Life in the Middle

Denver's theater companies contemplate taking their audiences to the next level.

No matter how dedicated they are to presenting plays that provoke as well as entertain, most independent theater artists face the same middle-of-the-road, bureaucratic issues that plague large, established companies. That's especially true when a troupe earns acclaim and immediately sets its sights on becoming "the next Steppenwolf" -- referring to the Midwestern group (whose founding members include John Malkovich and Gary Sinise) that began by performing realistic plays in a suburban church basement. Following several seasons' worth of hit-and-miss efforts, the company became the toast of the Chicago theater world when they mounted a gritty production of Sam Shepard's True West that eventually played off-Broadway.

Even though some of Denver's smaller theaters don't aspire to Steppenwolf-like growth, those who contemplate stepping up to the next level -- with budgets that allow for at least a semi-permanent artistic home, a paid staff and a handful of performers who belong to Actors' Equity Association -- sometimes discover that starting and sustaining a medium-sized operation can be more burdensome than liberating.

As far as a trio of local practitioners are concerned, independence isn't just a matter of striking the right balance between the work a company wants to do and the plays an audience will pay to see. The journey toward creative freedom is also defined by how a company deals with escalating rents, paltry (and frequently nonexistent) salaries, marketing woes and competition from popular entertainment forms. And even though the number of theater companies in Denver has grown substantially in recent years -- more than fifteen theater companies have started over the last five years, and only half a dozen or so didn't make it -- the concept of presenting professional-caliber work on a modest scale isn't a novel idea.

A real trouper: Bug Theatre Company co-founder Donna Morrison.
Anthony Camera
A real trouper: Bug Theatre Company co-founder Donna Morrison.

Actor and director Ed Baierlein remembers when his colleagues were predicting the first renaissance in Denver theater. "When I came here in 1968," says the director/manager of Germinal Stage Denver, "everybody was talking about how, just around the corner, we'd all be able to pay each other." Four years later, that dream was realized when the now-defunct Third Eye Theater contracted a group of actors to do ten plays over the course of a 44-week season. "We had a hundred-seat house, and we'd close one show on Saturday and open another on Wednesday, and we got paid $60 a week."

That might have been enough to get by on then, but prices for everything since -- including rents for the few available theater spaces in town -- have risen at a rate that's far outpaced any increase in ticket prices over the years. And even though he owns his building on West 44th Street, Baierlein says it's become prohibitively expensive to produce high-quality work while paying actors a living wage. "And there's no in-between," he argues. "You're either union or you're not; you either can guarantee people a year's work or you can't. And if you can't, then they've got to go do something else."

Maybe that's why Baierlein, who last fall mounted a Noh theater-style production of Tennessee Williams's Suddenly Last Summer, believes in a philosophy of "enlightened amateurism." Basing his model on the work of European repertory theaters as well as the Little Theater movement of the '40s and '50s (an approach that emphasized innovative production techniques and high standards for performers who didn't expect to make a living from acting), Baierlein has encouraged a "no-growth" policy for GSD for nearly all of its 26 seasons. "We have no desire to become institutionalized," he says. And even though everyone who works at GSD receives a small honorarium against a percentage of the net, no one who works for Baierlein doesn't also have a day job.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, Baierlein contends that it's easiest to work with people who are happy in another vocation and harbor no illusions about the theatrical profession. Instead of trying to find their feet in a nomadic, fiercely competitive workplace in which 85 to 90 percent of unionized actors are unemployed, Baierlein maintains that college students should obtain job skills and try to enrich the amateur theater climate wherever they choose to live. "Until people give up the idea that they have to make their living doing this stuff," he says, "I don't think things will change."

But effecting change is clearly what Donna Morrison had in mind a couple of years ago when she and her partner considered moving here from Seattle to start the Bug Theatre Company. "We knew the owners of the space," she says of the converted movie theater that's situated a few blocks away from Baierlein's building on the city's northwest side. "And I thought, 'Maybe we can break some new ground here by keeping ticket prices accessible and still managing to pay ourselves.'" Morrison also set a larger goal of finding a way to make Denver a "theater city that's attractive to other artists around the country who want to earn their living here."

Before long, though, she found herself dealing with a dilemma that's confounded locals for decades: trying to hire -- and retain -- hometown Equity actors without having to fork over the kind of salaries that actors can earn at larger houses like the Denver Center Theatre Company. "Right now, some of the smaller companies doing good work can't afford Equity wages," she says. "And if you can't get hired by the big theaters and can't work for the small theaters, what do you do?" And despite sticking to a motto of "Put up good work and people will come," Morrison discovered that audiences didn't exactly flock to experimental fare like last spring's Iphigenia and Other Daughters, which she felt was just as worthy as the Bug's more popular -- and more profitable -- productions of black comedies like The SantaLand Diaries. "We needed to know marketing," she admits, "which we've been learning as we go."

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