Theater Companies Face an Uncertain Future

Chris Kendall and Sean Scrutchins in Benchmark Theatre's 1984.
Chris Kendall and Sean Scrutchins in Benchmark Theatre's 1984. Benchmark Theatre
No one knows when Denver-area theaters will be able to open again. No one can predict whether audiences will return when they do. And many aren’t exactly sure how employees will be able to get paid, or how those without paychecks will be able to survive the coming weeks or months. There’s danger that a thriving and exciting theater scene may become sadly diminished.

Everyone who loves theater wants to help, and for now there’s at least one concrete and feasible way of doing it: Anyone holding a ticket for a now-canceled or -postponed production can turn down a refund offer and make the cost of the ticket into a donation.

The Boulder Ensemble Theater Company is one of the most stable and well run, having produced thought-provoking professional shows since 2008. Over the years, audiences have grown steadily.

“Our patrons can continue to help by being generous — whether it’s the cost of a ticket for a show they’re now not going to get to or a donation. Folks understand the reality of the situation,” says artistic director Stephen Weitz. “But this is akin to the crash of 2008, and all kinds of nonprofits are going to be looking for support from their bases. It’s going to dry up funding sources, and everybody’s going to be scrambling.”

BETC has five regular employees. There are also artist contracts for specific shows. The company is still figuring out how to pay. “It’s a crazy scramble, and there’s nothing to do, because we don’t have a show going on,” said Weitz, who had planned to open J.T. Rogers’s much-praised Oslo April 16 and has now canceled it. “What’s happening in the financial markets is exactly what’s happening in our theater community. Nobody can see around the corner.”

At the moment, BETC is working on the assumption that they’ll return in time for the next season in fall, calculating cash flow, staying in touch with patrons and figuring out “what we can contribute to society at a time when people really need it.

“Art always responds to what’s happening to us as a country, and this situation is going to reveal a lot about however we define ourselves as people,” says Weitz.

Candace Joice is a luminous local actor who’s been working professionally for five years and was hired for a role in Benchmark Theatre’s production of The Phlebotomist, scheduled to open in April. Like most actors, she also needs a day job, and has been working thirty hours a week for Dinosaur Ridge in Morrison. Benchmark is halting production, Dinosaur Ridge has closed for at least two weeks, and Joice is now casting around for employment.

“You never know what will come up,” she says. “A theater company I worked for a few years ago on the East Coast may have some tech work that can be done remotely. That’s the good thing about social-media platforms— you never know who’s going to throw you a line.

“But perhaps some of what this throws into light is the fact that artists need to be paid more in the first place so they have a little more to fall back on in hard times," she adds. "That would mean more funding for the arts. Of course companies want to do it. They want to offer more Equity contracts, bigger wages. We tell stories because we believe they’re essential to the expression of what it means to be human, what it means to be alive. It’s so sad to not get to share it with people.”

Emily Tuckman, who worked in New York City as an actor and producer for several years, brought new energy to the Denver scene when she moved here in 2016, presenting a play at Voodoo Comedy and another for the Boulder Fringe Festival. Her fledgling company, Misfits Theatre, opened a ninety-minute, all female, nonbinary production of Macbeth in Boulder’s Deviant Spirits Distillery on March 8. The show was scheduled to run on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays for three weeks.

Cancellation was “heartbreaking,” she says. “It was a very magical production. We were getting audiences of 30 to 35 people”— in other words, full houses.

Community support for the new company was strong. The Distillery did not charge any rental fee, instead taking half the door, and has built a stage Misfits can use permanently. Three thousand dollars' worth of costumes were donated by Theatrical Costumes, Etc. — “and they’re gorgeous,” says Tuckman. The Denver Center loaned the company lights and helped install them. “It was all incredibly generous. On a small budget, we were able to produce a pretty professional show."

Still, “I haven’t made enough money to pay my actors, so I’m going into my savings,” Tuckman says.

She remains excited about the momentum created by the truncated production, and hopes to remount Macbeth, with a tentative opening date of May 24.

“All the actors want to return if we can put this back up," she says. "People were talking about getting it into the classroom. We have $2,000 of purchased tickets, and I don’t know if people are going to donate that — but I want them to get something out of it.”

Misfits is intended to present the kind of work not currently being done in Boulder, Tuckman says, and “I do feel the community has rallied around us. If we can continue, I would really like to keep going. We still have the costumes.”

We're interested in hearing what local theaters are doing to offset losses, both financial and creative. Send thoughts, ideas, online offerings and events to [email protected]
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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