A Critic's View

Denver's theater scene struggles to reach critical mass.

At the moment, many of the area's best actors are tending bar, waiting on tables, selling shoes or toiling at desks. People in their twenties can sustain this lifestyle, especially if they're childless, but there comes a time when young actors wonder if they really want to spend the rest of their lives without health insurance and a steady income. Brett Aune is 31. "It's a struggle," says the LIDA Project's Brian Freeland. "You see amazing people come and go."

Why isn't Denver doing better by its actors? Is it a lack of administrative talent and know-how on the part of producers, or is the problem a lack of audience? It's true that there isn't a strong theater-going culture here, and many younger people find the idea of attending a play daunting, as if it required shined-up shoes and careful advance planning. In New York, Freeland points out, you can go to the theater as part of an evening of clubbing or drop in to see a show at midnight. Some big cities even have short lunchtime performances. It's a chicken-and-egg thing. If Denverites could go to the theater any night of the week or at different times of the evening, more of them might do it. But no local group could afford to stage such performances until the audience for them increases. John Ashton of the Avenue Theatre attempted a 10:30 p.m. curtain last year for the comedy Things You Shouldn't Say Past Midnight, even offering free drinks to patrons who showed up in pajamas. Despite good reviews, the show did not attract the hoped-for audiences.

The Curious's Walton thinks in terms of cultural ecology. A healthy art scene, he says, requires such large A-list organizations as the Denver Art Museum, the Colorado Symphony and the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, but it also requires a second tier of smaller, but stable and highly professional organizations.

Some Denver theaters pay a weekly stipend; others -- particularly those that use large casts -- can manage only a percentage of the box office. But Curious has raised the bar for other directors, who may need to pay more if they want to cast the best actors available.

Curious itself, founded in 1997, was barely hanging on until last year, when, according to Walton, foundations as well as subscribers and the general public started to believe in the group's viability. In addition to his interest in professionalism and getting actors paid, Walton is dedicated to presenting new plays, particularly those that "provoke conversations about important issues." Curious has staged Dael Orlandersmith's Yellowman, which explores racism within the black community, and commissioned a stage version of Barbara Ehrenreich's book Nickel and Dimed, an exposé of the plight of low-wage workers in America. Walton does not make decisions on repertoire by holding a finger to the wind or convening focus groups, nor will he stage mindless musicals for a quick financial fix.

"We're clear about the type of play we do; we produce plays that look further down the road than the next show or the next season," he says. "As a cultural organization, you have to ask yourself, ŒWould my community miss something of value if we weren't here?'"

The Avenue's Ashton makes two essential points about Denver theater. On the one hand, he says, this is a particularly risky time for his own organization, which -- unlike most of the others -- is not a nonprofit. "I have always made that trade," Ashton says. "Being autonomous, not having a board, not having all the paperwork and bureaucracy. Being as flaky as I like to let myself be."

For many years, Ashton had a sweet deal with a sympathetic landlord. When he lost his space a couple of years ago, however, financial issues became pressing. The Avenue had always produced a mix of plays, with a focus on humor. This year, Ashton undertook the production of Mary Zimmerman's critically acclaimed Metamorphoses, a play with difficult and expensive technical requirements, including a huge water-filled pool. The production attracted rave reviews from Denver critics, large audiences and standing ovations. It decisively reaffirmed the level of skill, dedication and talent that exist at the Avenue. But Ashton says the theater is still on the cusp financially, and since nonprofits have more sources of funding than for-profit organizations, he may need to turn nonprofit to survive. "We are in flux," he says. "It takes a lot of money to build a theater."

And yet Ashton maintains that this is the most exciting time he's seen in his 33 years in Denver theater. He cites Walton's efforts at Curious, the sheer number of local companies and the amount of original work being done, as well as the fact that the Colorado Theatre Guild is becoming more professional and helping groups cooperate with each other in the interest of mutual survival and growth.

"Denver has always felt like a garden to be tilled and taken care of," says playwright and director Terry Dodd. He, too, sees hopeful signs for the future. He was particularly energized by the recent Playwrights Showcase organized by Red Rocks Community College's Pamela Mencher at the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities, which he hopes will eventually make this area a center for Western playwrights.

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