Chip Walton is one of the brightest young talents to crash the Denver theater scene in years. He's an accomplished actor who made an elegant, riveting Salieri two years ago in the Aurora Fox's Amadeus. But Walton's special gift is for directing. He has a filmmaker's split-second timing, a poet's understanding of the way words work, a painter's eye for composition and a penetrating intelligence capable of plumbing the depths of the most labyrinthine drama.
Then there's his energy, which he needed in droves for his latest project. This doctoral candidate at CU-Boulder has had the temerity to take on one of the most controversial plays of this era: Tony Kushner's epic Angels in America. He's had the guts to stage the technically challenging show at the modest, if charming, Acoma Civic Center. And he's done it on a shoestring.
It hasn't taken Walton long to make his mark in Denver. After arriving from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 1993, Walton struck up a friendship with Curt Pesicka, a member of the Hunger Artists Ensemble Theatre. Pesicka helped him get started in the local theater community, introducing him around as he began to audition. Walton met other Hunger Artists members and over time discussed with them the prospect of directing plays.
"At some point," Walton recalls, "they asked me, if I could do anything, what would it be? I said Angels in America." Hunger Artists enthusiastically embraced the idea. "They had done Kushner's adaptation of Corneille's The Illusion, so they had a relationship with his literary agent."
Getting the rights to stage the marathon drama about American life in the time of AIDS was easier than might have been expected. The Denver Center Theatre Company had dibs on the show, but because the Broadway road show of Angels that had flown through Denver in 1995 was highly polished, there was no real reason for the DCTC to repeat the exercise. Hunger Artists went for it--and Kushner, who has final say over who will produce his work, realized there had been no fully mounted local production in Colorado, home of Amendment 2. The fact that Kushner is a very political man probably didn't hurt. He gave his approval.
Hunger Artists came up with the core budget. Then Walton's own production company and Hunger Artists collaborated on the "Help Us Fly an Angel" benefit (the company needed money to pay for a fabulous special effect where one angel actually flies). In keeping with the play's spirit, the auction also benefited two support groups for HIV-positive people, Project Angel Heart and Angels Unaware. Acoma Civic Center executive director Britta Erikson and that venue's ownership group also contributed money and services. Even the play's cast members have pitched in to cover small expenses.
Such fundraising campaigns are rarely seen in the theater community, but Kushner's ambitious saga is an expensive show for a local company to produce. Running for six and a half hours, it's really two plays, which are presented separately.
In the first play, the protagonist, Prior (played by Pesicka), is dying of AIDS. His lover leaves him because he can't cope with watching Prior die, and then an angel descends from on high and asks Prior to carry a message to humankind: God has withdrawn from the universe, and the angelic bureaucrats who've been left behind can't keep up with human complications--nuclear weapons and the like. Everybody should just stop for a while so the angels can catch up. The flying angel is very cool. But, says Walton, angels are really not the point of the play.
"So much of the publicity deals with angels," he says. "But this play is not about angels or even, in any exclusive sense, about the gay life in America. It's about America. Kushner finds a way to use the AIDS epidemic as a lens or a metaphor to explore America at the millennium. And the way in which that works so well is that everything that [characterizes the response to the epidemic] is at the heart of America. On the one hand, you have all the courage, compassion, love, tolerance, acceptance and understanding that the epidemic has brought out in people. On the other hand, the epidemic has brought out all of the greed, bigotry, intolerance and hatred--everything that's bad about America."
Walton points out that in the opening monologue, the character known as the Rabbi describes America as the melting pot where nothing melted. "AIDS confronts America with itself," Walton says. "One character in the play says America is just big ideas, and American dreams die hard. When new ideas come in, there is a lot of resistance. And the renovations of those ideas threaten people in positions of power."
So is this an ideological diatribe? Does Kushner think he has all the answers to America's social problems? "I don't think Kushner would say he had any answers," says Walton. "I know I don't. But Kushner's ideological view and the ideological foundation of the play is unequivocally dialectical. In order for us to really be living our life to the fullest, whether at the personal or the national level, we have to accept that dialectics are part of the way the world works--which makes change inevitable." In other words, Kushner presents conservative and liberal views--and hopes that out of these contrary visions, a new vision will emerge.
The play also is about the pain and the loss that can come with change, says Walton. But to his credit, playwright Kushner manages to avoid the pitfall of hopelessness. In "Part One: The Millennium Approaches," notes Walton, things are falling apart. But in "Part Two: Perestroika," most of the issues are resolved peaceably--the characters realize they have to change, and they realize that struggle is part of life. "The wonderful thing about this play," says Walton, "is that Kushner finds a way to connect that theme not only on a personal level, but on an economic, cultural, religious and national level."
Walton has run into more than his fair share of technical and financial problems with the show--the wings for the flying angel, for example, had to be imported all the way from Charlotte, North Carolina. But Walton has solved them all with the help of his colleagues, and his persistence is admirable. Asked whether he will stay in Denver once he gets his Ph.D., he is noncommittal. But Walton obviously has done a lot of thinking about the local scene.
"I think people in the arts, and in Denver theater particularly, are too willing to accept less than what they should," he says. "They are willing to hear the answer 'No.' I don't like to hear 'No.' I like to say, 'We can do this, we'll find a way to make it happen.'"
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Walton has quickly picked up on one of the key issues in local theater politics--the chasm between the well-funded Denver Center Theatre Company and nearly all of the other troupes in town. "I love Denver and the theater community here," Walton says. "But the reality is, I think in the community we need to find a way to bridge that gap between [the DCTC] and everybody else. We don't need another Denver Center; they already do good work. But we do have to get away from the mentality that we won't pay ourselves and other people for what we do and that we are willing to do things on a scale that is somewhat less than what we should be. People can sit and moan about how the Denver Center gets this and that, but the reality is, much of the time their work is better than anyone else's. We shouldn't bash them; we should aspire to their level of professionalism."
Walton is one of the few actors or directors working outside the DCTC willing to praise it. He's also willing to make the sacrifices necessary to approach its level of quality. The DCTC, Walton points out, imports excellent acting and directing talent and works at a level comparable or superior to the best regional theater companies in the country. What Walton wants to produce is not a rival company but an alternative. And he knows what that requires: a Herculean dedication that includes full-time labor (he took a day job earlier this year and saved his money so he could devote six weeks full-time to Angels); excellent professional technicians such as Matthew Morgan (sound designer for Angels), Ken MacIntyre (stage manager) and Davey Davis (lighting designer); and the one thing he lacks--a brilliant business manager.
Walton really doesn't take no for an answer. When naysayers tried to discourage him from trying to make Angel fly, he worked with his crew and with professional advisors, calling for help around the country to companies who had already produced the show.
"After three attempts, last night she flew," says Walton, referring to a rehearsal conducted prior to last week's opening of the first play (the second opens June 13). "It wasn't perfect, but it was amazing to see the angel come through the fog. We can do it.