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."

Some of Marley's casting choices, however, have irritated local theater practitioners over the years. The issue came up again last spring during the American Theatre Critics Association's annual convention. Echoing the oft-expressed sentiments of several of his colleagues, Avenue Theatre producer John Ashton decried the DCTC's tendency to discount, underestimate and even disdain the talent of local performers.

Marley says the theater is unfairly singled out for such criticism. "It is not leveled at the symphony, though it is sometimes leveled at the art museum. It is leveled here because there are a whole bunch of people who think if you want to do it, you don't really have to have any skill to do it. You know, if you can't read a line of a Bach fugue and render it on a violin, you are eliminated technically, immediately and obviously. There are skills," Marley insists, "that are just as identifiable to the people who run theaters in this country." Although Marley admits that the DCTC might not be using "every actor of professional quality who lives in Denver," he maintains that "there are dozens of people in Denver who work a way that I don't want to work. It doesn't mean that they can't work other places; it means they can't work here...An actor who is not willing to walk in and surrender a performance ego can't work with us. And I will get in terrible trouble for saying this, but there is a difference with the professional who says, 'I am going to dedicate my entire life, six days a week, eight hours a day, to the exclusion of everything else.' I have to work with those kind of people."

One way to ensure that there are plenty of people to work with is to train them personally. A native of Portales, New Mexico, Marley attended Eastern New Mexico University as a music and drama major and performed graduate work at the University of Texas at Austin, an institution more renowned in theatrical circles for its Ph.D. program than for producing professional actors. Now Marley professes a deep sense of responsibility to the 24 students enrolled in the National Theatre Conservatory, DCTC's all-expenses-paid program that pairs young actors (every year the center screens 300 to 400 applicants, "some of them from Denver," Marley says) with professional mentors for three years, the second and third spent in the company. "It's a very structured program for developing the next level of artists," he says.

Furthermore, he says, "Ninety-five percent of the casting in this country is done either in New York or in Los Angeles. If you seriously say, 'I want a life in the professional theater,' why are you in Denver if you are not on contract to somebody? What you are doing is rationalizing that that's what you want. Because if you want it, you'll go to where the jobs are. And I can't say that without coming off as arrogant or elitist, and I don't mean to do that. That's why I think [the conservatory system] is a more thoughtful, studied approach than saying 'We want to make a civic theater out of the Denver Center, so everybody come on down, and I'll make everybody feel good.'"

If Marley refuses to bear the burden of making local actors feel good, he also feels no obligation to see their work on a regular basis. "That is Randy Myler's responsibility as casting director," he says, but then qualifies his remarks. "I see local work, yes. If there is an actor that I want to see, if there is a director whose work I'm curious about, I go. If there's not, I do not go. And the reason I don't go is because if I do, I'm taking that period of time away from other work." Neither does the idea of a "second company" at the DCTC--a laboratory in which young artists are brought along and directors are encouraged to take bold, experimental risks--hold much appeal for Marley. "If your major company is committed to new work," he asks, "why do you need an alternate company to develop new work?"

What does excite him, he says, is the potential for more Equity companies to become established in Denver. "The time is now, the time is ripe," he says passionately. "I tell you what is missing: the professionalism to understand that the art has a business component. And if someone is going to start that company, it will take a manager who is just as gifted as the artistic leader." Marley seems certain more companies will arise within "the next three or four years" but also defends his choices with the warning that "what will be discovered is that if they are going to be successful, they're also not going to cast by ZIP code. Once they have been here, they will raise the expectation, they will go through a honeymoon period. And then they will develop a reservoir of resentment in the same way that the Denver Center has." The good news, Marley says, is that such a situation will produce "a group of artists who are working at the professional level [who] can live in Denver and move from company to company...It is not healthy for this to be the only Equity company in town."

Marley acknowledges that "one of the curses" of a job like his is that "what is in your head is never fully realized on stage," but he ticks off a list of goals: He wants to showcase the talents of his company by taking it on an international tour, even as he vows to significantly improve the acting company's mediocre vocal skills. And, despite the fact that the father of modern drama, Henrik Ibsen, required two years--in isolation, no less--to write each of his major plays, Marley unabashedly wishes for "a resident playwright whose responsibility is to deliver a producible play for a professional theater once a year." And while he admits that his always aging acting company must take care to maintain a strong, expressive physical approach, he insists that the company's vitality lies in this core group of mature artists, who will become "a resource that no one else in this country has."

Like most of his prosaic pronouncements, these words cut both ways--making you wonder whether, five years from now, the company that Marley keeps will be the envy of theaters nationwide or an isolated anachronism that no one really wants anymore.

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