Stage Plight

Small theater groups are having a tough time carving out their own space in Denver.

Encouraged in no small measure by the fact that Denver's cultural groups annually outdraw all local professional sports teams combined, several ambitious theater companies have recently elbowed their way onto the city's crowded stage. Rather than join forces with established organizations that operate their own spaces (and boast loyal followings), many of the new arrivals are choosing to go it alone: "Nail two pieces of wood together, summon your passion, and audiences will follow," seems to be their common refrain.

But whether they're dedicated to producing whole, eclectic seasons or sporadic, one-hit wonders, nearly all of Denver's small theaters are finding that spiraling commercial rents and the closure of oft-used spaces like the Shop are compromising their ability to call their own shots. This, in turn, makes it harder to produce the sort of bold, avant-garde fare that's the lifeblood of any theater community.

"I basically got sticker shock," says Kris Hipps, a transplanted Midwesterner who moved to town a year ago to found Paper Cat Theatre Company, which has since produced four shows in as many venues. Describing her experiences here as ranging from "great to appalling," Hipps reports that all of Denver's available theaters charge rental fees that are significantly higher than those in other cities.

"When I first moved here, I had a long list of spaces, and probably about a third of those have closed since then. Coming from Chicago, where there are a bazillion spaces -- most companies keep their prices lower because they're trying to get renters," she explains. "The last place I worked was Second City, and their black-box space went for $100 for a Friday or a Saturday night. Everything here is at least $200 for a weeknight. We're finding that it's hard to make a profit."

And even though she'd prefer to do more daring, experimental shows, she's had to put those plans on hold. "If you're paying $350 for a weekend night, you've got to do a show that brings in $350, plus extra to cover expenses. If you get a big grant, you can do something more exciting. But until you've got that safety net, it's hard. You almost have to put your money into a sure thing so that you can stay alive. As for paying the actors, forget it."

Worse, says Hipps, some theatrical landlords don't always provide safe, clean working environments, and even when they do, renters must often fend for themselves when dealing with temperamental lighting or sound equipment -- a situation that proves costly when landlords assess additional fees to hold technical rehearsals or tack on hourly charges for their (not always helpful) house personnel. "Theaters are too busy with their own projects, so no one takes care of the renters," says Hipps. As a result, she wonders, "Are they charging this much because they need to, or are they charging this much because they know they can get it?"

According to the artistic director of the Theatre Group, which operates Theatre on Broadway and the Phoenix Theatre, rental fees reflect both market forces and tangible expenses. "When we rent a space to another group, we're not making any money; we're paying rent [to our landlord]," says Nicholas Sugar, a director/choreographer/actor who's worked steadily around town ever since a three-month visit prompted him to give up his New York apartment and move to Denver. Not surprisingly, Sugar says that subletting his group's spaces is "a tradeoff financially. It brings a lot of people to our theaters that haven't really been there before. But it's also a risk because we're associated with some products that aren't up to a standard that we've tried to set."

Sugar admits that it's nice to have a responsible group mount a successful show and effectively pay his rent for a few months ("Since our staff is small, keeping two of our own shows going all the time is very difficult"). But he points out that it's equally unpleasant when companies don't understand basic business principles. "Finances don't always come through, and some groups pull out at the last minute. If they don't get ticket sales, if they don't have up-front money, then we don't have a product to mount in the space, which means that our rent doesn't get paid."

As far as Brian Freeland is concerned, Denver's space problems are symptomatic of what he terms "new urbanism." The artistic director of Denver's LIDA Project, which over the past few seasons has done more exploratory work -- with deservedly more positive results -- than any other local fringe group, Freeland notes that theater companies have been forced to look elsewhere for space ever since people started flocking back to the center of town. "We used to be able to find someplace hospitable but cheap enough for us to do some offbeat work," he says. "But when all of a sudden your environment becomes a market economy, you turn around and you can barely afford your warehouse theater. So it's no longer having the ability to go in and take a space because of its funky atmosphere, it's picking a space because it's affordable."

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