Like all local companies, Benchmark Theatre had to close down in March because of the coronavirus, but co-founder and producing artistic director Haley Johnson managed nonetheless to be productive. In April, with her partner, Marcus Pirozzoli, she gave birth to a son, Mason. In so many ways, this changed everything. Still, Johnson and Rachel Rogers, Benchmark co-founder and executive artistic director, were able to absorb the shock of closure, figure out how to make sure the company survives and plan for the future. Benchmark’s 2020 season will begin this fall with what the directors term “bite-size programming” that still cleaves to this year’s original theme, Hopes and Fears.
Benchmark is a relatively new company that took up residence in the Lakewood venue once occupied by Rick and Patty Yaconis’s Edge Theater. Over the past two years, Johnson and Rogers have created some memorable productions, from A Kid Like Jake, about a four-year-old boy who loves princesses and the overbearing mother determined to get him into a first-rate kindergarten, to the lighthearted period piece Parfumerie to The Quality of Life, which deals with issues of life and death with soul-penetrating honesty — and which included a fine performance from Johnson herself.
The new season starts with a workshop. On the weekends of November 14 to 15 and November 20 to 22, there will be staged readings of Luke Sorge’s new play, National Bohemians, directed by Warren Sherrill. Small audiences will be able to experience the workshop process and offer their responses and ideas.
From December 11 to 20, Benchmark will offer its annual Fever Dream Festival, presenting ten-minute genre plays with a holiday twist. The company is “inviting Colorado writers and aspiring writers to play with the Bench in a wild weekend of virtual playwriting. In this special format, writers and writing teams will have just 48 hours to take their guidelines, genre, and winter holiday prompts and create some festival magic.”
These offerings will be spaced, sanitized and in person.
National Bohemians, says Sorge, is named after a brand of beer local to Maryland and is “very loosely based on my late father and his two brothers. It's essentially about the right-to-die issue and the familial, financial and moral conflicts that can arise. It's also about Chessie, the Loch Ness Monster-esque mythical creature that lives in the Chesapeake Bay.
“This opportunity was incredible,” he adds, “and the process has been even better. Benchmark really cares about new plays and playwrights, and they do a tremendous job of supporting them. [Playwright] Jeffrey Neuman, a writer I greatly admire, shepherded the project along. Rachel Rogers maintained a commitment to the play, even throughout the pandemic, which is amazing considering the challenges facing all arts organizations.
“I really love Benchmark's work. I'm grateful to be some small part of a great theater company getting back to making great theater. I've been writing the script, in some form or another, for about a decade, but the workshop readings we did were instrumental to its development. Everyone at Benchmark is so smart and thorough, and we were lucky to get fantastic actors to come help me understand my characters better. Finally, I'm just a fan of Warren Sherrill, so any time I get to work with him is a delight. His direction is always so sensitive and thoughtful.”
Westword caught up with Johnson to learn more about how the company made it through this year's challenges, and how it will proceed.
Westword: Can you tell us what happened when you first realized you’d have to close down in spring?
Haley Johnson: We were about a week or so into rehearsals for our next main-stage production of the 2020 season, The Phlebotomist, when we realized the pandemic was as serious as it was, raging and shuttering businesses throughout the country. Like everyone else, we were glued to the news, trying to decide what the safety risks were and whether we could continue or not. It was pretty clear we needed to halt all rehearsals and put things on hold until we heard otherwise. We were luckier than some companies that were either mid-run, like Vintage; about to open, like the Aurora Fox; or further along in their rehearsal processes. We had less to lose in terms of fewer advanced tickets sold, not having to cancel performances or contact patrons, less wasted rehearsal time for our artists, etc.
How did you handle the uncertain future?
Of course, Rachel and I discussed at length how we would be able to financially keep the theater viable, considering no money was coming in. Rachel applied for every grant opportunity that was offered, but most of them had criteria that didn't fit with our nonprofit. We were eventually able to secure a federal small-business loan, which has been so helpful for overhead and program planning. We are also able to utilize it to revamp the theater for socially distanced seating renovations and sanitization. We did receive our Colorado Creative Industries grant as well, which was a nice surprise, as we imagined all local arts grants would have been put on hold.
