Arvada Center Supports Actors Through the Pandemic

Jake Mendes stars in Buyer and Cellar.
Jake Mendes stars in Buyer and Cellar. Courtesy of the Arvada Center
Since theaters closed last March, the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities has been finding ways of still making art and connecting with audiences while providing some security to those who work in the field.

“We believe strongly in supporting our team and our artists,” says center president and CEO Philip Sneed. “We made the decision early that we were going to keep as many people as we possibly could.”

With the help of two rounds of Paycheck Protection Program loans, support from the City of Arvada and sacrifices by artists and staff — Sneed himself took a pay cut — the center has largely been able to realize the goal.

“Everybody sacrificed,” Sneed says. “We’ve built this team over many years, and we didn’t want to risk losing any of them. We’ve been able to put a number of actors on five- to six-week Equity contracts with benefits. It’s a fraction of the hiring we would normally do, but it’s something.”

The center recently announced its lineup of virtual theater productions for spring. This begins with Buyer and Cellar, by Jonathan Tolins, a one-person play that will stream from the home of performer Jake Mendes from March 1 to 21. Actor-playwright Jessica Austgen, who wrote last year’s The Family Tree, has been commissioned to write another play, Christie Con, about an Agatha Christie fan club; that will livestream from March 19 to April 4. Audiences can participate by helping the fans solve a murder.

There will be a concert, Our Favorite Things: A Musical Retrospective, on April 4, including sizzling popular numbers from past Arvada Center productions. A limited number of in-person seats will be available for this. Finally, there’s a radio adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, created by actor Zachary Andrews; it runs from April 2 to 15.

A full season is planned starting in September, and there’s hope for some more in-person performances later in the spring.

Actor Mendes says the chance to star in Buyer and Cellar is a lifeline. He is remembered for his brilliant performance in Hedwig and the Angry Inch at the Aurora Fox three years ago. Since the lockdown, he's been able to find a handful of theater jobs: script readings, participating in a fundraiser for the Arvada Center, and singing in one of Miners Alley Playhouse’s Quarantine Cabaret Series evenings.

“I’m on a union contract now,” he says. “I feel extremely fortunate. Not only am I getting paid, but the contract helps me stay eligible for health insurance. I’m really proud of the center for taking the initiative for things like this. Not all arts centers have the resources to do it. I think it’s a very smart investment and a very caring investment for an organization to be going over hurdles and pushing through barriers to make this happen. It’s great to be a part of it.”

Buyer and Cellar is about an out-of-work actor who secures a job tending to a shopping mall in the basement of singing star Barbra Streisand’s home.

“It’s not real,” Mendes says, “but she does actually have a mall in her basement. The author read her book, My Passion for Design, all about her aesthetic and how she created this home, and how passionate she is about design and American architecture, and wondered what if someone had to work down there, be of service to her."

Artists often struggle with understanding what they have to give to the world, Mendes explains.

"I spent so much time in college when I lived in New York having this very skewed understanding of what I had to offer," he recalls. "I thought I was this leading man: Kiss Me Kate, Spring Awakening — I could do anything. College is a weird bubble.”

Through working in Denver’s theater community, Mendes discovered his own strengths — strengths entirely suited to his current role in Buyer and Cellar: “finding the comedy, finding vulnerability and telling a story. This play is very funny, and then there are these sweet and tender moments of vulnerability.”

Mendes discovered the play in spring, when theater was shut down, and he spent a lot of time reading scripts. He sent a message to Lynne Collins, artistic director of plays at the center, and “a couple of months ago she called me and said, ‘We need to do this. And I would love for you to do it with us.’”

When work began on Buyer and Cellar, there was hope that since it involved only a single performer, it could be shown on stage, but Actors Equity rules prevented that. Still, this is a flexible play, says Mendes. “It’s meant to be told as someone telling a story to a friend on a casual evening. We wouldn’t have built an entire set even at the center.”

Still, with the help of a new and sophisticated camera provided by the Arvada Center and the keen eye of set designer Brian Mallgrave, who'll be dropping off lights, curtains and various other objects to create a set at Mendes's home, this will be a vivid production.  

Mendes, who also works as a fitness instructor, survived a coronavirus infection in December, and even after testing negative, he still struggles with long-haul symptoms — headaches that come and go, occasional spells of dizziness and finding himself out of breath more often than before. He feels that with so many theater people unemployed, there’s strong peer pressure to innovate and create new forms, but he has found that pressure debilitating.

"I feel there’s this impending cloud that says if you’re not doing anything, you’re not making the most of this time, are you?" he says. "I’ve not been really in a mental space to do a lot of creative work. It’s felt a bit empty. So this is really nice, a welcoming back to people I know and to the Arvada Center, where I have a deep connection.”

For tickets and information about the spring schedule, go to the Arvada Center website or call 720-898-7200.
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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman