Stories on Stage opens its twentieth season tonight, September 25, with the live-streamed Simple Pleasures. Three stories —“Ugly,” by Mary Gordon, “LOL,” by Adam Gopnik and “The Toilet Paper Baron of Metro Denver,” by local author Monterey Buchanan — will be read by three of the area’s finest performers: Annie Barbour, Timothy McCracken and Jessica Robblee.
“Given everything that’s happening out there in the world, we thought it might be nice to do a show that celebrated the little things that mean so much right now, those simple pleasures that make life worth living,” says artistic director Anthony Powell.
Stories on Stage has been bringing the written word to life for twenty years, and Powell, who spent eighteen seasons as an associate artist with the Denver Center Theatre Company and has also worked with Curious Theatre, the Arvada Center, Creede Repertory Theatre and the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, has been at the helm for the past ten.
Westword recently spoke with Powell to ask about his work and where Stories on Stage is headed.
Westword: How does it feel to begin this important season during the COVID-19 crisis?
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Anthony Powell: The 2020-2021 season marks our twentieth anniversary, and what a stupendously weird time it is to be celebrating a milestone like this. We're taking a "damn-the-torpedoes” approach to the current situation and moving ahead with a full slate of shows that we'll be live-streaming from the Nomad Playhouse up in Boulder. Just like every other theater company out there, we're in the process of redefining ourselves for this brave new digital world, and the challenges are daunting. But they're also tremendously exciting in a bizarre way. We're essentially making it up as we go along, and I'm just so grateful that we have an audience that's adventurous enough to join us on this next leg of the journey. I've been thinking of the whole thing as theatrical Nascar: thrilling, but totally unpredictable. I can't wait to see where the future takes us!
What was your motivation in taking over Stories on Stage ten years ago? What did you admire? Were there things you wanted to change?
The Stories on Stage job came along at such a perfect time for me. I had hit one of those junctures in life when you know you'd like to try doing something different, but simply have no idea what that might be: “I'll go back to college and get that degree in haiku I've always dreamed of.” Not.
I'd attended Stories on Stage shows over the years, and loved the intimacy of their performances, that one-on-one relationship between actor and audience. And I entered into the job with a strong sense of “If it ain't broke, don't fix it.” Whatever changes I've made since then in terms of our format and the kind of material we perform have come pretty slowly, based largely on what the audience is telling us.
How do you choose and shape each production, and ultimately each season?
My favorite plays and productions these days tend to be those that somehow illustrate the universality of human experience, the ones that remind each of us watching that whatever we're going through in life, we are never doing it alone. We live in an increasingly fragmented society, and even with all the technology at our disposal, many of us feel profoundly isolated. I love being able to assemble seasons of stories that help to combat all that. We create shows that take the mostly solitary activity of reading and transform it into a community experience, a sort of live literary salon — or, as I like to call it, "storytime for grownups.”
Has money been an issue in this time of the coronavirus?
We are blessed to have both a wonderfully loyal core audience and a generous, hardworking board of directors. I thank God for Colorado's fantastic SCFD, and we are incredibly grateful for those recent Paycheck Protection Program loans.
Looking back, are there Stories on Stage events that you remember as triumphs, others that strike you as stumbles?
One of my all-time favorite Stories on Stage performances turned out to be both a triumph and a stumble. This was a Don DeLillo piece called “Human Moments in World War III,” and as one might expect from DeLillo, it was edgy and anxiety-ridden and featured sentences that went on for days. We hired John Arp — who is a terrifically skilled actor — to perform this one, and he absolutely killed it. His performance was beautiful — an object lesson in how to bring a story to life on stage, really — and just made me incredibly proud. After the show, I went out into the lobby expecting to hear good things, but the very first audience member I spoke with about DeLillo's story asked me point-blank: “What the hell was that all about?” This left me totally speechless, but I learned a very important lesson about how to choose material for Stories on Stage. Just because a story is gorgeously written doesn't mean that it can succeed theatrically. From then on, I started looking for stories that had more dramatic drive and entertainment value.
Do you have any funny anecdotes about your time as artistic director? Any profound revelations and purely wonderful moments?
During our performances, I always sit just offstage and listen to the byplay between actor and audience. I don't watch; I Iisten. And the most wonderful moments for me always come when I hear the audience respond to what the actors are doing in a purely visceral way. It's just so delightful when there's an audible gasp or a totally inappropriate laugh right in the middle of a story. Sometimes members of our audience will speak out loud, in spite of themselves. You'll hear someone exclaim “Oh, no!” from out in the house, or “You go, girl!” or whatever. That's the best. That's what makes this so rewarding.
And what have you learned over the past ten years that you’d either emphasize in the future or change?
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Over my time with Stories on Stage, I've learned — or at least been forcibly reminded — how empty that whole “Life's a bitch and then you die” school of theater can be. It's boring and intellectually lazy, and in any case, I just don't think it's true. As a younger, black-turtleneck-sweater-wearing sort of guy, I was often guilty of thinking that dark and depressing art necessarily made for good art. These days, I'm looking for a little uplift, a little light. Not in a relentlessly upbeat, Pollyanna sort of way — life is often a struggle, after all — but in a way that celebrates human striving and resilience and kindness. Of course, finding material of this sort isn't always easy when you traffic in short fiction. Many of the really good writers working today deal with complex issues, and the majority of short stories I read tend to end in divorce, death or suicide. Which are all fine and dandy as plot points once in a while, but who wants this kind of thing as a steady diet?
And what comes next this season?
Our October show, Don't Look Away — Black Stories Matter, is very much a work in progress right now, but Betty Hart and Cajardo Lindsey will both be members of the cast, and we'll definitely be featuring a piece by Reggie Rivers, as well as an excerpt from Claudia Rankine's book Citizen.
The 2020-2021 Season will be virtual/live-streamed and includes multi-camera productions with the actors performing from the stage. Simple Pleasures takes place at 7 p.m. on September 25; Don't Look Away — Black Stories Matter on October 23; Morale Is at an All-Time High on November 13; Making Merry on December 13; American Drag on January 15; A Kiss Is Still a Kiss on February 12; Linda and Me: Raised on Ronstadt on March 5; Color Plates on April 9' and Still Crazy After All These Years on May 7. Tickets are $15 and available at the Stories on Stage website or 303-494-0523; season subscriptions start at $125.