Marley's Ghost

In the media hoopla surrounding the Denver Center Theatre Company's 1998 Tony Award for outstanding regional theater, most theatergoers didn't notice that the award was given for a body of work that wasn't even produced last season. More to the point, the coveted prize (which is awarded annually by the American Theatre Wing on the recommendation of the American Theatre Critics Association) was bestowed by a group of critics who for the most part operate far from New York and have seen only one or two DCTC productions over the years. Although the DCTC's artistic director, Donovan Marley, recently remarked that the award doesn't mean as much to him as any single project that the DCTC produces, a corporate-style moniker trumpeting the "big award" is plastered on every DCTC program, promotional mailing, press release and even its outdoor marquee.

In Denver's theater world, it's the year's most prominent example of the distance that sometimes exists between what one advocates in matters of art and what one actually practices.

Sitting in his office, Marley tells a favorite story. A young boy who attended a matinee performance at a California theater later returned with his piggy bank to purchase a ticket to an evening show. "He had brought along his Newfoundland dog, who was his best friend, and he said he wanted that dog to have the experience he'd had." Marley mists up for a moment before he murmurs, "That's remarkable. And that happens more often than a whole lot of people want to acknowledge. And that's what I want to do with my life: I want to work for the kid who wants to buy a ticket for his dog."

It's a surprisingly sentimental remark from a man who, over the course of his fifteen-year tenure at the helm of the DCTC, has been both revered and reviled. The 61-year-old director, who founded and ran California's Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts for 21 years prior to his arrival in Denver in 1984, is credited with substantially improving the quality of the DCTC's productions. He's also been blamed for isolating the Denver Center from the rest of the local theater community; heralded for his commitment to educating and maintaining a resident ensemble of artists; lauded for cultivating local theatergoers' sophistication; derided for producing "safe" and stagnant forms of theater; and routinely second-guessed for employing out-of-town actors, directors, designers and playwrights.

Marley says it's never been his intention for "every show that the Denver Center does to look like my vision of what the theater ought to be." Denver's geographic isolation--"There is no other company within almost a thousand miles in any direction with the professional resources to address anything in the dramatic literature"--forces him to take a broad view instead of focusing on his individual vision, he says. That's meant "committing to individual artists over a long period of time and paying their salary when you don't have major things for them to do. It means sticking with them when they have a bad year. And trying to bring the good work back and to keep them aspiring to their best work."

But does that translate into productions that consistently challenge and stimulate area theatergoers? "We made our commitment to what is new," Marley says. He cites the center's US West Theatrefest, a program that supports the evolution of new theater projects, which, he says, "interests me a whole lot more than people in clown white isolated in a single spotlight. There are twelve European theaters that look like that and two hundred people across the country aping it and saying, 'We're doing cutting-edge work.' I simply don't think that most of that is cutting-edge work.

"There's some years that fifty percent of what we've done has been new scripts," Marley continues, noting that the DCTC produced six world premieres last season. "Anyone who thinks that's safe hasn't spent very much time in the theater. We take risky pieces, and I hope by the time we get them open they look safe." For example, he says, Laird Williamson's translation and adaptation of Life Is a Dream, a seventeenth-century Spanish play produced by the DCTC last spring, "illuminated it in a way that an audience could follow it--when it comes from a theatrical tradition that most of our audience is absolutely unfamiliar with. I think that's highly risky work. Now, I hope that it doesn't appear to be risky because what's the point of that? Is it to make an audience feel uncomfortable?" Marley says that "to try and fail" with a piece such as Don Quixote, which the DCTC also produced last spring, is as risky as anything avant garde. "If I'd made that work," he declares with a wry smile, "if we had reached our own aspirations with the piece, no one would have seen the risk in it."

But Marley concedes that the DCTC could benefit from an infusion of guest directors, designers and writers whose novel approach would force the company to adapt and adjust. After all, recent DCTC shows such as Blues for an Alabama Sky, Seven Guitars and Marley's own pet project, Black Elk Speaks used minority actors who are not regular members of the company--and featured the most exciting ensemble work that the DCTC has done in years. "I think that is a valid criticism," he says, noting that the center's collaboration this year with the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Company has been "that kind of 'energy hit.' It's good for us. And sure, another artistic director could come in and say, 'I want this hot European director this year, I want this guy from England next year, I want this guy from the East Coast and this guy'--and put those together and change them and keep mixing them in a different way. And all of them will want different actors, so what you don't get is that cadre of people that share a body of common work that informs future work. To me that is the more important choice."

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