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Life in the Middle

A real trouper: Bug Theatre Company co-founder Donna Morrison.
Anthony Camera

No matter how dedicated they are to presenting plays that provoke as well as entertain, most independent theater artists face the same middle-of-the-road, bureaucratic issues that plague large, established companies. That's especially true when a troupe earns acclaim and immediately sets its sights on becoming "the next Steppenwolf" -- referring to the Midwestern group (whose founding members include John Malkovich and Gary Sinise) that began by performing realistic plays in a suburban church basement. Following several seasons' worth of hit-and-miss efforts, the company became the toast of the Chicago theater world when they mounted a gritty production of Sam Shepard's True West that eventually played off-Broadway.

Even though some of Denver's smaller theaters don't aspire to Steppenwolf-like growth, those who contemplate stepping up to the next level -- with budgets that allow for at least a semi-permanent artistic home, a paid staff and a handful of performers who belong to Actors' Equity Association -- sometimes discover that starting and sustaining a medium-sized operation can be more burdensome than liberating.

As far as a trio of local practitioners are concerned, independence isn't just a matter of striking the right balance between the work a company wants to do and the plays an audience will pay to see. The journey toward creative freedom is also defined by how a company deals with escalating rents, paltry (and frequently nonexistent) salaries, marketing woes and competition from popular entertainment forms. And even though the number of theater companies in Denver has grown substantially in recent years -- more than fifteen theater companies have started over the last five years, and only half a dozen or so didn't make it -- the concept of presenting professional-caliber work on a modest scale isn't a novel idea.

Actor and director Ed Baierlein remembers when his colleagues were predicting the first renaissance in Denver theater. "When I came here in 1968," says the director/manager of Germinal Stage Denver, "everybody was talking about how, just around the corner, we'd all be able to pay each other." Four years later, that dream was realized when the now-defunct Third Eye Theater contracted a group of actors to do ten plays over the course of a 44-week season. "We had a hundred-seat house, and we'd close one show on Saturday and open another on Wednesday, and we got paid $60 a week."

That might have been enough to get by on then, but prices for everything since -- including rents for the few available theater spaces in town -- have risen at a rate that's far outpaced any increase in ticket prices over the years. And even though he owns his building on West 44th Street, Baierlein says it's become prohibitively expensive to produce high-quality work while paying actors a living wage. "And there's no in-between," he argues. "You're either union or you're not; you either can guarantee people a year's work or you can't. And if you can't, then they've got to go do something else."

Maybe that's why Baierlein, who last fall mounted a Noh theater-style production of Tennessee Williams's Suddenly Last Summer, believes in a philosophy of "enlightened amateurism." Basing his model on the work of European repertory theaters as well as the Little Theater movement of the '40s and '50s (an approach that emphasized innovative production techniques and high standards for performers who didn't expect to make a living from acting), Baierlein has encouraged a "no-growth" policy for GSD for nearly all of its 26 seasons. "We have no desire to become institutionalized," he says. And even though everyone who works at GSD receives a small honorarium against a percentage of the net, no one who works for Baierlein doesn't also have a day job.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, Baierlein contends that it's easiest to work with people who are happy in another vocation and harbor no illusions about the theatrical profession. Instead of trying to find their feet in a nomadic, fiercely competitive workplace in which 85 to 90 percent of unionized actors are unemployed, Baierlein maintains that college students should obtain job skills and try to enrich the amateur theater climate wherever they choose to live. "Until people give up the idea that they have to make their living doing this stuff," he says, "I don't think things will change."

But effecting change is clearly what Donna Morrison had in mind a couple of years ago when she and her partner considered moving here from Seattle to start the Bug Theatre Company. "We knew the owners of the space," she says of the converted movie theater that's situated a few blocks away from Baierlein's building on the city's northwest side. "And I thought, 'Maybe we can break some new ground here by keeping ticket prices accessible and still managing to pay ourselves.'" Morrison also set a larger goal of finding a way to make Denver a "theater city that's attractive to other artists around the country who want to earn their living here."  

Before long, though, she found herself dealing with a dilemma that's confounded locals for decades: trying to hire -- and retain -- hometown Equity actors without having to fork over the kind of salaries that actors can earn at larger houses like the Denver Center Theatre Company. "Right now, some of the smaller companies doing good work can't afford Equity wages," she says. "And if you can't get hired by the big theaters and can't work for the small theaters, what do you do?" And despite sticking to a motto of "Put up good work and people will come," Morrison discovered that audiences didn't exactly flock to experimental fare like last spring's Iphigenia and Other Daughters, which she felt was just as worthy as the Bug's more popular -- and more profitable -- productions of black comedies like The SantaLand Diaries. "We needed to know marketing," she admits, "which we've been learning as we go."

However, it didn't take long for the resourceful Morrison to realize that renting out her theater to other troupes (at rates that would "leave them money to promote their show") would cover the Bug's box-office shortfalls while simultaneously implementing her vision to make Denver a viable theatrical workplace. "When we came in, the space had a huge debt on it that we've paid off over the last year. We've increased revenues for the Bug by 225 percent. And we just got a Colorado Council for the Arts grant for $12,000. That made us realize that there are people out there who have noticed us.

