The Denver Center Theatre Company is beginning its first season under new artistic director Kent Thompson, former director of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Thompson, 51, took the reins from Donovan Marley, who announced his retirement in January 2004, after 22 years. Theater buffs are wondering what to expect from the new leader, whose three-year contract was finalized last December. It's known that he is retaining many of the company's most popular actors for the first couple plays of the season, though some of the losses -- particularly that of the brilliant and lionhearted Annette Helde -- are distressing. It has also been widely publicized that he intends to work more with the community than did his predecessor, to revive the DCTC's support for new plays, and to produce more scripts by women and people of color. But what is Thompson's overall philosophy? How does he see the role of theater in general, and of the Denver Center in particular? Will he bring us vapid crowd-pleasers or demanding works, classic or contemporary pieces, plays that moralize or plays that amuse?
The roster for this first season offers some clues: Feydeau's farce A Flea in Her Ear; Arthur Miller's All My Sons; September Shoes by Jose Cruz Gonzalez; a new version of A Christmas Carol; August Wilson's Gem of the Ocean; Shakespeare's Measure for Measure; Jesus Hates Me, by Wayne Lemon, described in the press material as "an irreverent...dark comedy"; and four plays by women -- Lillian Groag's The Ladies of the Camellias; The Clean House, by Sarah Ruhl; After Ashley, by Gina Gionfriddo; and Regina Taylor's Crowns.
There are further clues in two vivid childhood recollections Thompson describes in an interview. Thompson grew up in the South, and when he was six or seven, his mother took him to the opera in Chattanooga, Tennessee, to see Faust. Although the first act didn't particularly interest him, he refused her offer to take him home at intermission. His persistence paid off. "I was totally captivated when Faust was sucked down into hell at the end of the show," he says.
Then there was the one-act play he saw in the seventh grade -- "a real corker of a melodrama about a man facing execution." At the end of the play, an off-stage gong strikes midnight to signal the protagonist's death. "They got to ring number seven or eight," says Thompson, laughing, "and the gong fell off its stand. It made a terrific noise backstage. I just thought that was wonderful. Then they picked the gong up, and I could hear them whispering, and they did five more rings and then they shot him.
"So those are my two seminal theater experiences as a child," he concludes. "A vision of hell and a farce."
Given this, it's hardly surprising that of this year's plays, the two he chose to direct himself are Measure for Measure, a dark comedy that explores issues of religion, morality, hypocrisy and forgiveness, and A Flea in Her Ear.
The son of a Southern Baptist preacher, Thompson acquired a love of storytelling from listening to his father's sermons. He also visited African-American churches with his father and found the gospel music and the call-and-response tradition "electrifying." His father was not a thunderer, but a man concerned with ideas and issues. "He said it wasn't a good sermon unless you moved people, and he really meant emotionally, spiritually, psychologically," says Thompson. He adds that the experiences offered by theater and by the church have some parallels: Both utilize ritual; both are live; both represent a communal experience.
As a young man, Thompson intended to become an actor. He performed in high school and college, then attended the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, where the revered voice and speech coach Cicely Berry suggested he consider directing. "My immediate response was, 'Does that mean you think I'm a bad actor?'" says Thompson. Berry responded that it didn't, but that he thought like a director.
Weighing the idea, Thompson remembered his mother's response when his father asked what she thought of his sermons after church. "She didn't know the wisdom of opening night," Thompson observes. "It's the most vulnerable time for an actor. It's not the time to give notes. She was very blunt and more critical than positive. And my father would become beside himself for the rest of the afternoon."
He laughs again. "At some point I realized my role model was my mother and not my father, that I wanted to be the person giving the notes." But he also has a profound appreciation for what it takes to stand on a stage and perform, he says, and that appreciation tempers his criticism.
Some of Thompson's concern for inclusivity can be traced to his father's feelings about the need for reconciliation between the races. "He was in great despair over the turn toward fundamentalism in the Southern Baptist church," Thompson says. "He died an unhappy man, in part because he thought that was a destructive turn for a denomination based upon religious freedom."
Thompson sees his role in the community as "part vision, part coaching, part recruitment and fundraising and part conversation and collaboration. My job is to articulate the vision of the theater and to make it happen, and I know the only way I can do that is to have a lot of people joining into that vision. I view it as a serve-and-lead kind of job. The hard part is figuring out when you need to do which."
Women playwrights have come more and more into their own in the past ten years, Thompson feels. Under his leadership, the DCTC has set up the Women's Voices Fund to support the work of women writers. Administrators will seek out a hundred people willing to pledge $5,000 apiece over a five-year period; the intention is to raise $500,000 and establish a secure annual income.
