A Tantalizing Thought

Donald Seawell believes he has the right to fail.
Anthony Camera

He's produced some 65 Broadway shows, served as a boardmember and the American producer for Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) and single-handedly changed Colorado's cultural landscape by building the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. Beginning this weekend, however, Donald R. Seawell, in conjunction with the RSC, will unveil what he regards as his -- and Western civilization's -- most ambitious theatrical undertaking yet: Tantalus, a ten-part, ten-and-a-half-hour cycle of plays about the Trojan War. Although Seawell's decision to commit $6 million of the DCPA's money to stage the piece has earned him worldwide admiration, some local arts practitioners claim he is more interested in making a name for himself than serving the community that supports his lofty enterprises.

Named after a mythical character whose desires always exceed his grasp, the epic was penned by RSC artistic associate John Barton and directed by RSC founder Peter Hall. It has been in the works since 1980, when Barton devised The Greeks, a ten-hour cut-and-paste adaptation of ancient Greek plays (one of which, Achilles, Barton wrote himself). The relative success of that project, combined with research that turned up several documented versions of each popularly accepted myth, convinced Barton that he ought to write his own account of Greece's protracted feud with Troy. Nearly twenty years later, he arrived on Hall's doorstep with two large garbage bags that held the first draft of his plays. After taking a week off to read them, Hall decided that Barton had created "a bit of a masterpiece" and set about finding a way to get the work produced.

Try as they might, however, neither Hall nor Barton -- who gained worldwide attention in 1963 when they teamed up at the RSC to mount The Wars of the Roses, an adaptation of Shakespeare's history plays hailed by critics as the century's greatest theatrical achievement -- were able to secure adequate financing for Tantalus. So they turned to their old friend Seawell, who, as soon as he read the script, committed the DCPA to become one of the project's handful of sponsors.

One by one, however, Seawell's partners abandoned the project -- not for any lack of enthusiasm, he quickly points out, but for lack of resources. The RSC, which commissioned Barton to write the play years before the British government egregiously slashed crucial state subsidies for the arts, found it couldn't commit the necessary capital. Nor could Yale University or the Greek government, both of which had professed serious interest in backing the piece.

Through it all, Seawell, who turned 88 last month, held fast to his belief in both the project and the men behind it. That's mostly because he's known the prolific Hall, who directed the first English-language version of Samuel Beckett's landmark Waiting for Godot, since 1955. And he's been closely associated with Barton ever since he produced the Englishman's play, The Hollow Crown, on Broadway in 1961 (and at the Central City Opera House in 1973).

Despite the risks to his and the DCPA's reputations -- if it fails, the project will forever be known locally as Seawell's Folly; if it succeeds, the unwieldy import might be dismissed as artsy excess -- Seawell put up the funds necessary to produce Tantalus. "This is the first time that a theater project of this size has come along in 2,500 years, and it may not come along for another 2,500 years," he observes. "Either we did it, or this wonderful work of theater would disappear."

Predictably enough, Seawell's decision raised the ire of locals who've long regarded the former New York lawyer as little more than an empire builder. Some of that resentment can be traced back to the 1970s, when Seawell, who headed the well-endowed Bonfils Foundation and served as publisher of the Bonfils family-owned Denver Post, dipped into the foundation's coffers to finance construction of the DCPA, which opened in 1979. A year later, Seawell replenished the foundation's coffers by selling the struggling Post to out-of-town interests. More recently, he has come under fire for financing pie-in-the-sky endeavors that seem more tailored to commercial interests than those of the not-for-profit regional theater (although one such work, Eliot Cleveland, which received lukewarm reviews when it premiered at the DCPA a few seasons back, will be re-staged later this season by the not-for-profit Cleveland Play House).

In his defense, Seawell says that the DCPA's lone, unsparing support of Tantalus is in keeping with his longstanding commitment to "attract worldwide attention" to Denver's cultural scene. "We've assembled the finest we could in terms of the artistic personnel," he says.

Besides Hall and Barton, Seawell hired Greek theater legend Dionysis Fotopoulus to design the costumes and sets and signed Japanese designer Sumio Yoshii, "who everyone thinks is the best in the world," to fashion the lighting design. The production also boasts the original musical compositions of Irishman Mick Sands, the choreography of American dance legend Donald McKayle and the prodigious acting talents of an Anglo-American cast, featuring four British and four American performers in the leading roles and fourteen additional American actors in minor roles. (The acting company has been putting in ten-hour days since rehearsals began in March, and the DCPA's crack technical department is crafting all of the design elements.)  

Seawell further argues that even though the DCPA should be community centered, he shouldn't be confined to producing only homegrown projects. "No one in Denver has come up with anything approaching Tantalus in scope and quality," he says. "I wish they had; I'd love for it to have been written by a local person rather than by John Barton, even though John is an old and close friend. If you can show me a Dionysis Fotopoulus or a Peter Hall in Denver, I'd be happy to have them instead of Dionysis or Peter."

And while he acknowledges that some of the resentment stems from the idea that the DCPA "wasn't created by any great feeling throughout in the community; one guy said, 'I'm going to create a performing arts center second to none in the world'" -- he bristles at the notion that the DCPA is an elitist playground interested in only hiring outside talent. "We've tried to make it a center for everyone," he says, noting that the DCPA sponsors free outreach and education programs. "We work as hard as we can to [dispel any idea] that this is just for the privileged.

"I'm not building an empire, I'm not taking any billing in [Tantalus], although I am the producer of it. My salary is $1 a year, but so far they've forgotten to pay me," he laughs. "So what kind of empire am I building? They put my name on the ballroom by having a meeting of the board without my knowing about it, or I would have objected to that. I'm proud that it's there now, and I appreciate their thinking of it. But I would never have thought of doing anything like that."

Moreover, says Seawell, some people don't appreciate the fact that the DCPA has evolved into a world-class institution on par with eminent companies like the RSC. "It's hard to realize that we have [built], over time, the largest, most diverse, most comprehensive performing arts center in the entire world," he says. "People everywhere have to come here and see it to believe it. But it is an actual fact. No other performing arts center has its own television and movie studios, which pay for themselves. No one else has the voice laboratory, which is now a vital part, the largest part of the National Center for Voice Research. No other center has the number of theaters that we have. And they're all in use."

Above all, though, Seawell is proudest of creating an organization that enjoys "the right and the ability to fail without going under. Because the right to fail is one of the most important things that a theater company can have. You can't have any real progress or engender any real excitement or really do a great job for the community unless you keep reaching out beyond what has been done before. Sure, you can keep feeding them pap. But as long as people try to maintain the status quo, there can be no progress." And in addition to providing Denver with a healthy dose of provocative entertainment, Seawell says the attention generated by Tantalus will likely enrich the work of the entire cultural community. "The best thing for any production is to have a hit next door. And the more hits you have, the more people come to the theater, the better it is for everyone."

But no matter how impressive the show's roster of personnel or how thorough the DCPA's marketing efforts, locals still have to be able to afford a ticket in order to appreciate the play's advertised worth. To the budgetary chagrin of low-income patrons such as students and seniors, tickets can only be purchased for the entire cycle, not for individual parts. "You really don't get the overall sense of continuity, of grandeur, of the complete meaning until you've seen all of the plays together," says Seawell. And the prices, which start at $160 and move upwards of $280 for the regular run of performances, include an obligatory charge for at least one meal. (The two-day affair includes a catered Greek dinner; both lunch and dinner come with the all-day marathon.)

Seawell admits that some prospective audience members might have a problem ponying up the cash, but he emphasizes that the Denver Center Theatre Company already has the lowest ticket prices of any regional theater in America. "And we have cut those prices unbelievably for this." Indeed, as far as once-in-a-lifetime experiences go -- the Denver premiere is the only scheduled American engagement; the show will tour England next year -- Tantalus is something of a bargain, he says. "We're giving the equivalent of ten shows, not just one. Take away $30 for dinner, which is what that costs us, divide what's left by ten, and it's less than they'd pay for a rock concert."  

True enough, though it's hard to believe that anyone would want to sit through the theatrical equivalent of ten rock concerts. Still, patrons who opt to see Tantalus in previews, which begin this weekend, can pay anywhere from $130 to $225 for three days of performances spread out over several weeks. More significant discounts apply for groups of eight or more and for faculty, students and seniors. Best of all, students fifteen and older can purchase tickets for selected three-day, no-meal preview cycles for $60 to $75, depending on seat location (this discount applies to tickets purchased over the phone or in person only.)

Finally, Seawell and his staff are coordinating several related events intended to enhance spectators' appreciation of the show. In addition to making a documentary of the experience and hosting a convention of scholars, the DCPA will present A Stage for Dionysos: Theatrical Space and Ancient Drama, an art exhibit (sponsored by Greece's Mercouri Foundation) showing how drama developed in ancient Greece and spread throughout the world. The exhibit will be housed in the radically converted Space Theatre and extend into the crescent-shaped lobby just outside the Stage Theatre, where Tantalus will be performed. "In Spyros Mercouri's words," says Seawell, "he wants to embrace Tantalus, physically as well as spiritually."

With any luck, local theatergoers will find it in their hearts -- and wallets -- to follow suit.

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