Boulder Ensemble Theatre makes the scene bolder
Jim Hunt and Laura Norman in Ghost-Writer.
Though it's known as a home to artists, intellectuals, entrepreneurs, scientists and other creative types, Boulder was pretty much a theatrical wasteland in 2006 when husband and wife Stephen Weitz and Rebecca Remaly decided to start the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company. By then, Nomad, the Quonset hut that had housed community theater for decades, was being used for performances by a local high school. The town saw an occasional one-off production at the Dairy Center for the Arts, steady if unsurprising work by Boulder's venerable Upstart Crow, and a mix of silly and sublime acts provided every summer by the Boulder Fringe Festival. But no stable and consistent professional company.
"The Boulder scene ebbs and flows," says Weitz, "and we saw a niche to be filled."
The Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company entered that niche quietly. It was almost invisible during the first year, when its offerings were Jean Anouilh's Antigone and two one-acts by John Patrick Shanley. But as time passed and the quality of the work stabilized, the local theater scene became aware of BETC, and some of Denver's starriest stars — led by Jim Hunt and playwright-actor Josh Hartwell and followed by Rachel Fowler, Emily Paton Davies, Sam Gregory and the luminous Laura Norman — began trekking over the hill to appear in the company's plays.
Two years ago, a production of Michael Hollinger's An Empty Plate in the Cafe du Grand Boeuf, directed by Remaly, announced emphatically that BETC was at the top of its game, both in choice of material — An Empty Plate is whimsical, charming and profound — and in terms of performances, with a warmly empathetic John Arp as the protagonist and Hartwell shining as an anxious maître d' with a passion for order. Last year came Ghost-Writer, another exciting and unusual Hollinger piece, featuring beautiful work by Hunt and Norman. That was also the first year the company staged a full season of five shows, and it will be doing the same in 2014. The budget has morphed from $12,000 the first year to $230,000 now, and the subscriber list continues to grow.
The company has scored several awards, including Henry and Ovation nominations and a Best of Denver from Westword. Connections have also been nurtured with the Denver Center Theatre Company, which, in a revenue-sharing agreement, presented BETC's The Santaland Diaries at the Galleria this past holiday season, and also hired Weitz to direct Jackie and Me. Perhaps best of all, grants are coming in. The National Endowment for the Arts contributed $10,000 toward the upcoming world premiere of Dava Sobel's And the Sun Stood Still, a play about Copernicus's struggle to publish On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, which opens in March. Also in connection with that work, the Boulder Arts Commission awarded BETC and the recently renovated Fiske Planetarium $25,000 to create a series of events combining live performance and projection technology. A third grant, for $2,500, came from the Sustainable Arts Foundation in support of BETC's annual new-play competition.
Since BETC came on the scene, other interesting companies have appeared in Boulder, including LOCAL Theater Company, the Catamounts and Square Product Theatre. And Weitz and Remaly now have a nineteen-month-old son, Jamison. "He's changed the way we organize our lives and priorities," says Weitz, "but it's a fantastic experience."
Their dedication to theater remains strong. Having recently scored a hit with Sharr White's The Other Place, BETC begins the year with another of his plays, Annapurna (January 31 to February 16). White grew up in Colorado, and this funny, poignant two-actor piece is set in a grungy trailer in Paonia, where a dying, alcoholic poet is visited by the wife he left twenty years earlier.
"What I'm interested in is telling amazing stories in the best way possible," says Weitz. "I know other directors would all say that, but each person has their own stamp on what makes a wonderful story. I try and pick plays that are compelling to me and to our audience and do great versions of them.
"I'm a pretty tough producer and director," Weitz adds — an assessment with which most of his actors would agree. "But the most rewarding thing for me is when you see actors having those moments of breakthrough. John Ashton [who starred recently in Seminar] has been doing this since before time began. But he was so engaged and involved; he told me this was such a great challenge for him. Some of the ensemble members who were just starting out when they came to us have branched out. Jamie Ann Romero and Matt Mueller [now working in Chicago] went on to do great things at the Shakespeare Festival. It becomes almost a parental thing when you see people grow like that. And it mirrors the growth of the company."
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