Conscience Raising

Like any creative type, Steve Wilson dreams of the day when he can "create a place where a group of artists can come together to do their work." Judging from the kind of energy that's radiating from the Robert E. Loup Jewish Community Center these days, the teacher and director seems well on his way to achieving that goal. A recent graduate of the Denver Center's National Theatre Conservatory, Wilson is also the artistic director of the Mizel Arts Center's theater department at the JCC (which houses the Shwayder Theatre Academy for grades pre-K through 12), and is the director of the Denver Children's Theatre's current production of The Prince and the Pauper at the Shwayder.

But even more important, as far as Wilson is concerned, is his role in Jewish Descent/Jewish Dissent, an interdisciplinary arts project that explores the ways in which Jewish visual artists, composers, filmmakers and playwrights have contributed to the twentieth-century movement known as "the art of conscience." Grand in scope and comprehensive in subject, the ten-week endeavor opens this weekend at the JCC with an exhibition of photographs, followed by Wilson's staging of Marc Blitzstein's Broadway opera, The Cradle Will Rock -- which, when it premiered in 1937, was itself a politically charged event.

Under pressure from conservative groups, the WPA Federal Theatre Project, which had commissioned the piece about the unionization of a small steel town, banned the opening; the musicians' and actors' unions forbade their members to participate. So, 22-year-old director Orson Welles found another theater twenty blocks away and convinced the audience to walk uptown. When they arrived, Blitzstein was seated onstage at the piano, prepared to perform the piece by himself. One by one, though, the actors took up their parts and sang their hearts out, many from their seats in the audience. (The recent Tim Robbins movie, Cradle Will Rock, was a loose dramatization of the events surrounding that production.)

While the play's unique history was reason enough to stage it for the JCC exhibit, Wilson says it has inspired him to build on the success he's enjoyed with the children's company and begin producing professional-quality works that appeal to adult audiences. And Blitzstein's opera might just be the one to pique the interest of potential subscribers and supporters. Although most revivals of the piece are performed with a solo piano to evoke the feel of the original production (and cut down on costs), the local effort will feature eighteen actors and singers accompanied by the Colorado Chamber Players under the direction of Jesse Levine, a Yale music professor who has guest-conducted at the Metropolitan Opera.

If all goes according to plan, Wilson says, the JCC will likely offer an adult series next year. "The season will probably have a Judaic theme. The ultimate plan has always been to create this triple-armed theater that has the academy, the children's theater -- both of which have been growing -- and plays for adult audiences. I'm hoping that people who attend Cradle will see something that's rare in the American theater right now and that touches us in the way that we love great political theater."

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Jim Lillie

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