Westminster's Shoenberg Farm was opened as a dairy operation in 1912 by philanthropist Louis D. Shoenberg. At the time, Denver’s National Jewish Health was among the sanatoriums throughout the country serving tuberculosis patients. Many had flocked to Colorado for the clear mountain air, and Shoenberg wanted to find a way to provide food for these people.
It’s an unusual theater director who would see this kindly piece of history as artistic inspiration, but Amanda Berg Wilson, founder of The Catamounts, is an unusual artist.
“At the beginning of this whole COVID shit show, I was thinking, 'I don’t know if I want to do Zoom theater,'” Berg Wilson recalls. “We say we’re dedicated to the reinvention of artistic forms. I originally created the company ten years ago to figure out ways to do theater that are not traditional. So I thought, I guess I have to figure it out.”
She did. Last summer, Berg Wilson responded to a request from the City of Westminster to make a play set on a golf course.
“We created a piece called The Rough for the Legacy Ridge Golf Course,” Berg Wilson says. “The audience drove through it — masked and distanced — on golf carts. It was a hoot. The run got extended twice. There was a waiting list of 200 people.” Earlier this year, there was The Whiskey Tasting, an immersive Zoom piece put together in collaboration with DCPA’s Off-Center.
The latest offering is Land of Milk and Honey, created at the request of the City of Westminster and based on the Shoenberg Farms in Arvada. The play opens June 4 and runs until June 27.
“National Jewish would take people who couldn’t pay, but they couldn’t feed them all. Shoenberg turned the place into a dairy and chicken farm so he could feed all the people,” Berg Wilson explains. "It was taken over in 1921 by Jacob Tepper, and he continued to meet the needs of National Jewish, but also grew it into an 800-acre farm, the biggest west of the Mississippi. His son started Dolly Madison ice cream there.”
The farm is now situated in the middle of a parking lot, but “when I stepped into that barn, I felt I was stepping through a portal into another time,” Berg Wilson says. “It’s beautiful. It’s old. There are old milk pails and crates and bottles.” Her interest deepened further when she learned Shoenberg’s son had died of tuberculosis. “As the mother of an only child, I was so struck by someone who would respond to the loss of a child in an act of community caregiving.”
She began working on the concept of the piece with playwright Jeffrey Neuman, and he eventually wrote the script. He was delighted with the assignment, says Neuman.
“Though I moved here from New York almost 27 years ago and have spent the better part of that time crafting plays here in Denver, I have yet to write anything about Colorado," he says. "Truthfully, the older I get, the more I realize how little I know about the state in which I live. I knew nothing, for instance, about the sanatorium movement, nor did I know how much of Colorado’s culture stemmed from the tuberculosis health crisis that began in the 1860s. It was something of a revelation to learn how these historical forces have been so fundamental in making what I now call my home what it is today.”
He adds that the partnership with the Catamounts has “been an extraordinary experience, probably one of the greatest educations I’ve ever had as a dramatist. I’ve never written a site-specific play before, a script that was designed to grow from and speak to a specific landscape's heritage and legacy. The power of place has always fascinated me, though, so to write this kind of performance piece was a new, welcome, and exciting way to create, especially because it gave me the opportunity to work with a theater company I so greatly admire and respect.”
Fans of the Catamounts know that its shows are almost always accompanied by food and drink, and those offerings are carefully put together to enhance the evening’s theme. The company might offer special original cocktails or craft beers. Sometimes there’s an after-show dinner like the one that followed a performance of Beowulf: Or A Thousand Years of Baggage some years back and included gigantic smoked turkey legs. So it’s no surprise to learn that sustenance will be provided during performances of Land of Milk and Honey.
“Throughout, we serve ice cream,” Berg Wilson says. “And we learn how to tie a cow so it’s not caused distress, so there are all these tactile, multi-sensory ways we engage the audience.”
Like Neuman, Berg Wilson is excited to work with a site-specific project. “There’s something really cool about telling the story about a building and the people connected to it in the building itself," she says. "The production is staged all over the farm — the milk house, the outdoor space. In a sense, we’re bringing the farm to life, and the history to this intimate, tangible storytelling.”
The title comes from the phrase in the Old Testament about the Jews escaping to a land of milk and honey. And for Berg Wilson, there’s also the idea of milk being “something that is nurturing and healing."
“It’s a hard time,” she says. “There’s a lot bad happening. It’s good to examine the stories about how people have historically helped others. It’s a reminder that we don’t have to succumb to all the terribleness in the world — because it feels like there’s a lot right now.”
Still, fundraising has gone well for the Catamounts in the past year. The company had a successful fundraiser, and also, according to Berg Wilson, “raised a whole bunch on Colorado Gives Day — there was a wonderful outpouring from the individual donor base.
“I wouldn’t say it’s been an easy year, but it’s been a really successful year," she adds. "We’re lucky because we’re agile. I’m the only employee, and we don’t have a building. I think it’s been an opportunity to really figure out new questions to ask and new ways of working, and we got so much feedback from audiences.”
Two women who participated in The Whiskey Tasting, for instance, found mutual interests and exchanged contact information. “I just thought, when would those people have met otherwise?” muses Berg Wilson. “And how right it felt to connect some people across these weird separate spaces we’ve been in for so long.
“It feels like we don’t take care of each other enough. Certainly don’t take care of the folks who are on the edge," she continues. "And there’s something so lovely and worth celebrating in the history of the Shoenberg building and the response to tuberculosis at the time.”
Land of Milk and Honey runs June 4 to 27 at the Shoenberg Farms, 5598 West 72nd Place, Arvada. For tickets and more information, visit the Catamounts online.
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