"There's enough audience here; we just need to work together to get the message out that theater is good here," she adds, noting that the only way she can convince other organizations to "sacrifice for the bigger picture" is to take that first step herself. And while she believes that every small theater will have to share resources in order to survive, Morrison is firmly committed to promoting her own product first. "If you want art," she quips, "we're here to do it for you!"

While trumpeting the avant-garde's virtues is all well and good for nonprofit newcomers like the Bug or subscription-rich mainstays like GSD, doing art for art's sake simply isn't an option for the Avenue Theater's John Ashton. That's mostly because Ashton is a for-profit producer (a designation that precludes him from receiving taxpayer-subsidized arts grants) who stays in business only if the shows he's doing perform well at the box office. Add to that the fact that his rent at the Avenue will nearly quadruple come February 1, and it's not hard to see why Ashton prefers to mount productions on a case-by-case basis. "I like to run them as long as people come to see them," he says.

But even though he's turned away prospective patrons the last few weekends (both of the Avenue's hit shows, Dearly Departed and Picasso at the Lapin Agile, have been playing to capacity crowds), Ashton isn't sure that finding a slightly larger locale will ease his concerns about overflow crowds -- or even accommodate his future needs. "If you look around at buildings that may be able to house a 200- to 250-seat theater, the rent is astronomical. Your overhead gets to be much, much larger." And Ashton is doubtful that audiences would support a fringe theater that needs to run four or five nights a week in order to break even. "Sure, you might be able to do a Wednesday and draw fifty people," he allows. "But if you're operating a 200-seat house and you're paying your actors, doing a show for fifty people actually loses you money."

Furthermore, Ashton claims that apart from reviews, local companies don't receive adequate coverage from the media. A former reporter who worked for both of Denver's daily newspapers (and for Westword), Ashton doesn't want to see the occasional soft feature that highlights a potential advertiser's virtues. "But critics should show an interest in what's going on," he says. "You see cover stories about window frames and idiotic stuff that has to be advertiser-conscious." Ashton points out that in other cities with thriving theater communities, daily newspapers do two or three stories a month about some aspect of the local theater scene. "Artists are respected there," he says.

Baierlein agrees that the local papers could do more to enhance their coverage, without necessarily churning out more stories. "Criticism has always been an important part of the art and something that, outside of a few periods, we've never really had from the dailies." For the most part, Baierlein believes that the reviews aren't written from the perspective of someone who knows what's going on in theater in general. "We need criticism and not consumer reporting," he says.  

For her part, Morrison is "a little uncomfortable" with the fact that reviews are sometimes the only source of information about a particular show. Noting that the Bug hasn't yet been able to earmark any funds for advertising, she says she wants critics to be able to "rip a show apart if that's what they feel they need to do." But being able to get exposure other than a reviewer's take on a specific show would be a "perfect way" to offer some perspective about the company's overall strengths.

Regardless of what kind of coverage they get, Baierlein, Morrison and Ashton agree that much of their destiny remains in their own hands.

"We built an audience because of the quality of the plays we've done, and also because we investigate fairly unusual performance techniques," says Baierlein. "I'm kind of stuck in the '60s. My artistic forebears are Viola Spolin, Michael Chekhov, Jerzy Grotowski and Peter Brook -- none of whom are really doing much anymore," he jokes of his favored quartet of three dead visionaries and the enigmatic Brook. "To aspire to be the next Steppenwolf is a good thing, but it wasn't like they did two shows and everybody was going to Hollywood and coming back." Still, Baierlein believes that if artists would "attack the art with the same kind of vigor and exploration that Steppenwolf did in the early days, then they might come out after ten or fifteen years with the same kind of operation. Unfortunately, companies come and go with incredible alacrity. If [actors are] any good, they feel like they ought to be in films or TV or at least working for a major company. Probably the Denver Center. And when they don't get that contract, then that's an earthquake and they have to go somewhere else."

"Not to disparage anyone's choices," Ashton says, "but when you do certain things, they have certain consequences." He says one way to avoid falling into the trap of a "bigger is better" mentality is for smaller theaters to learn how to cultivate their own audience bases. He also wants more people to be able to make a living doing what they love. "I'd like to see two or three [companies] expand so that we can perform professional-quality work at least five nights a week. We have way more talented people here than we ever had before."

And, he adds, "we need to find more varied ways of getting the word out. The Colorado Theater Guild is trying to get a centralized box office going, developing a Web page and creating posters that will promote the theater generally."

That sounds like a plan to Morrison, who exudes the same sort of enthusiasm that likely inspired Baierlein and company back in 1968. "Coming here and not knowing a soul, I've found that Denver has the potential," she says. "I don't mean to sound so '60s-ish, but I think the key is sharing. I just want Denver to be a player. It's definitely moving in that direction; I just want to help it along."

With, of course, a little more help from her friends.


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