The first production that Kent Thompson directed after becoming artistic director at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Company in 2005 was Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. It’s a notoriously difficult play, a dark, problematic comedy. The amiable Duke of Vienna turns over his authority to the puritanical Angelo and leaves to wander the land in disguise. Angelo promptly begins enforcing terrible punishments for fornication and sentences a young man, Claudio, to death for sleeping with his betrothed.
When Claudio’s sister, Isabella, an initiate at a nunnery, comes to Angelo to beg for her brother’s life, he abruptly falls from grace and proposes a devil’s bargain: He’ll pardon Claudio if Isabella will sleep with him. She furiously refuses, then visits Claudio in prison, brushes off his desperate pleas and tells him to prepare for death.
So in addition to dealing with the play’s complex weave of themes — sin, mercy, forgiveness, justice — a director has to humanize this unlikable heroine. Thompson succeeded brilliantly, creating a thoughtful, radiant production with Ruth Eglsaer — a young talent whose passion and magnetism mesmerized the audience — as Isabella. In subsequent years, his A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It also ranked among the best Shakespeare productions seen in this state in years.
Thompson announced his resignation January 5; he will remain with the company through March 3 and direct Lucas Hnath’s The Christians, which opens January 27. (Lauren Gunderson’s The Book of Will, staged by guest director Davis McCallum, opens this week.) Thompson is working on a book, and says he will serve as adviser for the DCPA through the end of the theater season.
Measure for Measure was a logical choice for Thompson, whose father was a Southern Baptist preacher, a man concerned with values and a deep believer in the idea of racial equality. Isabella, Thompson once pointed out, is “in her own way a religious fundamentalist,” but also “a very bright, smart woman who can argue theology with Angelo. And she is perhaps the only person in the play who shows mercy.”
Thompson shares his father’s concern with issues of race and inclusivity. One of his primary achievements at the DCPA has been the Women’s Voices Fund, which supports the work of women playwrights. The company has produced many plays by women, several on commission, and employed many female directors. Thompson has also showcased minority playwrights and encouraged colorblind casting. When regular theater-goers saw Bob Cratchit’s African-American wife in this year’s Christmas Carol, it was surely no surprise to them.
Thompson’s annual New Play Summit has helped put Denver on the artistic map, too. For two days in February, the building buzzes with theater people from around the state and across the country.
Playwrights, both established and new, are given time and encouragement to develop new scripts, which then receive staged readings. Every year a couple are chosen for full production; this process has yielded Jason Grote’s astonishing 1001, Samuel D. Hunter’s award-winning The Whale, Octavio Solis’s Lydia, and Ken Weitzman’s vigorous The Catch, which deserved far more national attention than it got.
Thompson isn’t talking much about the reasons for his departure, but he has no problem sharing favorite memories and proudest accomplishments at the DCPA, including “the Latino/a audiences from Denver and Colorado that came to Just Like Us [an adaptation of Helen Thorpe’s book about four Mexican girls]; Kemp Powers’s play One Night in Miami; Nataki Garrett joining the company as associate artistic director [Garrett came on board just a week ago]; Marcus Gardley’s black odyssey; the laughter at Richard Montoya’s American Night: The Ballad of Juan Jose.” And then there was “Israel Hicks’s smile” when the center completed August Wilson’s ten-play cycle, which former artistic director Donovan Marley had started — with Hicks directing all ten.
Thompson also proudly recalls directing Hamlet for audiences of sixteen- to twenty-year-olds, who saw lead actor Aubrey Deeker as a rock star; and a stunner of a production of Sweeney Todd with Robert Petkoff and Linda Mugleston that utilized the talents of Denver band DeVotchKa. And “watching...follow-on productions in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Receiving the [Building Audiences for Sustainability] grant award letter from the Wallace Foundation. Watching Charlie Miller and Emily Tarquin and so many more create [the site-specific and experimental] Sweet & Lucky. Seeing student audiences watch Lord of the Flies with passion, surprise, connections and emotion — immediately seeing the world around them in this play. Then watching adult audiences walk in with fear and anxiety. We see that play now as a cautionary horror story about the world we’ve created for our children and grandchildren.”
And then there was “Don Seawell’s sly smile when he told me how exciting it was that I was directing King Lear,” Thompson says of the late, legendary DCPA founder. “He only asked that I direct a better version than the one he produced last. He tossed the Playbill down in front of me: It was the internationally acclaimed Royal Shakespeare Company production starring Paul Scofield and Diana Rigg!”
Among the favorite plays he’s directed, Thompson lists the trilogy he commissioned based on Kent Haruf’s novels Plainsong, Eventide and Benediction: “Working with Kent Haruf and [playwright] Eric Schmiedl on these quintessential eastern Colorado and American stories...and [among the cast] Mike Hartman, Philip Pleasants, John Hutton, Kathleen McCall.... All of my in-laws who grew up with Kent Haruf and his brothers on the eastern plains.... Oh, and that astonishing water-chute scene, with three women and a girl slinging that water in their hair.”
It was no accident that the second play Thompson took on in his first season was Feydeau’s A Flea in Her Ear — a farce as wildly funny as Measure for Measure is shadowed. Actor, director and fight choreographer Geoffrey Kent, who has worked with Thompson for years, sees comedy as his great strength: “There’s something about the way he knows how to time comedy that’s fabulous,” Kent says. “The lovers’ quarrel in Midsummer was rehearsed and rehearsed — how long should the guys kiss each other before the women notice? — because rehearsing it brought Kent joy. And every time the scene was rehearsed, it grew funnier.”
The Denver Center plays a huge role in the local theater ecology, seeding the area with actors and directors, disseminating expertise. Stephen Weitz, co-founder with his wife, Rebecca Remaly, of the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Collective, periodically directs at the Denver Center. Thompson “was instrumental in helping me hone my craft as a young actor and teaching me what it meant to be a professional,” Weitz says. “As a director, he taught me how to deal with actors, the tech, the process. I still always look to him as a resource on things like how to manage your board and other administrative facets. I’m incredibly grateful for everything he’s done for me over the years.” It will be hard to find a new artistic director who possesses both Thompson’s administrative skills and his artistic vision, he adds.
Of course, over the years, there have been productions that fizzled. Sadly, the acting company Thompson inherited was disbanded on his watch — no doubt because of economic pressures. These days, the leads tend to come from New York, and if you encounter an actor who knocks your socks off, don’t get too attached: You may never see him or her again.
There’s no telling what direction the company will take now. Over the past year, the DCPA has seen a fair amount of churn: President and CEO Scott Shiller resigned in May after only a year on the job; Janice Sinden, former chief of staff for Mayor Michael Hancock, took over in August. The announcement of Thompson’s resignation says just this: “In the coming weeks, DCPA executive staff and theater company leaders will create a transition team, which will develop an interim plan as we embark on a national search for a new artistic director.”
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“He cared,” Weitz says of Thompson. “He was invested.”
“I always enjoyed being in a room with him,” says Geoffrey Kent. “His passion for theater was always present.”
What will Thompson miss least? “Oh, of course, all the meetings and planning and budgets and spreadsheets and details and grant writing and more — necessary parts of the job, but also overwhelming.”
But he’s equally clear about the things he’ll miss. “All the people who helped make theater: It’s the most improbably collaborative, creative, real-time, live and on-time delivery industry in the United States."