In 1998, a group of Colorado College students got together to put on a play called Quixote, a retelling of Cervantes's famous tale, with chalkboard and erasers. They later toured it to fringe festivals in Philadelphia and in Canada. After graduating, they created a piece based on James Thurber's short stories and presented it in various Denver venues. The response was positive, and the group began looking for a permanent home. In 2001, they turned a warehouse at Seventh Avenue and Lipan Street into the Buntport Theater.
It's hard to describe Buntport productions to people who have never seen them. Created through a brainstorming process, they are clever, inventive and sometimes illuminating. Objects become animated. Scripts make sense in a nonsensical, Lewis Carroll sort of way. Ingenuity substitutes for money in the creation of sets so cleverly designed and utilized that they almost become full-fledged characters. Although this is experimental theater, it's anything but pretentious. Buntport shows are cheap, accessible and very, very funny.
Then there's the company's running sitcom, Magnets on the Fridge, which has developed a devoted following. On Friday, June 27, the company will present the four Fridge episodes that have received the most votes on its Web site (www.buntport.com). The evening's fun will serve to kick off Buntport's 2nd Birthaversary Weekend Extravaganza, which includes a fundraising bash on Saturday.
According to member Erin Rollman, when Buntport first came up with Magnets, "We didn't know how to list it. We sent cards to our mailing list, which at the time was very small. Friends and families started coming, a few people we had hooked from previous shows." The audience grew through word of mouth, and that got the attention of the press. "It was kind of magical," says Rollman.
The ideal, according to Buntporter Hannah Duggan, would be a humming space, with something happening every night of the week, but the logistics are difficult. The group is slowly learning about business and self-promotion. One of its most successful productions was a musical version of Shakespeare's bloody Titus Andronicus, in which five actors played all the parts and every death was recorded (by the corpse itself) on a chalkboard.
"We thought of doing Titusbecause we had a van," says Rollman. "We thought: Shakespeare. Traveling troupe of actors. Spoofy Shakespeare. Titus, because it's so wretched and bloody and doesn't make any sense."
Rollman's father, David (a former Westword music reviewer), works for the Foreign Service, and he told the group about the stark conditions in Turkmenistan. Rollman seized on the concept, in part because she had been obsessed with the idea of a hanging set. In a dictatorship, she says, "nobody can walk on solid ground." The result was The 30th of Baydak,which featured long, creaking ramps and cage-like offices suspended from the ceiling.
"We tend to think of the visual concept at the same time as we think of the show," Rollman explains. "Half the time, the show isn't written until the set is almost built." The hardest part is coming up with an idea that everyone is comfortable with. Says Duggan, "We'll fight about something stupid for half an hour. We're a dysfunctional functioning family."
There's a slight international cast to Buntport's brand of theater. Rollman did much of her growing up overseas; she remembers watching Eugene O'Neill works performed in Bulgarian. "The cool thing about live theater," she notes, "is that you can have an energetic connection between audience and cast, and sometimes language doesn't even matter." A group of Turkmen showed up one evening for The 30th of Baydak. Though a few didn't understand English, the play spoke to them. The visit "blew our minds," says Rollman, "and it kind of blew theirs, too."