Denver Theaters Shut Down Over Coronavirus Concerns

William Hahn and Jessica Robblee in the Miners Alley production of Frankie and Johnny at the Claire de LuneEXPAND
William Hahn and Jessica Robblee in the Miners Alley production of Frankie and Johnny at the Claire de Lune
Matthew Gale Photography
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Denver theaters — from the largest to the smallest — are feeling the effects of COVID-19. Actors, directors and staff have been acutely aware of New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s order to darken all Broadway theaters, and through the week there’s been intense discussion regarding whether to shut down local productions scheduled for as early as this weekend, as well as later into the spring.

Things became clearer when Governor Jared Polis Friday issued “guidance requiring cancellation” of gatherings of more than 250 people on March 13, and Mayor Michael Hancock closed many city-owned venues.

Now the Denver Center for the Performing Arts has canceled or postponed all events between now and April 12. The Aurora Fox will also cancel everything scheduled until March 31 — including two shows originally intended to run this weekend: Secrets of the Universe and the regional premiere of Sarah Ruhl’s For Peter Pan on Her Seventieth Birthday.

In Boulder, the Dairy Center for the Arts is closing its doors, putting dancers, musicians and theater people out of work for an un-guessable period of time. This means that Local Theater Company is forced to cancel the weekend’s Local Lab 2020, which showcases readings of new works by American playwrights, one of which usually receives full production later in the season. The Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company was scheduled to present one of the most relevant and interesting offerings of the year at the Dairy in April: Oslo, by J. T. Rogers, which swept the 2016-’17 theater awards. It deals with the peace negotiations between Yasser Arafat and Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1993 (perhaps you remember the photos of a beaming President Clinton hovering over the two men’s awkward handshake). This, too, is now canceled.

“Please stay with us,” reads BETC’s announcement. “We plan to bring Oslo to you at a future time, as well as a full slate of wonderful stories, wonderfully told.”

Until very recently, the Arvada Center had intended to stay open. Staff there was “monitoring things day by day,” according to president and CEO Philip Sneed, canceling after-show events, encouraging staff to work from home. And, like every venue Westword contacted, it was following the universal suggestions for hygiene: providing hand gels, sanitizing and wiping seats and armrests, placing notices in bathrooms. “Cancellation has consequences for the long-term viability of the organization,” Sneed said. “It affects people’s jobs.” Still, on March 13, the center announced the cancellation or postponement of all ticketed events.

Many local companies seat fewer than 250 people. And some producers and directors are still struggling to find the right response to the coronavirus. Hours of creative work, passion and talent go into every opening, as well as material resources. And as is true for all businesses, jobs depend on the continued functioning of theaters both large and small. For some companies, continued viability is a huge issue — and a huge question mark. Will fresh grants come in? Will generous patrons increase their support? Will ticket sales revive after a pause? And how long will the crisis last?

“We all kind of feel we are walking around here in Denver, and we don’t have the test, and we don’t know. If the numbers are high and the only thing that works is social isolation, we should be practicing this more aggressively,” Brian Colonna of Buntport told Westword earlier this week. “It’s frustrating to have to make decisions when you don’t have the information.”

Since then, after days of agonizing over solutions that included selling only forty tickets a night rather than the usual ninety so that audience members would be sitting further apart, to creating videos and live-streaming performances, the six writing-acting-organizational talents who create the brilliantly crazed Buntport productions have come to the decision that they’ll cancel this weekend’s offering, Cabaret De Profundis. “We are canceling all productions in the space,” a devastated Colonna told us early March 13. “That seems the only choice to make now. We’re hoping that the period of isolation helps flatten the curve that people are all talking about.

“I don’t think anyone’s interested in making money over spreading a dangerous virus,” he adds. “There are populations that have less access to care. We’re next to the homeless shelter here, and it’s pretty scary.”

Len Matheo, artistic director of Miners Alley Playhouse, agrees. He is closing or postponing his upcoming production of Moon Over Buffalo, and temporarily shuttering the playhouse. “We should not be thinking of ways to protect the theater,” he said. “We should be thinking of ways to protect our fellow humans.”

On March 12, Curious Theatre Company’s artistic director Chip Walton was still planning to open Admissions, which was praised by the New York Times as “an extraordinarily useful and excruciating satire.” “But that can change by the minute,” Walton observed. And so it did: Admissions has now been canceled or postponed.

“We’ve always tried to be a place to process community,” Walton commented on March 13, after making the tough decision, “but obviously it’s no longer viable. The hardest part of this was knowing the deep impact on the talented artists involved. But I do support 100 percent all of us taking an abundance of caution.”

Up until now, it’s been a fine season for theater, showcasing Curious Theatre Company’s The Secretary, a dramatic, nuanced and intelligent exploration of the role of guns in society; the wonderfully acted Frankie and Johnny at the Clair de Lune at Miners Alley; and the Aurora Fox’s strange and startling drama The Squirrels, which includes a war for sex and dominance between red and gray squirrels. Now, all over town, the lights are flickering out.

But there was simply no other solution, Walton said before the lights went off at his theater: “Either way we decide, we’re going to take a major financial hit. It’s going to be a kind of 'pick your poison' situation.”

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