Long before the Denver theater world woke up to his talents, actor-director Frank Georgianna was a significant force in Boulder, where he began his work in the 1970s. His Boulder Repertory company never had a home of its own; he and his wife, Ernestine, rehearsed the actors in the basement of their house and put on plays in venues all over town: Boulder City Council chambers, the University of Colorado campus, the community room at Chautauqua, the short-lived Stage Door Theatre on what is now the Pearl Street Mall. Georgianna's approach was Method — which meant that he coaxed and bullied his actors into searching deep within themselves as they developed their characters — and his tastes were eclectic. He staged classics, new plays and musicals. When Vaclav Havel was still just a dissident playwright, long before he became president of Czechoslovakia, the Georgiannas presented three of his plays.
I remember Boulder in the '70s as a theatrical desert, enlivened only by Boulder Rep. I retain indelible mental images of some of Georgianna's lovingly produced and meticulously detailed productions, and also of Georgianna himself on the stage, his riveting presence and rich voice: as a black-leather-clad rock star in Sam Shepard's The Tooth of Crime; as the subversive cartoonist, Bela Veracek, in Howard Barker's No End of Blame, who experiences censorship in the Soviet Union and again in Britain. Cartooning, Veracek says in the script, is the lowest from of art — but it is also "a liberating instrument (that) changes the world." At the very end of the play, crippled by a stroke, Georgianna's Veracek struggled to the front of the stage. He extended a hand to the audience in a gesture that was both grasping and pleading: "Give us a pencil," he said. To me, that instant sums up Georgianna's life and work.
In 1985, Donovan Marley, who was then the artistic director of the Denver Center Theatre Company, attended Boulder Rep's production of C.P. Taylor's bittersweet play And a Nightingale Sang, at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park; afterward, he asked Georgianna to join his company. "What I noticed about the ensemble that he had put together was that all of the actors' energy was placed on telling the story," Marley says now. "Nobody was angling for attention for themselves. They listened to each other, knew what the action of the scene was, and everybody contributed to it."
Georgianna directed or acted in several plays for Marley between 1985 and 1994. "As an actor, he always searched for the unusual choice — and sometimes it was unusual enough that you would have to guide him back into what you were trying to do," Marley says, laughing. "But it was never a mundane or derivative choice. He did Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, and that stands out in my mind vividly. He was more deeply bitter at the beginning of the piece than other actors; a lot of actors won't do it because actors like to be liked. He was never afraid to go as dark and as vicious as I think Dickens had in mind."
I talked with Georgianna shortly after he began working with Marley, and he was filled with a deep. quiet joy. He had been used to building sets and worrying about every prop and item of costuming for so long, he told me, but now he was in an environment where professionals did these things, and he could concentrate solely on the work itself. In the same interview, he described seeing an old woman sitting in the audience at a New York production, opening and closing her hands in trembling anticipation of what was to come. Theater could transform both individual beings and society, Georgianna believed, and his work was deeply political, though never narrow or didactic.
Jamie Horton, for decades one of Denver's most-loved actors, remembers rehearsing Lyle Kessler's Orphans under Georgianna's direction. "He created the most incredible rehearsal environment," he says. "Safe from top to bottom, so that the risks could be really big." Horton chuckles now about Georgianna's Method approach: "We were lying on the floor together in a darkened room and breathing with each other and doing relaxation exercises. I was thinking that James Lawless, who was one of the actors, was going to walk — he was the elder statesman — but funnily enough, he really loved it."
Some years ago, Ernestine Georgianna developed Alzheimer's. She was a Freudian analyst with a love of books, theater and ballet, and she'd first met Frank when he was a broke young actor and snuck into a New York production she was attending. As Ernestine's memory faded, Frank took devoted care of her. She died in 2003. Frank himself, having long battled cancer, followed her in death last week. He was 74.
"This was a true man of the theater," says Horton. "It was his life."
A celebration of Frank Georgianna's life and work is planned for December 4 at the Georgiannas' home, 2100 Andrew Alden Street in Longmont. For more information, call 619-985-6333.