there that could go wrong,” Thompson said. 

And almost nothing did.

Molly Brown and The 12 were both positively received. Molly Brown was the culmination of a nearly decade-long quest to reimagine and refresh the classic 1960 Broadway musical about one of Colorado’s most beloved citizens. Directed by three-time Tony winner Kathleen Marshall and shepherded in every other way by book writer and lyricist Dick Scanlan, the Denver Center introduced a more fully fleshed Molly Brown and a far more complex love story with husband Leadville Johnny Brown. Castle Rock native Beth Malone was widely praised for her performance as Molly Brown, then went to Broadway, where she was nominated as Best Actress in a Musical for her work in the most celebrated new musical of the year, Fun Home.

The 12 brought composer Neil Berg and Pulitzer-Prize winning writer Robert Schenkkan (The Kentucky Cycle) to Denver to explore what might have happened in the three days after the disciples went into hiding following Jesus’ crucifixion. The result was a simultaneously thoughtful and rocking new musical that asked serious questions about faith and personal responsibility in the wake of their leader’s death. The staging earned a four-star rating from Lisa Kennedy of The Denver Post, who called it “visceral and vivid.”

“What might have happened” was also the question playwright Kemp Powers took on when he wrote One Night in Miami, another clear triumph of the 2014-15 season. Performed against the backdrop of Ferguson and roiling racial tensions across America, One Night in Miami imagined what might have happened in a Miami hotel room between Cassius Clay, Sam Cooke, Malcolm X and Jim Brown immediately after Clay shocked Sonny Liston to win boxing’s heavyweight championship in 1964.

The season also included a terrifying staging of Lord of the Flies in the slot Thompson reserves to appeal to middle-school students; the 22nd Denver Center staging of the holiday tradition A Christmas Carol; and a winning production of the most popular play in America this year: Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.

Benediction. Photo by Jennifer M. Koskinen. The other two world premieres were Kent Haruf’s Benediction, which completed the first trilogy in DCPA Theatre Company history, and James Still’s Appoggiatura – the story of three people sharing their grief for the same man while traveling in Venice.

(Photo at right from “Benediction,” by Jennifer M. Koskinen.)

Perhaps most significantly, Thompson successfully expanded his signature Colorado New Play Summit to two weeks.

“To me, that’s been 10 years coming, but it was the perfect time to expand the Summit,” Thompson said. “There was a demand for it, and it seems to be drawing newer audiences to us both locally and nationally.”

Kent Thompson QuoteThe Theatre Company hit its projected attendance goals for all eight shows, which is believed to be a first in company history. The overall season attendance of 125,544 represents an 11 percent drop from 2013-14, but considering the number of shows was reduced by 20 percent, 2014-15 actually marked a significant spike in per-show attendance. That was reflected in the size of nightly audiences in the Theatre Company’s three theatres. On average, each performance was filled to 75 percent of capacity – up from 65 the year before.

“People tend to have a better time when there are more people in the room because theatre is by its very nature communal,” Thompson said. “Think about those moments when it is packed, and there is such a buzz in the house. That’s a better experience not only for audiences, but also for the actors.”

There was some concern that the 2014-15 season would not include a Shakespeare title. Thompson promised the Bard’s sabbatical would be short, and indeed, the Theatre Company’s first-ever staging of As You Like It will help launch the 2015-16 season when it opens Sept. 25.

Here are excerpts from our annual end-of-the season talk with Kent Thompson:

John Moore: The season began at a time of great change. How did you approach things?

Kent Thompson: Producing eight shows instead of 10 or 11 was an opportunity for us to focus on how to improve everything we do, from how we produce each play to how we sell them to how we inform people about them. It was very risky, and some of it was heartbreaking. But if it worked, it would be very exciting. We would drive up the total number of people seeing the shows. We would have a healthier balance of ticket sales and contributions. But for me, the chance to focus more time and resources on eight shows instead of 11 was really the secret to success. It was hard because I had to make a lot of really difficult choices that affected both staff and resources. But we did it. And at the same time, we decided to expand the Colorado New Play Summit to two weeks. And we did two musicals in a single season – not in any way that I planned that. So it was mixed.

John Moore: As you said, fewer shows meant fewer hours for your people in the shops and on your stages. But the shows were well-received across the board, and your attendance was up.

