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.

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.

"I do love this town," says Shadow's Nickelson, "and that's why I'm not giving up. We're not going anywhere. Until all the wheels break on this wagon, we are going to be here."

Brett Aune describes the process of preparing for his role as van Gogh. He remembers asking a curator from the Denver Art Museum how the painter had carried himself, something Aune obviously couldn't learn from books or reproductions. The curator, who could easily have discussed the oils the artist used and the number of bristles on his brushes, was stymied. Finally, Aune found a sentence saying that after van Gogh had cut off his ear, he began to favor that side of his head. "I just started thinking, walk around and see what that feels like," says Aune. "Maybe it meant he's got a hunch in the shoulder; he wants to hide the fact he's cut off his ear because he's ashamed. That developed into a physicality, with one shoulder higher than the other, and eventually it transformed into this lumbering cranky gait."

Aune is aware that his quest to make a living in Los Angeles may force him into commercials, though his hope is to become a working character actor: "One of those guys, you turn on the TV, and you go, I know I've seen that guy a hundred times before, but I don't know who it is." But his attachment to Denver is clear, and so is his commitment to working on a stage. With any luck, Denver will eventually provide the stimulus and stability to keep actors like Aune in town.

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