On Christmas Day 2015, Denver actor-director Geoffrey Kent proposed to actor and writer Jessica Austgen on New York's Imperial Theatre stage after a performance of Les Miserables.
Kent and Austgen had just watched the show, and Kent had planned and created the proposal scenario with the help of theatrical friends. The gesture, in its wit, planning, and romanticism, was typical of his ingenuity and the couple’s creative playfulness. The cast applauded the happy couple, both major talents in their own right.
Austgen’s comic performances often have audiences howling with laughter, and her intelligence shines through all her work; local theater-goers won’t soon forget the brilliant A Midsummer Night’s Dream that Kent directed for the Colorado Shakespeare Festival or his complex tragi-comic performance as Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet.
The two are theater royalty, a local version of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh or Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson in the halcyon days before their breakup.
Unlike most actors, Kent and Austgen seemed to have little trouble finding work. He was a regular at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival for fourteen seasons and worked as an actor and fight director for the Denver Center; Austgen has extensive teaching experience and was a teaching artist at the Denver Center. She has acted with Theatreworks, the Catamounts and the Aurora Fox. Both she and Kent have worked regularly with the Arvada Center’s Black Box Theatre, which mounted a full production of her play Sin Street Social Club.
When the COVID-19 crisis came to Colorado, the couple — like most theater people — found themselves worrying about their financial and artistic futures.
For the moment, however, they are performing in The Family Tree, a play that Austgen wrote and Kent is co-directing with Lynne Collins, the center's artistic director of plays. The production, which launched December 3, runs through December 20. In addition to Kent and Austgen, the show stars Leslie O’Carroll, Steve Wilson, Olivia Wilson, Tresha Farris, Sean Michael Cummings, Kate Gleason and Jada Suzanne Dixon.
Westword caught up with Kent and Austgen to learn more about the play and their work.
Westword: Jessica, what gave you the idea for The Family Tree?
Austgen: In late spring, Geoffrey and I did a virtual show live on Zoom for Stories on Stage. There was something about that performance — having the audience tuned into a live stream, having two actors in the same space sharing a screen, the way [Stores on Stage artistic director] Anthony Powell directed us to use the camera — that sparked some curiosity in both of our brains. Is there such a thing as digital theater? If so, what makes it theater?
And the answer seemed to have many facets: The performance must be live, an audience is essential, and there must be a way to allow the audience to impact the show without traditional in-person response like laughter or applause. And the script needed to embrace the fact that we’re doing the play on Zoom.
Both Geoffrey and myself have been involved in readings or recorded performances during the pandemic, and it’s frustrating to perform in a tiny Zoom box and pretend that you're elsewhere. In-person theater is magical and invites the imagination to engage, but we’re taught to take screens literally, so anything that’s on a screen is expected to be more real than a piece that’s happening in person. Basically, we can’t pretend we’re not on Zoom.
Also, the idea of exploring beyond the edges of the Zoom box is exciting. Where do characters go when they’re off-screen? What do we get to see of their homes? Who else is there? Will a cat pop into the frame? We tried to embrace the world outside of the Zoom window in order to fully realize the world of the play.
Is the play in any way autobiographical?
I didn’t intend that, but oh, boy, is it hard to avoid pulling from real life when characters were created to be in the actors’ own homes, wearing their clothes, acting with members of their actual households. The play turned out to be quite true to life, and I definitely pulled ideas from my own family’s holiday traditions and unique infrastructure: I come from a big family full of half-siblings, second husbands and step-parents that is very into the holidays and pretty rowdy about it. Grandpa used to dress up as Santa Claus on Christmas Eve to surprise the grandkids; Grandma had decorations that we all loved; there was always a certain kind of cookie that we only made at Christmas. So this play is a little bit of a love letter to my family, and the big holiday celebrations that we can’t have this year.
How is this show for you, Geoffrey?
Geoffrey Kent: Working on this piece has meant the world to me as an artist — to know there is someone on the other end of the Internet watching us perform a short five-act holiday comedy with quick changes, a bucket full of ring lights and about 24 devices with cameras and mics between the nine of us in the cast. It feels incredible to create and, more importantly, to share.
Can you tell us just a bit about how all this works technically, and what the audience can expect?
Austgen: The show is live each night. It was important to the concept that we rehearse, block, memorize and run the show just as if we were doing a traditional play in a theater. Many companies capture one performance and sell it streaming, but if our goal was to make online theater, as opposed to a movie, then it had to be live. Plays grow during their run. Performances get deeper and richer.
Each actor is performing live from their home each night on the Zoom call. When Kate Gleason pops on that call toward the end of act one, she’s really in her house at that very moment, turning on her mic and camera and saying those lines. You’re in your house and Kate is in her house, but we’re all together in this weird little virtual theater space we’ve created.
Our stage manager, Christine Moore, is calling the show from her home, watching the cast on three monitors. Some actors stick with one device — an iPad — whereas others have multiple devices active, and each actor is also logged into Zoom on their phone as a backup device. It is technologically challenging, and Christine had to learn an entire new way of stage managing in order to make this thing work. She’s amazing.
The show starts on a family Zoom call and returns to that format for the middle and end of the play. In between those big group scenes, however, are scenes set simultaneously in three breakout rooms that follow individual characters, and the audience is assigned to a character in each of those acts. If the audience member has the most recent version of Zoom, they are allowed to change their breakout room and choose which character to follow.