Kent Thompson: Yes. And that’s the thinking of the entire team here at the Denver Center, whether it is production or marketing or development or elsewhere. Part of the idea was this: How do we deliver something that is unforgettable and intimately shared – and how do we up our game at the same time? It was based on a real commitment by everyone to create ways that we can serve more people and take our mission further.

John Moore: Let’s review some of the major points of the season, starting with The Unsinkable Molly Brown. You opened with a musical, led by a national creative team, and in collaboration with an outside producer (NBC Entertainment Chairman Bob Greenblatt). That’s a pretty good indication of how things are changing around here. That is a high-stakes undertaking. How do you think you came out?

Kent Thompson: I think it was a great experience. There were some major changes that really worked – such as really activating the Molly Brown character, and not allowing her to disappear in the second act like she does in the original just because you don’t want to talk about her activism. I thought the idea of a strong woman who has strong convictions and she acts on them – to her own success or pain – was really great. That was the biggest change. I thought there were some incredible moments. I think the toughest challenge for the creative team was this: How do you even do a musical on The Stage Theatre? It’s a thrust stage (meaning the playing area reaches out into the auditorium so that the actors are by audience on three sides). That was the challenge for Sense & Sensibility, too. Most theatres in New York are proscenium stages (where the actors perform entirely behind the stage arch). Whether Molly Brown will go big, I don’t know. But it was a huge event for us. And by us, I mean Denver and Colorado. I always wanted to do it because would I knew it have a first-class creative team and first-class producer enhancing the production. And it was about something that is really important in Colorado history. I thought there was some great talent in it, too.

John Moore: You have always measured the success of your new plays by their continued life. So do you feel like this has one?

Kent Thompson: I feel like it has a continued life, but I don’t know what it is, or when it will happen. And that’s not from a lack of interest. That’s from the fact that you’ve got a first-class creative team and a first-class producer who also happens to run NBC Entertainment. Their schedules book up way in advance. But, yes, I think it’s on the way to something. 

John Moore:
Since you mentioned it: What about Sense & Sensibility?

Kent Thompson: The issue there is a little more complex because they are considering going in many possible directions – like maybe trying the Asian market first, which is huge for English-spoken musical theatre. I mean, it’s becoming ginormous over there. They are also considering going to England. One of the barriers for them is probably that Jane Austen is adapted a lot. I’ve seen workshops since our show here in Denver, and they have advanced how the story is structured. I think it has become more interesting. I think they’ve got some incredible music and storytelling. I think they have something really valuable. And I think it will have a future.

John Moore: A personal favorite of mine was Lord of the Flies, and I understand that every available seat to every student matinee performance was filled – and with some wildly enthusiastic audiences.

Kent Thompson: Yes, they were.

John Moore:
Was it received with the same fervor by adult audiences in the evening performances?

Kent Thompson: It did pretty decently. I did foresee that men and boys would find it much more fascinating than women and girls, because it’s about a male rite of passage. What I didn’t foresee – which I should have – is that young adults and children do not walk into a show like this with the same dread that parents and older audiences do. One funny story I have is that a woman told me she was so happy we didn’t include the cannibalism scene. … There is no cannibalism scene in the book. But that lets you know the kind of state that people were walking into our show with. What was fascinating to me is that some people loved it. And some people absolutely hated it. And a lot of people were just kind of speechless after it. What I really noticed was that people were endlessly talking about it, even a few days after seeing it.

John Moore: And when people say they hated it, it’s likely that means they hated where the play took them.

Kent Thompson: Exactly. They hated where the play took them because it took them to a dark place. And we have a lot of dark places around the world today that are tough to deal with, so I think it created a visceral reaction. That’s where that experience takes you.

John Moore: Well you certainly offered a counter in your first Christopher Durang play, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.

Kent Thompson: I think that is his most approachable play.

John Moore: Tell me about choosing to stage the final chapter of the Kent Haruf trilogy in the smaller Space Theatre after offering the previous two in the Stage Theatre.

Kent Thompson: That decision really strongly came down to this: Which two theatres do I think Appoggiatura and Benediction belong in most? I thought the nature of the storytelling in Benediction was not about the expansive community that the first two stories were about. So I thought it would benefit from the intimacy of the smaller theatre.

John Moore: And of course you expanded the Colorado New Play Summit to two weeks.