Also, we are just incredibly fortunate to work in the 40 West Arts District and have the full support of the other arts organizations in the neighborhood, as well as the Lakewood Business Improvement District. The Lakewood BID is our landlord, and they were extremely generous in offering rent assistance throughout the spring and summer months. They knew that all their arts organizations were hurting with no income to speak of, and they went above and beyond in their support of Benchmark Theatre.
We also have an amazing season-ticket-holder base. They may be small, in comparison to the larger, longer-running theaters, but they are indeed mighty, many generously donating their remaining season subscription back to the theater. I sometimes wonder, because we are so small, that perhaps it was easier to duck our heads and ride out the storm, as our overhead isn't as hefty as the larger companies in town.
What can you tell us about this upcoming season?
We're really excited that we're still able to offer one of the programming opportunities that was on our original 2020 season. The workshop reading of National Bohemians is running two weekends, and while audience seating will look different, as well as the distancing of the actors on stage, we're so happy to still be able to continue to produce and support new, local work.
We're certainly fearful, as most seem to be, that the pandemic will take its assumed turn and spike again. We already have planned on filming our offerings so that if we need to shut down again, we can still offer them as streaming options. And it's scary to look ahead to 2021, when we still have so much uncertainty. How do we plan on future seasons when we don't know what the future even looks like for this community of artists? Normally, we would have already announced our upcoming season and opened season ticket sales. But that's not a path we can take as we look blindly ahead. Programming for 2021 will have to be something we prepare on an individual basis as we cautiously move forward, and hope that our audiences understand.
Has having a baby changed your ability to get work done?
In a weird sort of way, it was a bit of a blessing having Mason during COVID because, as everything was already shut down, it hasn't really impacted my ability or time to do my job with Benchmark. I've still been able to do as much as I can from home, considering the circumstances. I do understand and appreciate that, moving forward, my time will be focused on him first and the rest of my life — work, Benchmark, family and friends and community — second. But we have such an amazing team of artists that work diligently as Benchmark company members that I feel reassured that the work won't suffer because I have to take a small step back.
And how has Mason changed your overall perspective on life?
Little Mason. He's absolutely changed my perspective on everything. Everything else minimized when he was born, coming a month early and directly in the middle of a global pandemic, no less! He has taught me so much about myself in just these few short months. I need to let go of the little, petty insecurities and focus on the bigger picture. I need to grow my patience. And my understanding. My empathy has now intensified, especially toward other women who are tired, stressed, down on themselves, etc.
A random thought: As a woman, I've always had body image problems, and I can tell you that my body has gone through the wringer and come out in pretty bad shape on the other end. And it shows. But again, I've learned and accepted that Mason is my priority, and in the end, I can't worry what others think of me. I housed and grew a human, and I'm proud that I was capable of doing so. The extra skin and stretch marks and weight are simply battle scars that prove I did it. I can handle those for a while.
And your perspective on theater?
I wonder what he will think about having a mother in the arts. I want to teach him that the arts are vital to society— that the world would come to a grinding halt without them. No music, no literature, no dance, no self- expression. I want to raise a sensitive, empathetic, loving, kind-hearted, inquisitive little boy who will one day do something amazing for the people in his community, if not for the greater good of all. Big wishes and dreams, I realize. But he gets to start with a clean slate, and I want to give him the opportunities and tools to be a change artist. Change for the better. For the wiser. For the kinder.
As I write this, I look over to see my son sleeping and snoring, holding his favorite elephant. Every time I look at him, I think about how lucky I am. I now have a purpose that I was never able to fathom before; I have a responsibility to him and to society to teach him to be a good, good person. To do the right thing even when it feels like the hardest path to take. To be a warrior for those who aren't in a position to defend themselves. I imagine I will fail and fall plenty of times along the way, but I'm excited and terrified to start the journey.
In terms of my personal ties to the arts community, I know I will eventually miss being on stage — though if I'm being honest, it hasn't even been something I've thought about at all this year. I do miss attending shows. And I miss producing with Benchmark, so I'm happy that we're getting the engine revved back up. I know I will step on a stage again at some point, but for now, I'm perfectly happy to work behind a computer screen for Benchmark and hold my son in my arms while I do it. Priorities are funny things, aren't they?
For tickets and more information, go to the Benchmark Theatre website.
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