The Communicator

Kent Thompson draws on his past to chart the Denver Center Theatre Company's future.

The Denver Center Theatre Company is beginning its first season under new artistic director Kent Thompson, former director of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Thompson, 51, took the reins from Donovan Marley, who announced his retirement in January 2004, after 22 years. Theater buffs are wondering what to expect from the new leader, whose three-year contract was finalized last December. It's known that he is retaining many of the company's most popular actors for the first couple plays of the season, though some of the losses -- particularly that of the brilliant and lionhearted Annette Helde -- are distressing. It has also been widely publicized that he intends to work more with the community than did his predecessor, to revive the DCTC's support for new plays, and to produce more scripts by women and people of color. But what is Thompson's overall philosophy? How does he see the role of theater in general, and of the Denver Center in particular? Will he bring us vapid crowd-pleasers or demanding works, classic or contemporary pieces, plays that moralize or plays that amuse?

The roster for this first season offers some clues: Feydeau's farce A Flea in Her Ear; Arthur Miller's All My Sons; September Shoes by Jose Cruz Gonzalez; a new version of A Christmas Carol; August Wilson's Gem of the Ocean; Shakespeare's Measure for Measure; Jesus Hates Me, by Wayne Lemon, described in the press material as "an irreverent...dark comedy"; and four plays by women -- Lillian Groag's The Ladies of the Camellias; The Clean House, by Sarah Ruhl; After Ashley, by Gina Gionfriddo; and Regina Taylor's Crowns.

There are further clues in two vivid childhood recollections Thompson describes in an interview. Thompson grew up in the South, and when he was six or seven, his mother took him to the opera in Chattanooga, Tennessee, to see Faust. Although the first act didn't particularly interest him, he refused her offer to take him home at intermission. His persistence paid off. "I was totally captivated when Faust was sucked down into hell at the end of the show," he says.

Then there was the one-act play he saw in the seventh grade -- "a real corker of a melodrama about a man facing execution." At the end of the play, an off-stage gong strikes midnight to signal the protagonist's death. "They got to ring number seven or eight," says Thompson, laughing, "and the gong fell off its stand. It made a terrific noise backstage. I just thought that was wonderful. Then they picked the gong up, and I could hear them whispering, and they did five more rings and then they shot him.

"So those are my two seminal theater experiences as a child," he concludes. "A vision of hell and a farce."

Given this, it's hardly surprising that of this year's plays, the two he chose to direct himself are Measure for Measure, a dark comedy that explores issues of religion, morality, hypocrisy and forgiveness, and A Flea in Her Ear.

The son of a Southern Baptist preacher, Thompson acquired a love of storytelling from listening to his father's sermons. He also visited African-American churches with his father and found the gospel music and the call-and-response tradition "electrifying." His father was not a thunderer, but a man concerned with ideas and issues. "He said it wasn't a good sermon unless you moved people, and he really meant emotionally, spiritually, psychologically," says Thompson. He adds that the experiences offered by theater and by the church have some parallels: Both utilize ritual; both are live; both represent a communal experience.

As a young man, Thompson intended to become an actor. He performed in high school and college, then attended the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, where the revered voice and speech coach Cicely Berry suggested he consider directing. "My immediate response was, 'Does that mean you think I'm a bad actor?'" says Thompson. Berry responded that it didn't, but that he thought like a director.

Weighing the idea, Thompson remembered his mother's response when his father asked what she thought of his sermons after church. "She didn't know the wisdom of opening night," Thompson observes. "It's the most vulnerable time for an actor. It's not the time to give notes. She was very blunt and more critical than positive. And my father would become beside himself for the rest of the afternoon."

He laughs again. "At some point I realized my role model was my mother and not my father, that I wanted to be the person giving the notes." But he also has a profound appreciation for what it takes to stand on a stage and perform, he says, and that appreciation tempers his criticism.

Some of Thompson's concern for inclusivity can be traced to his father's feelings about the need for reconciliation between the races. "He was in great despair over the turn toward fundamentalism in the Southern Baptist church," Thompson says. "He died an unhappy man, in part because he thought that was a destructive turn for a denomination based upon religious freedom."

Thompson sees his role in the community as "part vision, part coaching, part recruitment and fundraising and part conversation and collaboration. My job is to articulate the vision of the theater and to make it happen, and I know the only way I can do that is to have a lot of people joining into that vision. I view it as a serve-and-lead kind of job. The hard part is figuring out when you need to do which."

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