Encouraged in no small measure by the fact that Denver's cultural groups annually outdraw all local professional sports teams combined, several ambitious theater companies have recently elbowed their way onto the city's crowded stage. Rather than join forces with established organizations that operate their own spaces (and boast loyal followings), many of the new arrivals are choosing to go it alone: "Nail two pieces of wood together, summon your passion, and audiences will follow," seems to be their common refrain.
But whether they're dedicated to producing whole, eclectic seasons or sporadic, one-hit wonders, nearly all of Denver's small theaters are finding that spiraling commercial rents and the closure of oft-used spaces like the Shop are compromising their ability to call their own shots. This, in turn, makes it harder to produce the sort of bold, avant-garde fare that's the lifeblood of any theater community.
"I basically got sticker shock," says Kris Hipps, a transplanted Midwesterner who moved to town a year ago to found Paper Cat Theatre Company, which has since produced four shows in as many venues. Describing her experiences here as ranging from "great to appalling," Hipps reports that all of Denver's available theaters charge rental fees that are significantly higher than those in other cities.
"When I first moved here, I had a long list of spaces, and probably about a third of those have closed since then. Coming from Chicago, where there are a bazillion spaces -- most companies keep their prices lower because they're trying to get renters," she explains. "The last place I worked was Second City, and their black-box space went for $100 for a Friday or a Saturday night. Everything here is at least $200 for a weeknight. We're finding that it's hard to make a profit."
And even though she'd prefer to do more daring, experimental shows, she's had to put those plans on hold. "If you're paying $350 for a weekend night, you've got to do a show that brings in $350, plus extra to cover expenses. If you get a big grant, you can do something more exciting. But until you've got that safety net, it's hard. You almost have to put your money into a sure thing so that you can stay alive. As for paying the actors, forget it."
Worse, says Hipps, some theatrical landlords don't always provide safe, clean working environments, and even when they do, renters must often fend for themselves when dealing with temperamental lighting or sound equipment -- a situation that proves costly when landlords assess additional fees to hold technical rehearsals or tack on hourly charges for their (not always helpful) house personnel. "Theaters are too busy with their own projects, so no one takes care of the renters," says Hipps. As a result, she wonders, "Are they charging this much because they need to, or are they charging this much because they know they can get it?"
According to the artistic director of the Theatre Group, which operates Theatre on Broadway and the Phoenix Theatre, rental fees reflect both market forces and tangible expenses. "When we rent a space to another group, we're not making any money; we're paying rent [to our landlord]," says Nicholas Sugar, a director/choreographer/actor who's worked steadily around town ever since a three-month visit prompted him to give up his New York apartment and move to Denver. Not surprisingly, Sugar says that subletting his group's spaces is "a tradeoff financially. It brings a lot of people to our theaters that haven't really been there before. But it's also a risk because we're associated with some products that aren't up to a standard that we've tried to set."
Sugar admits that it's nice to have a responsible group mount a successful show and effectively pay his rent for a few months ("Since our staff is small, keeping two of our own shows going all the time is very difficult"). But he points out that it's equally unpleasant when companies don't understand basic business principles. "Finances don't always come through, and some groups pull out at the last minute. If they don't get ticket sales, if they don't have up-front money, then we don't have a product to mount in the space, which means that our rent doesn't get paid."
As far as Brian Freeland is concerned, Denver's space problems are symptomatic of what he terms "new urbanism." The artistic director of Denver's LIDA Project, which over the past few seasons has done more exploratory work -- with deservedly more positive results -- than any other local fringe group, Freeland notes that theater companies have been forced to look elsewhere for space ever since people started flocking back to the center of town. "We used to be able to find someplace hospitable but cheap enough for us to do some offbeat work," he says. "But when all of a sudden your environment becomes a market economy, you turn around and you can barely afford your warehouse theater. So it's no longer having the ability to go in and take a space because of its funky atmosphere, it's picking a space because it's affordable."
