The December 1979 opening of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts' first production was billed as the "Dawn of the Denver Decade." The DCPA was going to make Denver the Rocky Mountain entertainment equivalent of New York City, with touring productions of Broadway plays and musicals sharing the complex with the local efforts of a resident professional theater group, the Denver Center Theater Company. And although the early years were marked by mediocre productions and fractious changes in leadership, now, in its nineteenth season, the DCTC finally is considered among the elite of America's regional theaters.
And Tony Church, the heart and soul of the DCTC, is one of the primary reasons.
In 1964, New York lawyer (one of his clients happened to be Helen Bonfils, owner of the Denver Post) and theatrical producer Donald Seawell produced an East Coast tour of Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company, formalizing his association with the preeminent theater institution in the world--and helping him make the acquaintance of Tony Church, a founding member of the RSC.
"I first came to Denver in 1975," says Church, "when I was with the RSC and I played in the old Bonfils Theater...and I met Helen Bonfils. She was the producer and Don [Seawell] was the manager for her. As a result of that tour, I was then asked back to the University of Denver in 1976 and 1978. I got fascinated by Denver. I loved the climate. And during the time I've been here, I've seen the place boom and bust and then come back up again. Now," he says, as his eyes widen, "it's amazing to see the number of people turning up every week to see shows here."
Seawell was not only Helen Bonfils's producer, he was her publisher at the Post. And after she passed away, Seawell used the power of the publisher's slot--coupled with the resources of the Bonfils Foundation--to push through plans for the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. Construction of the DCPA-managed four-theater Helen Bonfils Theater Complex began in December 1974. (The old Bonfils Theatre was renamed the Lowenstein; today it sits dark, although it's still owned by the Denver Center.) While Seawell was criticized at the time as an empire-builder, his foresight and planning literally forged Denver's theatrical future.
Enter Tony Church. A professional actor since 1953, Church moved to Denver in 1989 when he became the dean of the National Theater Conservatory, the DCTC's training arm. As an added boon, he also lent his considerable acting talents to the DCTC. Performing such roles as Sir in The Dresser, the Bishop of Southwark in Racing Demon, Lord Summerhays in Misalliance, Malvolio in Twelfth Night and Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, Church set new standards of excellence in acting for both the company and the Denver theater community at large. More important, his sterling example as an actor and teacher redefined what it means to be a theater professional in Denver--but then, it wasn't until the DCTC was formed that it was possible to earn a living as a theater professional in Denver. "Up until a few years ago," Church says, "you either got a part or you fled."
"It's very much a family," Church says of the DCTC, "and after 28 years with the RSC, an artistic family is what I wanted to be with. I didn't think that I'd ever find one again--I'm very grateful. One of the things you notice as you get older in this business is that unless you're an enormous star, the parts get smaller. And, of course, plays aren't written with leading roles for people over sixty. Most of the leading roles go to younger people, so you get put into the periphery. Somehow they've managed to find things here for me so that it's not been like that. Now I'm just having the time of my life with the best parts I've had in years!"
Central to Church's success, however, is his ability to elicit high-quality work from his colleagues. "I've had the enormous advantage of doing quite a large number of shows with the same director, Anthony Powell," he says, ever the gracious performer. "We've forged a relationship which I find as good as any I've had in my whole career. I love working with him. He seems to me the ideal actor's director, but he's not a sentimental person with actors at all. He actually has a way of governing the shape of a play while at the same time doing very detailed work with every actor. And he has massive respect with everybody he works with, which they in turn have for him. And I think we're a pretty formidable combination. That relationship with a particular director is something you can't get in just any company. So that has been something astonishing to me."
His symbiotic relationship with Powell is emblematic of the manner in which Church has selflessly formed his many theatrical alliances: He serves as a mentor for two NTC students; he regularly attends and champions the work of other local theater companies ("I think people who've got ideas for the DCTC should knock on our door," he says); and he's keenly aware of the major contribution that the DCTC's loyal audience members contribute to his efforts.
"We have one of the youngest average audiences in the country for a regional theater," he says. "I believe 34 is the average age. If you haven't got them [in your theater] by the time they're 34, then you're going to have the Golden Oldies audience, which is frankly what 75 percent of the regional theaters in this country are. And they're getting older. But this community has got a large number of people who are prepared to actually listen as well as watch. I think we're training an audience."
In particular, the eminent Shakespearean actor believes he's helping train audiences to appreciate the value of language-based theater. "That is a particular skill I have that's been recognized here," he says, "and I've been given the parts that exploit it. And as this company has developed, it's getting better and better at that sort of thing. I think Racing Demon and Misalliance were both plays where language and argument were given attention, but with a texture and a vigor of American acting--something that I've always thought was remarkable.
"When I was younger, we used to say that the American theater was very good at the internal, psychological process and was very good at physical vigor but that it didn't have the language skills. But that's changed. And the exciting thing is that audiences are responding. I can't believe that Racing Demon received the response that it did. When I first came here, I don't think the audience would have been ready for it."
Church does believe, however, that audiences are ready for more from their local politicians--and he remains active in the major issues of his community. A professional performer, he insists, can do no less.
"I think what we're doing now is not investing in the future," he says. "The most terrifying thing to me is the pullback of monies in the area of arts and education. That is the investment that this very, very rich community should now be making. Because the evidence is on the table and is there for anybody to see. If you expand the imaginative response in children, they get better at doing everything else."
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Eyes flashing and voice rising, he pounds a table for emphasis as he declares, "You get peer esteem from doing sports, but it doesn't lead you to do anything else. You get self-esteem in the arts and through your imagination, and it affects everything else you do. You get better at computers, you get better at math and at science. And it's all totally provable. Nobody's listening. And this is the time that they've got to listen. Otherwise, we will have a very boring race of people."
After a weighty moment or two, during which he seems to imagine what an arts-starved world would be like, Church's thoughts return to the beginning of his association with the DCTC. "We've mercifully been given by Mr. Seawell and his foundation the chance to be able to do what we believe in," he says. "So I've benefited from that enormously, because I've had not just good parts, but I've had an enormously wide range. I mean, versatility is what the character actor lives on. And I'm the character actor who's coming into my own playing leads. So I think I'm doing better work here than I've done anywhere at any time in my life. I'm a better actor than I was even ten years ago. And I think it's what's been going on here that's made me that.
"I love it! I quite like this life. I just keep crossing my fingers and hoping it'll last.