A Critic's View

Denver's theater scene struggles to reach critical mass.

I was sorry when I heard that Denver actor Brett Aune was leaving his home town to try his fortune in Los Angeles. Aune, who departed last week, has featured prominently in some of the most memorable theater experiences I've had in this town. I remember him as a swan metamorphosing into a man in The Swan at Horsechart Theatre Company over two years ago -- the touching bewilderment that accompanied the transformation, the way he used his body and voice to explore the boundary between bird and man and, by extension, what it means to be human. Then there was his shabbily dapper Vladimir in the Bug's Waiting for Godot and his portayal of Vincent van Gogh in Curious Theatre Company's Inventing Van Gogh. In short, Aune is one of a handful of local actors whose name on a program almost guarantees a worthwhile evening of theater.

Theater is a collaborative art form, and there are a lot of elements that go into a successful production: script, direction, such technical details as set, sound, costumes and lighting. But at the core, it's the living, breathing presence of the actor that makes theater. Without him, words are just marks on a page. Actors take a risk every time they step on a stage. Their work requires a literal self-sacrifice -- that is, a loss of self as the actor subsumes his own quirks, mannerisms and thoughts into those of the character. And he does it in public. There's no room for mistakes -- though some actors can convert a stumble into a momentary revelation. There's no crumpling up your failures and tossing them into the trash. Nor can you turn to the audience and say, "Sorry, I have a cold. I just can't get into character. I wish you'd seen this in rehearsal." The script can offer support if it's well-written and the director has given ideas and encouragement. But at the moment of truth, the actor is alone, and the character lives in the choices he makes -- whether he lisps or declaims, holds himself upright or slouches, moves clumsily or with purpose -- and also in those characteristics the actor can't consciously choose, things that constitute a quality of being, such as kindness, courage, lassitude, humor. A good actor speaking on an empty stage can exhilarate the listener in a way that hundreds of emptily grinning tap dancers on a set that costs more than the gross national product of most small countries can't.

So one of the most important questions to ask when evaluating the current state of Denver theater is whether this is a city that nurtures actors. Does it provide interesting and challenging material? Peers and exciting directors to work with? Most of all, a chance to make a living?

Brett Aune in Waiting for Godot .
Michael Ensminger
Brett Aune in Waiting for Godot .

Denver boasts more theater than most other cities its size, and the theater scene here is varied and intriguing. At its center is the mammoth Denver Center Theatre Company, which many local theater people credit as an important sustaining force -- though occasionally someone mutters that the company can also have a stultifying effect. Among smaller venues, there's Buntport, started by a group of former Colorado College students who studied, among other things, the theater and culture of Eastern Europe -- masks, puppets, a focus on objects. The Buntporters create and act in their own theater pieces, which tend to be funny, clever and unpretentious. Over the past three years they've attracted all kinds of people to their converted warehouse, and that audience is steadily growing. "Sometimes we appeal to the type of people who hate theater," says co-founder Erin Rollman. "Sometimes you hate theater because it feels so artificial."

Nicholas Sugar's Theatre Group, too, has a dedicated audience for its mix of outrageous camp musicals and serious, gay-themed plays. The LIDA Project remains true to its commitment to experimentation, though it's of a very different type -- and far more in-your-face -- than Buntport's. Shadow Theatre Company is beginning its eighth season, and artistic director Jeffrey W. Nickelson, who recently completed a joint project with Tony Garcia of El Centro Su Teatro, says he has faithful supporters in the community and no difficulty finding talented black actors. But he's still working to solidify an audience. Nickelson's focus is on making connections and healing rifts, and he has selected plays by authors of differing races. "I don't believe we're subcultures," he says. "I believe we're all Americans."

The longest-running theater in town is Germinal, where founder Ed Baierlein, who's been around for thirty years, muses that in some ways, "it was more fun in the old days, when there was no real expectation that anybody would make a living." Baierlein, perhaps the most literary director in Denver, chooses plays that interest him intellectually, from Shaw to Arthur Kopit to Marivaux.

But despite this rich theatrical culture, Denver has fewer professional venues -- that is, theaters that pay Actors' Equity wages -- than several other cities its size. The Denver Center Acting Company and the Arvada Center are both Equity; so is the Curious Theatre Company. A couple of other Denver directors occasionally hire an Equity actor as a guest artist. Chip Walton of Curious points out that Atlanta, with a smaller population than Denver, has seven Equity theaters and two others that have signed letters of agreement with the union. There are five Equity theaters in Portland, Oregon, and six in Seattle. Since Denver is the major metropolis between Chicago and Los Angeles, Walton feels this city could do equally well. Unionizing offers only a partial solution to the problem of making a living, however. Equity wages vary from as low as $140 to as high as $1,000 per week. Companies the size of Curious pay between $200 and $500.

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