Betty Hart, who has just been elected president of the Colorado Theatre Guild board, is highly respected as an actor, director and organizer. Most recently, she created two video compendia for the Arvada Center titled Amplify: Black Artists Speak. The first series of three included fifteen male actors, the second fifteen women. In both, the technical and performance quality were high and the direction skillful. Hart is a facilitator for Kaiser Permanente’s Experiential Learning Team for Arts Integrated Resources, and has directed and performed in both contemporary and classical drama. But she takes over the CTG at a difficult time,when local theaters are closed, experimenting with outside performances and video productions, or cautiously reopening for in-person shows. While she is “incredibly excited and honored” to assume the reins, Hart says, she also realizes, “This is the most challenging time to lead a service organization, a time when the industry is mostly at a standstill.”
The Colorado Theatre Guild is primarily known for its annual awards program, the Henrys, named for legendary Denver theater artist Henry Lowenstein. Every year, CTG judges attend performances all over the state, and winners are announced during a festive evening that brings together much of the state’s theater community. This year, despite a truncated performance season abruptly curtailed in March, the Henrys were awarded during an online ceremony.
But for some years, the guild has come under criticism for the organization’s primary focus on this event. Even the Henrys themselves have come in for criticism.
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“In the past,” says Len Matheo, artistic director for Miners Alley Playhouse, “CTG has been basically an organization that does this one big fundraising event every year. There’s value in that, in connecting the theater community, and it’s always been a wonderful evening of celebration and collaboration. I get that it means a lot to artists. But at the same time, I’m pretty meh on the whole thing. It’s a really broken system.”
What Matheo would like to see the organization do is “start to organize, to help connect theater people together.” He can envisage, for example, a communal prop and costume shop. Other possibilities could include coordinating media, outreach to schools or finding a way to dispense needed legal advice. Currently the guild has no permanent staff, though it does rely on two dedicated longtime contract workers to maintain the website and coordinate the Henrys.
Chip Walton, artistic director of Curious Theatre, one of the longest-lived and most artistically respected companies in the state, comments that Curious is not a CTG member and has had no relationship with the organization for some time — though he, like Matheo, believes Hart will provide strong and necessary leadership.
Much of the grumbling about the Henrys can be attributed to sour grapes by artists who lost out. But often the judging is incomprehensible, even to interested outsiders, and some of the complaints carry weight. One difficulty with the structure is that the guild represents the entire state, and not just the metro area, where a great deal of the most professional work is done. Also, currently only guild members are eligible for awards, which means some top-quality work never gets considered.
Hart has given a fair amount of thought to all this. The pause in theater and judging this fall provides time “to re-examine every aspect of the process,” she says. “I think part of the challenge the guild has to answer is are we a service organization for all the community or only those who are members. I think the answer has to be both.” She adds that extraordinary theater is happening in many parts of the state, and “part of our hope is that people will actually take a trip. I like the fact we celebrate the entire state, even though it is a challenge.”
Hart has chaired the awards committee for some time, and during her watch, the rubric for judges has been meticulously revised and the standards raised. “If we’re just judging on our feelings and our likes, the judge who dislikes Shakespeare and goes to see a Shakespeare play is going to score it lower. We want the judges to look at the rubric, and we want them exposed to different things. When I came in, judges chose the theaters they would go to, but if all you’ve done is go to the Denver Center and the Arvada Center, you’re missing out on the strength of what a small company can do.” In addition, a judge who sees only local productions may have personal connections to the performers. Now judges no longer entirely have that choice. “They’re required to see a third of the shows they judge where they don’t live,” says Hart. “That’s helped to change the game.
“If you hate musical theater, you don’t have to see musical theater. If you hate something, you’re not forced to go see it. But the idea is to expand people’s horizons.”
There’s also been a change in scoring, with highest and lowest scores in every category being tossed. Some of the categories have been refined, with more theaters competing in the top tier.
All current judges have résum´s indicating theater experience, but Hart is also thinking about training. Judges might, for instance, be asked to watch a scene directed and/or acted well, and then the same scene done badly. Then they’ll be asked to score what they’ve seen using the rubric: “The idea is for the rubric to work more effectively and to increase comprehension of what to judge.”
Hart disputes the idea that the Henrys represent CTG’s sole accomplishment, though she readily admits that more could be done. She references the guild’s Facebook page and a revamped website that provides comprehensive information on auditions, classes, news, workshops and performances. There are also educational workshops.
This summer, CTG partnered with the Rocky Mountain Artists Safety Alliance along with such other groups as the Athena Project and IDEAs for a series of workshops dealing with COVID-19, sexual harassment and creating safety for BIPOC folks. CTG is now working to help promote these standards, Hart says, so that every artist who works in Colorado theater will be safe.
Hart is undertaking another project with musician-composer David Nehls, who as vice president of the Historic Elitch Gardens Theatre Foundation worked from 2014 to 2016 to restore that loved and important venue. “We’re learning through all of this COVID madness that there is a real risk to some of these other historic venues in Colorado,” Nehls says. “They’re going to need some eventual support in getting back to business. Some are about to be sold to developers to be completely destroyed. The intention is to preserve as much of Colorado’s artistic history as possible.” Nehls, who is working to put together a group of theater professionals to serve as a go-between between these venues and city and state governments, reached out to the CTG “to see if there’s a way of using the umbrella of the guild. When I approached Betty, she said it sounds like a good idea and a good way to get the guild more active.”
“We’re doing a lot behind the scenes,” comments Hart, “and part of the job is to publicize what we do. The other part of that is to do more.”
One of the first things Hart intends to do as president is contact and learn from the guild’s constituents, as well as talking with boardmembers about their vision. She mentions having received a long Facebook message from a theater artist detailing exactly what they felt was needed almost as soon as her new role was announced. “So,” she says, laughing, “the process has started.
“We’re going to deconstruct everything from a Black Lives Matter lens, a theater artistry lens, to see how we can improve on everything we’ve done so far, to move strongly in advocacy, influence budgets statewide and locally, advocate for the arts and tell the story of how arts help fuel the economy,” she continues.
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She also wants to harness the power of the board and increase its size, “to make sure all theater makers know we’re a resource for them.
“My goal is to help us be the premier service organization for theaters.”
Hart’s service with CTG is as a volunteer. She also works full-time for Kaiser Permanente, which means she’s likely to toil through eighty-hour work weeks. “I think the love I have for the Colorado theater community means it’s worth it,” she says. “Will it be challenging? Will it take a lot of time? Absolutely. We’ll need a lot of people in the community to help us do the work we’re setting out. One board can’t do it. But can we marshal a whole team of people? I think we can.”
Hart shouldn’t have to look far for support, given the enthusiasm over her appointment. “I love her,” says Nehls. “Betty has such great energy; she is so focused and intelligent. I’m thrilled she’s taking over.”