Jessica — you’re an actor and a playwright. Can you talk about how the two modalities interact for you? Does writing influence your acting, and vice versa?
Austgen: These two facets of my career are totally symbiotic. I’ve become a better actor since I started writing, and I believe I approach playwriting from an actor-forward point of view. Do people really talk like this, what does this character want, do these two characters have a solid relationship, etc. I think I tend to write more ensemble pieces, because character is more interesting to me than plot.
Please tell us what happened to your careers after the theaters closed in March.
Kent: Honestly, spring-summer-fall was a massive challenge. We lost a year’s worth of scheduled income between us in a matter of days. No amount of savings is equipped to carry you through a pandemic that eliminates your industry almost completely. I took the time to have surgery to rehab an ankle injury.
I found myself with my first summer off since I was a teenager, but broke, immobile and with limited activities due to pandemic restrictions anyway. So a lot of reading, devouring online media, hate scrolling politics and trying and often failing to find a revenue source for my “unique set of skills."
Austgen: I’ve been teaching online, doing private coaching for youth actors and teaching some classes at Rise Comedy and Denver School of the Arts. The DSA community came through for me really hard this year, with parents and faculty making sure I was okay and employed. I am so grateful to that community, and I’m so lucky to have those folks in my life.
When the pandemic hit, we were both about to open Small Mouth Sounds at the Arvada Center, which would have been the third and final show of the spring rep. Each of us had a summer Shakespeare gig lined up, and we both had also just booked fall jobs that would have taken us safely into October. For the first time in my acting career, I felt stable and not terrified. And then coronavirus hit, and all of that crumbled. No acting jobs, my insurance was set to expire in April 2021 if I couldn’t accrue work weeks before January 2021, and all of our side hustles were theater-adjacent: teaching, directing educational theater, Geoff adjudicating fight tests at schools. All of it gone.
Could you tell us more about the famous proposal?
Austgen: Geoff managed — through a friend of a friend of a friend — to get in touch with Caissie Levy, who was playing Fantine in the revival of Les Miserables, and would soon be known to Denver audiences as Elsa in Disney’s stage production of Frozen — and she agreed to get us backstage after the show so he could execute Operation: Engagement on the Barricade.
Now, we’re lucky enough to know a handful of Broadway performers, and we’ve gotten to go backstage after a lot of shows, but we most definitely did not know anyone in the cast of Les Miz, so no backstage at the barricade for us. Or so I thought. After the show ended, Geoff steered me toward the exit that led toward the stage door. “In case you want to get any autographs,” he explained. Now, I did not want to get any autographs, because I’m a grown adult and way too introverted and embarrassed to lurk around the door like a teenaged thespian, but he insisted.
I was mortified, positive that Geoff was going to try to bluff his way backstage and we’d be turned away by security and shamed in front of all the Amis de l’ABC in the show. But instead, the security guard found our name on the list and said, “Oh wonderful, Mr. Kent. You’re guests of Caissie. Right this way.”
Then we were backstage, an assistant stage manager leading us past a group of fur-coat-wearing women clustered around the dressing-room door of Ramin Karimloo, who played Jean Valjean, and onto center stage, where Caissie Levy greeted us like old friends and insisted she take our picture center stage. Before I knew what was happening, Geoff’s phone was in her hands, and she was recording as he dropped to one knee —between the ghost light and the door for Number 55 Rue Plumet — and proposed. Other cast members and their guests were clustered around and applauded. And that’s how we got engaged.
So it went off perfectly?
Kent: Well, I sized her ring off a ring in her drawer. Which was a toe ring.
Can you tell me what you’ve been doing since the pandemic hit — how it’s affected you both, what you’ve learned, what’s driven you nuts or to despair, if it’s made you wonder now and then who you’d be and what you’d do if you had to lead a life outside theater — which I’m assuming won’t happen?
Austgen: I think I’ve learned that the world is smaller than we think it to be; we are all responsible for ourselves and can’t control others, but that doesn’t mean we should disregard them. I’ve learned that our apartment is our home, and that it’s important to have a safe home base to land. A job or company doesn’t love you. People do.
It’s okay to take a break and take care of yourself. It’s okay to play video games for eight hours a day sometimes. Geoffrey and I have been playing a lot of World of Warcraft — let’s be honest.
I often think about what I would do if I had to lead a life outside of the theater, and I know I would still be creative. I really like freelancing and being in control of my own schedule and workload. I’d probably find a way to still write, and I would still have to do something involving public performance — podcasting or comedy. I expect that theater will take a hit for several years after this, and I will probably need to continue to look for work outside of that field, so I’ve started writing a pilot, and I’m working on a novel. I’ve developed a one-woman show for cabaret theater or comedy festivals.
Basically, I think artists will have to be scrappy and make their own work, so if I can’t get a company to hire me in a traditional way, then I need to make my own opportunity.
Any deep new thoughts about the importance of theater, of art in general?
Kent: I find, for truly the first time, a sense of community with professional sports fans. I deeply miss the shared experience of creating something and building energy of those that watch it. I know shared events are quite honestly an important part of what makes us feel human, from political protests to touchdowns to curtain calls.
My gut says theater will return with strength when we feel safe to gather. But exploring what Zoom can do tells me there is room for online live performance to continue to afford an opportunity to performers, designers and audiences to connect visually and have a moment together. It gives me hope for the communal human experience.
The Family Tree takes place at 7 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays until December 23. For more information and tickets, which start at $20, go to the Arvada Center website.
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.