Kent Thompson: I think attendance at the Summit proved there is a lot of pent-up demand for new work, particularly locally and regionally, and expanding allowed us to accommodate more visitors both from here and from out of town. The other thing it did, to varying degrees of success, was embolden the playwrights much more to actually revise while they were here.

John Moore:
Did you see significant changes in the plays from the first week to the second?

Kent Thompson: Depending on the play, yes. I saw improvement in some plays, and, in others, not so much. But it was interesting because it gave the playwrights the opportunity to have a couple of looks at it. I think our challenge is to figure out how the playwrights and our staff can best use those two weeks.

John Moore:
You had more industry people here than ever before. What kind of feedback did you get?

Kent Thompson: They liked that we gave them many additional opportunities to engage – whether it was the workshops with Matthew Lopez or Paula Vogel, or the Local Playwrights Slam, or our high-school playwriting competition. What we got back from the field is that this feels like a genuine home for new plays, and that we are putting our money where our mouth is. They also feel like it’s well-run. There’s a kind of high they perceive both from the staff at the Denver Center and all the people who come to it. They feel like it’s not stuck in the same place. And I think a lot of festivals where you do a few readings and a couple of world-premieres can get stuck in place. But I get a lot of expressions about how well we run the Colorado New Play Summit. Around the country, what playwrights are hearing is, “Well, we want a new play – but we need one that’s either going to be a Broadway musical, or we need one that is no more than four characters and has only one set.” That’s not what we are looking for here. It’s more diverse. What we are doing here is really trying to create a better process to make a new play.

John Moore: And that leads us to One Night in Miami. That play created a different kind of buzz than I’ve ever felt at the Denver Center before. In One Night in Miami, I saw changes within the actors themselves over the time they spent here in Denver. In some cases, I think it changed the direction their lives are going to take moving forward. And it changed how they look at themselves as black men in America today.

Kent Thompson: For me, that was a magical moment in the theatre where everybody we cast, and everybody we had working on the show, both internally and externally, were singing in harmony from the beginning. Everything came together in a kind of perfect moment, and that says a lot about (Director) Carl Cofield’s leadership. I think it is an incredibly well-written play. Even though it’s short, it goes into depth with all six characters. I’m sad that Ferguson happened. But I think because of some of those incidents, the play became more resonant in terms of how you define yourself as an African-American man, or as just a man a friend, a leader – any of those things. There was something about it that was kind of magical, and it’s what you hope for when you pick it. And also, we had so many people who helped us, whether it was Tina Walls (sister of one of the Little Rock Nine), whether it was bringing the Denver African-American Philanthropists to us, or some of the other outreach. But this was a play that drew everyone in. It didn’t matter your color.  So many people were talking about it. I would say that people are still talking about that play. There was this desire to make this play blossom – and you could feel that as soon as you walked into the theatre.

John Moore: And you don’t get many plays that are set 50 years ago that tell you more about what’s going on with race relations in America today.

Kent Thompson: It really came down to the fact that these were six people who were really trying to figure out what it meant to be African-American in the 1960s. Just like we’ve got so many people trying to figure out what it means to be African-American in the United States today.

John Moore:
And we finish with The 12, which really spoke to people of faith. When you are continually trying to tell the stories of underserved communities in Denver, does it occur to you that people of faith might be one of those communities?

Kent Thompson: I was drawn to the story and the music and the writing first. But I knew it would attract a different audience in terms of the faith-based. I also knew there might be another part of the audience that I would offend. So I thought, “Let’s just put it out there. Let’s find out.” Look, I’m the son of a Southern Baptist preacher, so I knew everything about this story that there is to know, both written in Christian history and theology, and in the Bible – and I thought the idea was incredible. I thought the combination with rock ‘n roll was really fascinating. I had no doubt that it would draw from a Christian community, but I was hoping that it would draw from a lot of different faiths. A lot of people who don’t have a faith but have gone through the loss of a seminal figure related to it. Because whether you are talking about Martin Luther King or John F. Kennedy, we all face those moments when we lose somebody we think of as our leader. Now what do we do? So for me, it was a really interesting experience to watch a group of people trapped in a room work their way back to the core of what they felt they learned.

John Moore:
Robert Schenkkan and I talked about how people of faith don’t always expect their faith to be taken seriously or respected in the theatre.

