Last year, Star Ilalaole had just finished her master's in journalism and was job hunting on Facebook and LinkedIn when she came across Nick Young's résumé. A veteran journalist who had worked for Fox31 for a decade, Young had experience with production, camera work and editing, as well as connections to the arts and theater community in Denver. Ilalaole reached out to Young to get his perspective and advice on a career in television, and just months later, the newly connected pair ended up founding their own production company, esSense Productions.
"I was just nonchalantly like, 'Well, I know nothing about running a business, so would you want to create one together?,' says Ilalaole. "I don't think either of us could've imagined that it would turn into a serious thing so quickly, but it did, and it just clicked and worked."
"It was pretty serendipitous," adds Young. "Star was reaching out for leads on how to get into the television industry, and I was like, 'Well, I could tell you about my experience, and I did it for ten years, and I just felt like I was getting burnt out. It wasn't giving me the opportunity to do the creative things I wanted to do.' I think that helped us figure this out, that conversation with Star, like, 'Do you want to do more creative stuff? If you want to do your own stuff, you should find a way to do it on your own.' And then we found a way to do it."
However, they couldn't have predicted what 2020 had in store for the world. As they prepared to launch their new production company, racial tensions hit a boiling point and protests swept the nation following the police killing of George Floyd.
"Star was like, 'I just think we should put this on hold. It just doesn't seem appropriate,' and I agreed," Young recalls. "That thought process, I think, is what birthed such a great idea. To make this more of an opportunity to give voices to people who need to be heard."
Inspired by the way Denver's drag community started to host shows to uplift BIPOC performers, Ilalaole decided she wanted to do something similar with esSense Productions. Together with Young, she decided to make esSense Productions a platform to amplify the voices of often overlooked and underappreciated local BIPOC performers.
For esSense Productions' first project, Young and Ilalaole created the Center Stage Series, a weekly web series featuring nine different Black Denver-based performers: Arabella Beaubrun, Krisangela Washington, Shiksa Mess, Preston Adams, Lila and Eli Harvey, Nile H. Russell, Brinie Wallace and Ronald McQueen. The idea was to give these performers complete freedom to showcase what they please: "We never wanted to have a say in any of the aspects of their performance, because often in traditional theater, you really don't have a choice but to be this role and to say these lines and to do this choreography," explains Ilalaole. "So I wanted them to just have the liberty to be free and to just pick a song that hopefully had some resonance with them as a person, and to be able to guide how they wanted it to feel, and Nick and I just wanted to be able to provide the tools we have access to, to have everyone tell their stories."
Back in August, esSense productions began releasing two weekly videos, shot at the Clocktower Cabaret under social distancing guidelines, for the Center Stage Series: a Tuesday video in which the featured weekly performer is interviewed, followed by a Friday performance video. The interview episode functions as an introduction to each performer, highlighting their humanity and talents. They chat about the Colorado theater world, their experiences as BIPOC performers, and the personal significance behind their performance videos. Each video also includes links to tip the performers or to donate to their charities of choice.
When it came to finding a host to conduct the interviews, Young and Ilalaole decided to recruit a mutual friend, seasoned Denver drag queen Miss Zarah, aka Tyrell D. Rae.
"People work really hard to get where she is, so I know she's a professional; I know that she can get the job done. For me, it was a no-brainer," says Ilalaole.
After Miss Zarah agreed to host the Center Stage Series, Young and Ilalaole decided to take the relationship a step further and ask her to co-produce the series, as well. Given her previous experience in the Colorado theater industry, as well as her shared belief in esSense's mission, she was a perfect addition to the team.
"As a person of color in the theater world, you're automatically put in a box. So it doesn't matter what kind of talent you're bringing to the table; it's really hard for performers of color to be placed outside of that box and just seen as a performer and seen for the talent that they have," says Miss Zarah. "That has always been a frustration of mine."
She was thrilled to have the chance to interview the Center Stage Series performers. "I knew a couple of them before, but not many, which was awesome," she says. "Being able to expose people to so many talented people of color was just phenomenal — just to be able to get to know these people on a more personal level. So when Star and Nick asked me if I would be interested in the project, I definitely jumped on it, because I think it's a great opportunity for performers of color to be seen for what they bring to the table."
The Center Stage Series will last eight weeks, with the last episodes released the week of October 9, but both Young and Ilalaole are hoping to release another iteration of the series before the end of the year.
EsSense Productions also wants to eventually host live, socially distanced shows, since both Young and Ilalaole come from live-production backgrounds. But for now, they're reveling in their current success.
"We pulled together resources that we did not think we were going to get, and we utilized our contacts and the people that we know, so after doing all of this, it's no question of whether or not it can be done; it's just a matter of when," says Ilalaole.
"We both just have really big dreams for things we want to do, and we're going to do them," adds Young. "We did a good job of proving to ourselves that we can do it, and we can do it really well."
The Center Stage Series can be found on the esSense Productions YouTube channel. EsSense Productions is funded by private donors, so you can also donate via Venmo @essensepro or the company's GoFundMe.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.