That shift in thinking, says Freeland, can have a more profound effect than simply limiting a company's choice of plays; it can also dull and soften one's overall approach. Freeland saw that occur firsthand when several companies approached him about renting the tiny South Cherokee mechanic's garage that LIDA called home for two years. "It was actually alarming to see the desperation, to see people putting a costume drama in a space where it didn't really fit. And watching a whole string of productions come through that would have been much better served by a traditional theater setup, and see their audience base come into a funky garage, and see what that did to ticket sales. Most of those companies didn't build themselves out to be experimental; when you start to see traditional theater pieces find their way, out of basic necessity, into environments that aren't really theatrical, it makes you question where we're going."
Before long, Freeland realized that his company was headed for a sea of red ink. So he decided to create a more stable workplace where he could focus and concentrate on his art. "When your largest problem isn't the work, but finding and maintaining a theater space so you can do your work, it really drains people out. It's the equivalent of saying 'You can be a doctor, but you have to build your hospital first.'" So after briefly taking up residence in a storefront on the city's northwest side, Freeland and LIDA closed up shop and went on hiatus last year.
"Contrary to a lot of models and opinions, experimental theater isn't necessarily theater that, by definition, happens anywhere, anytime for free," Freeland continues. "We've always tried to take the approach that the piece precipitates [one's choice of] environment and design elements. But if you really want to communicate that message -- and I think this is true for traditional and musical theater, as well -- you can't let your space become a stumbling block. When your audience can't get over the fact that there's only one unisex bathroom with raw plumbing, all of a sudden you're fighting against so many environmental things. Don't get me wrong: You can use that to your advantage, depending on the piece, but why would someone become a repeat patron at a space where they could barely enjoy the work? We want to present the work in a manner that's challenging to the theater in general, not to the audience's basic comfort level."
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To that end, Freeland and a handful of collaborators plan to resume operations within the next few months; they've set their sights on a downtown venue that they hope to tailor to the sensibilities of artist and audience alike. "Typically, people identify with environments and spaces, then they identify with a company, and then they identify with a particular actor or star. We're looking to do things that are somewhat counterintuitive to most theater people: We're going to start from scratch, scrap everything and then concentrate on building a space before the work -- a safe environment that suits everybody's needs."
Freeland's model should find support from newcomers such as Hipps, who maintains that Denver needs "more diversity, more risky theater. There are voices here that need to be heard, and could be heard, that aren't. There's definitely an audience for it, but they're not getting it because of the lack of spaces. When you hear of theater companies that were doing more unusual material in the 1970s and 1980s saying 'We need a name show,' that's kind of discouraging. I applaud any company that does anything out of the ordinary, but it would be great if just the average, new theater company could take that risk."
In order for that to happen, though, says Sugar, "You have to have a reality check on the product you're going to pick, and why you think the space might or might not work. It's not about 'I want to produce this show because this actor is going to be great in it.' There has to be the art of theater involved, not just theater arts. People coming into the city do want culture that deals with the more risqué, avant-garde, alternative issues. They're coming from other cities that have that, and so they're demanding it in Denver."
In the end, says Freeland, local artists will have to come to terms with the business aspects of theater without worrying about whether they're somehow selling out to moneyed interests. "The work is the most important thing, and right now I'm not able to do work because there's a space issue. The last three years have witnessed LIDA go through so many emotional changes. Watching people who are incredibly talented wasting their talents by saying, 'Okay, space number three, get the hammers and drywall.' If you can't do any work, that's pretty much the worst kind of sellout that you could become -- to give up. So I hope that we can build a space that won't say that we have to make a million dollars a year. It's hard, because when you pit theater against a market economy, it really becomes a supply-and-demand theater. It's a dangerous time when we put our theaters up against that mark -- because you're going to have repetitive, safe stories. You'll start imposing self-censorship, and that will be the final nail in the coffin. It's a larger issue than just a few theater companies. Where are our artists' living and working spaces?"