There is also a two-day New Play Summit scheduled for February, and Thompson hopes to expand the project. One of his proudest achievements in Alabama, he says, was establishing the Southern Writers' Project, which created sixteen or seventeen world premieres and constituted "a remarkable theatrical expression of what it means to be a Southerner."
His religious background made Measure for Measure, which he has never directed before, a natural for Thompson. The production is slated for January. It deals with the misery caused by the hyper-religious, coldly moralistic Angelo, who's been deputized by the Duke to rule Vienna. Angelo immediately begins enforcing a law against fornication, and a young man, Claudio, is sentenced to death for sleeping with his beloved. Claudio's sister, Isabella, a novitiate at a nunnery, pleads with Angelo for her brother's life and, overcome with lust, Angelo makes a bargain with her: If she'll sleep with him, he'll pardon Claudio.
This is a difficult play, classified as a comedy, but with dark overtones. Thompson says he chose it because it is "obsessed with some of the issues we're obsessed with as a country right now: religion and politics and sex -- and politics and sex and religion." During the twentieth century, he points out, many directors viewed the play in Freudian terms, and audiences tended to wonder why any woman would let her brother die rather than submit to unwanted sex. But now, Thompson notes, "we live in an era where people have very strong religious convictions, and there's the rise of the religious right as a political force. The play deals with these really thorny issues that we seem to be struggling with again as a culture. What do you do with people of faith in power? What do you do about sexuality and morality, about decadence in your society?"
Isabella herself is "in her own way, a religious fundamentalist, or perhaps I should say an evangelical," he says, but she is also "a very bright, smart woman who can argue theology with Angelo. And she is perhaps the only person in the play who shows mercy."
As for A Flea in Her Ear, "I think if you're a minister's son, you see a lot of the struggles that people have with moral issues, and you see them in a way that probably would be shocking to an outsider. That's why I love comedies of manners, because they're about the way we that we hold ourselves versus the way that we really are. And the thing about farce is, it's very funny, but it's very funny when it's rooted in a certain amount of pain." The protagonist of A Flea in Her Ear is having problems maintaining his erection. "The reason the play is so compelling to me, and kind of giddy, is because all of us desire to feel young again, to feel wanted and attractive and attracted, and that's what the play really deals in," Thompson says. "The characters make fools of themselves repeatedly, and show how crazy we all act when we try to pursue eternal youth."
Flea also showcases the strengths of the acting company built up by Donovan Marley. It stars, among others, such longtime Denver favorites as Jamie Horton, Kathleen M. Brady, John Hutton, Bill Christ, Randy Moore and Mark Rubald. Many observers predicted that Thompson would clear the decks and bring his own actors with him when he came to Denver, as Marley did before him in 1984 (Jamie Horton, whom Marley kept on, was the sole survivor of the original company). But Thompson intends a more organic process. He feels there's a lot of talent in the company and says, "We're trying to figure out how we'll work together. My job is to get the best work out of the people that are here and bring in new people who can make everyone's work better, too."
The Denver Center has long had a wealth of excellent middle-aged actors, but there's been a dearth of equally talented younger performers on the center's stages. It's difficult to keep young actors in Denver, says Thompson, because most of them are eager to try their luck in New York or Los Angeles. But he hopes to figure out a way to attract and retain emerging talents.
All of this, he says, is "the difficult part of the job. I've always got to decide who stays, who goes. I think there's an ebb and flow to a company anyway. Some people who are not with the company right now, we may see back. There will be people who are with us most of the time, people who come back regularly, people who come back every few years -- a group of people who see the company as a place where they want to work on a regular basis."
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Thompson has also attended a handful of shows in other Denver theaters. After seeing Eric Sandvold's bravura performance as a business manager starstruck by his baseball-player client in Take Me Out at Curious, Thompson gave him a role in A Flea in Her Ear.
A few years ago, Thompson directed a 1948 play called A Lesson Before Dying, about a young black man unjustly sentenced to death. As he sees it, the question the play explores is whether the protagonist will be able to walk to his death like a man, this being important in his community. An instructor the prisoner loathed in elementary schools is chosen as his teacher.
"By the second act, you realize this young man is not going to live," says Thompson. "Something visceral happens. I remember you could hear people start crying, and they would cry at different places. There's something about that that's what theater is all about. The audience has bought into the story, into the person, to the degree that it matters what happens next on the stage. It's at the heart of why live theater works in a way that the movies and television can rarely hope to. There's some kind of primal human connection to that kind of storytelling."