Kent Thompson: That’s true. I think the plays in the American theatre tend to be more on the liberal spectrum. We’re artists. We tend to be the guys who are outside the church performing on the steps, and then get arrested.

John Moore: But one of the questions I got from people of faith is that the Bible tells us Jesus did show up in that room. So why not give him a place in his own story?

Kent Thompson: Actually, if you go by the Bible, he didn’t show up in the room. If you go by Christian history, he did. But also, Mary Magdalene is not a prostitute in the Bible. Church leaders made her into a prostitute 200 to 300 years later. For me, the real issue is how do they struggle with their faith and re-center and go on in the face of most likely being killed? We know how their lives ended. That’s all in Christian history. I see both sides. I had one patron come up to me and say, “I was upset that Christ was not in it. And that’s the only thing I didn’t like about it.” And the very next day, a patron came up to me and said, “I am so glad that Christ was not in it, because that made the story so much more dramatic.”

John Moore: So how would you summarize the overall reaction from your audience? Judging by social media, it was clear some people were coming five and six times. That happens with Broadway touring shows like Wicked, but you don’t see that very often with Theatre Company shows.

Kent Thompson: No, and it also rarely happens for something that’s new. But I think it was an extraordinary response. What do we take from that? That there’s a thirst for genuine explorations of faith. But is it simply Christian faith? I mean, we’ve done two now recently, including Shadowlands. I have produced it and directed it before, and both places were very different climates. But they both drew huge audiences – and not because of Narnia. Because there is a grappling at the core of it. “Is my way the right way?”

John Moore: When you look at The 12, Shadowlands, A Christmas Carol and even to an extent the new The Unsinkable Molly Brown, do you think you have stumbled onto an underserved audience in the faith-based?

Kent Thompson: I think we have stumbled upon an audience that normally doesn’t come to the theatre. You can say they are underserved in the sense that we haven’t normally done plays like those. However, as an artistic director right now, I am thinking about looking at expressions of other faiths, because I don’t want to just simply do Christian-based things.

John Moore: What’s next for The 12?

Kent Thompson: I don’t think Robert Schenkkan necessarily anticipates that it will ever go to New York. But he does think it will have a life all over America – and I agree.

John Moore: So how do you summarize the season as a whole?

Kent Thompson: If I had to say what the theme of the season was, I’d say it was a series of comic, romantic, tragic and dramatic stories of people figuring out a way to move forward in spite of being stuck … or grieving … or in trouble. It was really about how we deal with that and re-create our lives. I think you can see that radiating throughout the season. You can see that in Molly Brown and in what she wants to do with her life. You can see that in The 12. You can see that in One Night in Miami. You can see it in Benediction. And even in Lord of the Flies: Those kids are changed forever by that experience – and a lot of them not for the better. But at the end of the play, this is a story that says the Piggys of the world are important.

A look ahead to 2015-16 season:
Sept. 11-Oct 11: Lookingglass Theatre Company’s Lookingglass Alice, Stage Theatre
Sept. 25-Nov 1: As You Like It, Space Theatre
Oct. 9-Nov. 15: Tribes, Ricketson Theatre
Nov. 27-Dec 27: A Christmas Carol, Stage Theatre
Jan. 22-Feb. 21, 2016: The Nest, Space Theatre
Jan. 29-Feb 28, 2016: All The Way, Stage Theatre
Feb. 5-March 13, 206: FADE, Ricketson Theatre
April 8-May 15, 2016: Sweeney Todd, with DeVotchKa orchestrations, Stage Theatre
To read more about the season, click here
Theatre Company introduces bold new artwork for 2015-16 season
For subscription information, click here


Some of our favorite stories this season from the DCPA NewsCenter:
Visiting Leadville with DCPA’s new Molly Brown, Beth Malone
Cold coffee, hot popcorn make for a good Vanya stew
Kent Haruf: The complete final interview
Video: A behind-the-scenes look at Lord of the Flies
The #CarolCallout is spreading across the country
‘Benediction’ opens as a celebration of ‘The Precious Ordinary’
Appoggiatura‘s James Still is running to catch up to himself
For two inaugural DCPA actors, you can come home again
Fourth-graders have tough questions for One Night in Miami cast
The 12: Three days that rocked the world

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