After reading Nia Vardalos’s stage adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s best-selling book Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life From Dear Sugar, Firehouse Theater Company board president and artistic leader Helen Hand knew her theater needed to mount a production.
“Given the difficulties of the past few years, we are in sore need of hope that’s not flowery or unrealistic,” Hand says. “You can’t change the facts of what happened before, but you can change your story about it, and that’s what the play is about. It’s not denying facts, but instead encouraging people to change their story.”
The honest story landed with Hand, who is no stranger to turning a bad situation around. Firehouse Theater Company was founded by her brother, John Hand, who started Colorado Free University in 1987 and bought the Lowry Firehouse for the school in 1999. According to his sister, he always intended to convert the space into a theater. But in 2004, when he was working on opening the company’s first play, Arthur Miller's The Ride Down Mt. Morgan, John was robbed and stabbed to death.
“There were a lot of people who were involved with the nascent theater company who wanted to keep his legacy alive,” Hand says. “I don't have a background in theater except for enjoying it, but I wanted to support them. So we formed an official 501(c)3 organization and mounted the show that he had wanted to put on. I was a boardmember for a while and became president as my confidence grew. I see my role as the master enabler, shining a light on the creative work of people who come to the theater and want to do beautiful work.”
Nineteen years later, Hand remains at the helm of the organization founded by her brother, dedicated to his mission of producing theater on the campus he built. For the company’s first show of 2023, Hand wanted something that didn’t shy away from the darker parts of reality but would offer audiences an uplifting message.
Tiny Beautiful Things echoes real questions Strayed received while she was working as an anonymous advice columnist for online literary magazine The Rumpus. She began writing as “Sugar” for the publication on March 11, 2010, taking over duties from her friend and the column's creator, Steve Almond. The column, “Dear Sugar,” gained viral attention for Strayed’s candid replies and pithy observations about readers' problems.
Strayed balances her searing honesty with deep empathy, which helped her provide advice for those seeking guidance on obstacles of all sizes. As she famously stated in a 2012 interview with the New Yorker, “I’ve always written the column as if I were a naked woman standing in a field showing you everything but her face."
Strayed kept her identity hidden and worked without pay; it was only as the column was wrapping up in February 2012 that she revealed she was Sugar. In July 2012, she released Tiny Beautiful Things, a collection of her "Dear Sugar" essays; the book debuted in fifth place on the New York Times Best Seller List in the advice category, and has gained worldwide recognition.
The book resonated with Canadian actress and writer Nia Vardalos, who adapted it into an acclaimed stage play that opened to rave reviews in 2016 at the Public Theater in New York. Strayed has frequently revisited the character for podcast appearances and serves as an executive producer on an upcoming television adaptation of Tiny Beautiful Things starring Kathryn Hahn that is slated to premiere on Hulu on Friday, April 7.
Hand was familiar with Strayed from her previous book, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, which was made into a feature film; she read Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life From Dear Sugar on her daughter’s recommendation, and later read Vardalos's play adaptation. And as she was putting together the theater's 2022-2023 season, Hand couldn’t get the story out of her head.
“I was looking for plays that fit the mission of Firehouse Theater Company,” Hand says. “We put on plays that enable audiences to enter the experience of others — stories that put you in the shoes of others and grow people’s empathy without being preachy or making people want to slit their wrists in the theater. I read this play and thought it was stunning. And after reading it, I knew no one else could direct this besides Peter [Hughes], because it just aligned so much with the work he does.”
Hand met Hughes when she was looking for someone to direct Firehouse’s 2016 production of The Crucible. Lorraine Scott, local director and theater instructor at Metropolitan State University of Denver, suggested she reach out to Hughes for his expertise.
“For that show, Peter came to meet with the board but had this terrible cold,” Hand recalls. “Even still, his sickness couldn’t stop his light from shining.”
Following their successful collaboration on The Crucible, Hughes directed The Miracle Worker for Firehouse in 2017 and The Christmas Spirit in 2018. During their artistic work together, Hand and Hughes also realized that his background as a life coach and workshop leader complemented the mission of CFU, which led to Hughes's teaching workshops at the university.
Hughes remembers Hand asking if he would be interested in directing something this season for Firehouse, and read Vardalos’s script at her behest on a plane ride to Louisville, Kentucky.
“As I read the last line of the script, I knew this play was mine,” Hughes recalls. “It was almost freakish how much of the material was sometimes word for word right out of my workshops, teachings and book At-One-Ment: Reclaiming Our Humanity. This came to me at the perfect time, and I just knew I could do it justice. It's a lovely piece to read that invites the audience to experience it on all levels — intellectual, emotional, mental, physical and spiritual. So it was a real gift to be able to take on this piece as a director.”
Although Hughes had actors in mind for the characters, he was glad Firehouse held open auditions, because more than 45 people showed up, including several who had never auditioned before. For the three letter-readers, the team settled on Matt Hindmarch, Adrienne Martin-Fullwood and Joey Torrison.
But Hand and Hughes ran into an interesting dilemma when casting the lead role, Sugar.
“I had two actresses, Lisa Kraai and Kelly Uhlenhopp, that I was considering for the role of Sugar,” Hughes says. “They were very distinct in their style, process and track record. It’s not that I couldn’t choose — I needed both. So we came up with the idea to alternate the role so they both get a run. It’s the chance to create a show with both of these actresses, which is a huge gift for Firehouse, me as a director and the audience. It’s two whole unique representations, so people really should come to see it twice.” You can find the dates for each actress's performance on the Firehouse website.
Meanwhile, the crew has been hard at work transforming Firehouse’s space into one that represents both Sugar’s home and the ether of the internet. An interesting directorial challenge for Hughes was figuring out how to create connection between the actors, even though none of their characters are ever in the same physical space.
“For the staging of it, I had to create two environments: Sugar’s world, which is grounded and tangible, and then the letter writers' world, which had no sense of reality,” Hughes says. “It took everything inside me not to howler-monkey scream when I learned who was on the show’s crew, because I was just so excited. The production team has been essential to the process of creating a sacred space for the audience to engage in this experiential, informative, inspirational and transformative play.”
In the end, Tiny Beautiful Things encourages audience members to embrace their humanity, Hughes says.
“The story of the show is about how to be with yourself authentically,” he explains. “Most people aren't afraid of failing; they're afraid of succeeding. Failures are familiar. We all know how to be uncomfortable with the human experience. This play invites us to be comfortable with our human experience so that we can thrive.”
Tiny Beautiful Things, Saturday, February 25 through March 25; Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m., the John Hand Theater, 7653 East First Place, Denver. Get tickets and more information at firehousetheatercompany.com.