Theater is a collaborative art form, and there are a lot of elements that go into a successful production: script, direction, such technical details as set, sound, costumes and lighting. But at the core, it's the living, breathing presence of the actor that makes theater. Without him, words are just marks on a page. Actors take a risk every time they step on a stage. Their work requires a literal self-sacrifice -- that is, a loss of self as the actor subsumes his own quirks, mannerisms and thoughts into those of the character. And he does it in public. There's no room for mistakes -- though some actors can convert a stumble into a momentary revelation. There's no crumpling up your failures and tossing them into the trash. Nor can you turn to the audience and say, "Sorry, I have a cold. I just can't get into character. I wish you'd seen this in rehearsal." The script can offer support if it's well-written and the director has given ideas and encouragement. But at the moment of truth, the actor is alone, and the character lives in the choices he makes -- whether he lisps or declaims, holds himself upright or slouches, moves clumsily or with purpose -- and also in those characteristics the actor can't consciously choose, things that constitute a quality of being, such as kindness, courage, lassitude, humor. A good actor speaking on an empty stage can exhilarate the listener in a way that hundreds of emptily grinning tap dancers on a set that costs more than the gross national product of most small countries can't.
So one of the most important questions to ask when evaluating the current state of Denver theater is whether this is a city that nurtures actors. Does it provide interesting and challenging material? Peers and exciting directors to work with? Most of all, a chance to make a living?
Denver boasts more theater than most other cities its size, and the theater scene here is varied and intriguing. At its center is the mammoth Denver Center Theatre Company, which many local theater people credit as an important sustaining force -- though occasionally someone mutters that the company can also have a stultifying effect. Among smaller venues, there's Buntport, started by a group of former Colorado College students who studied, among other things, the theater and culture of Eastern Europe -- masks, puppets, a focus on objects. The Buntporters create and act in their own theater pieces, which tend to be funny, clever and unpretentious. Over the past three years they've attracted all kinds of people to their converted warehouse, and that audience is steadily growing. "Sometimes we appeal to the type of people who hate theater," says co-founder Erin Rollman. "Sometimes you hate theater because it feels so artificial."
Nicholas Sugar's Theatre Group, too, has a dedicated audience for its mix of outrageous camp musicals and serious, gay-themed plays. The LIDA Project remains true to its commitment to experimentation, though it's of a very different type -- and far more in-your-face -- than Buntport's. Shadow Theatre Company is beginning its eighth season, and artistic director Jeffrey W. Nickelson, who recently completed a joint project with Tony Garcia of El Centro Su Teatro, says he has faithful supporters in the community and no difficulty finding talented black actors. But he's still working to solidify an audience. Nickelson's focus is on making connections and healing rifts, and he has selected plays by authors of differing races. "I don't believe we're subcultures," he says. "I believe we're all Americans."
The longest-running theater in town is Germinal, where founder Ed Baierlein, who's been around for thirty years, muses that in some ways, "it was more fun in the old days, when there was no real expectation that anybody would make a living." Baierlein, perhaps the most literary director in Denver, chooses plays that interest him intellectually, from Shaw to Arthur Kopit to Marivaux.