Miners Alley Playhouse Digs Into an Uncertain Future

Len Matheo
Len Matheo Photo by Eric Weber
Len Matheo, artistic director for Miners Alley Playhouse in Golden, has been performing a complicated dance since March, hoping for in-person shows, learning about professional-quality streaming, calculating how to keep his theater team afloat. Colorado’s recent Level Red COVID-19 restrictions in multiple counties, coming soon after his announcement of the 2021 season, has made planning even more difficult.

“Everything’s getting moved around because of our move to stay at home/Code Red,” he told Westword. “Our Christmas production of Twelve Dates, which was supposed to be a live-stream/in-person show, will now only be video-on-demand. Hopefully, we will have it up and open by December 1."

In addition, Miners is offering a Broadway show, Tony Award winner Jefferson Mays’s A Christmas Carol, for which tickets — costing $50, $20 of which goes to Miners Alley — are already on sale. The streaming world premiere is November 28, and the show is available on demand until January 3. In addition, the company will present a video version of its annual production of Christmas Carol by local playwright Josh Hartwell.

For years, Miners Alley, a particularly warm and welcoming venue with a cozy lobby and a well-stocked bar, has been one of the best places to be on a cold winter evening.

Last year there was a sizzling showing of the musical Once, in which an Irish lad falls in love with a Czech immigrant, and the two puzzle out their relationship in wonderfully performed songs. Once included triple-threat performers who could all sing, act and also play different instruments.

There was Fun Home, a touching and sophisticated musical version of Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel about growing up gay, and Queen of Conspiracy a smart dive into the nature of conspiracy by Hartwell that’s particularly relevant now. Also Lungs, in which a couple struggles over the ethics of having a baby in a world humans are destroying. Lungs included killer performances by real-life couple Adrian Egolf and Luke Sorge. The 2020 season looked to be equally rewarding, until the coronavirus struck and the theater went dark.
“As you can imagine, 2020 has been a year of canceling, trying new things, pivoting back and forth, over and over again,” Matheo told Westword.

2021 looks to be just as slippery and changeable, so we caught up with Matheo to ask about his plans.

Westword: Can you tell us more about how you're dealing with all the changes you’ve had to make?

The idea of needing to have a live-stream option, as well as small-cast shows and not having a musical played an important part in picking our 2021 season. It became clear that we needed to do something different or else we couldn’t remain viable — which,  in our nonprofit world, means just breaking even, or not losing too much money. So the focus is on homegrown work. Not just from the playwrights, but also the new and developing audio and video work of our technical staff.

When it became clear that live streaming was here to stay, at least for most of 2021, there was a race in the theater publishing world to find a way to do that where they, in their words, “protected the rights of the copyright holders.” I'm all for that, but their solution has been to create a business platform that is just way too expensive for small theater companies such as ours, and it leaves us having to pass on their fees to our patrons. What I don’t think the publishers understand is that we can’t get patrons back into the theater by charging more.

So this year, we have three of our six plays from local playwrights: Max Posner, The Treasurer; Luke Sorge, Zen and the Art of Profit; and John Ashton, Before You Go. These three playwrights have written excellent plays, and one of the side benefits is they are much less expensive to produce — except for The Treasurer — than a play that is with a major publisher.

How will the actual productions be handled?

In our pivot to remain viable, all of them are relatively small-cast shows that we can affordably live-stream. And we are also gambling on doing Arthur Miller’s The Crucible in September of 2021, because we are hoping that by that point we will be able to have thirteen people on the Miners stage. But if we have to shift again, we will, because if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that we can be nimble and make changes on the fly if we have to.

What else can we expect from Miners in the coming year?

Another exciting aspect is that although we won’t be producing a full-fledged musical because of how expensive it is, we will continue to offer our Quarantine Cabaret Series throughout the year, curated by myself and musical director David Nehls, which is a nice treat for the audiences and the artists alike.
How hard has the ramp-up to video presentations been?

I have been diligently watching what is considered to be some of the best of the best in online theater entertainment since the beginning of the pandemic, and quite honestly, I have been disappointed. Not in the art itself, and certainly not by the courage and tenacity of the artists struggling to keep on going, but in the format. The truth is, it just isn’t satisfying theatrically for me. So when we decided in July to do music performances as opposed to plays, and we began our Quarantine Cabaret series, offered to a small, fifteen-patron, socially distanced audience, with safety protocols in place, and also live-stream it to the world, we felt that we were in a good place to start to do something rather than sitting still and just waiting.

We were smart enough to keep our videographer, Ray Bailey, on the payroll during the pandemic, and between him and the technical expertise of Jonathan Scott-McKean, Vance McKenzie and Justin Babcock, we could start learning how to live-stream and set ourselves up technically in order to do it in a satisfying way in the future. And now I can honestly say that I am quite proud of our live-streaming video work. We got a grant from the Jefferson County CARES Act of $5,000 to invest in equipment in addition to other funding.

Can you tell us about the theater’s triumphs since March, and also the uncertainties and disappointments?

The triumphs since March are that we were able to teach our summer camps outdoors at City of Golden Park. And one of the biggest triumphs of the year was the support of our patron base and the Golden community. Fifty percent of our patrons donated the cost of the tickets to their canceled shows back to the theater, while another 30 percent took a credit toward future shows. In addition, we were able to raise an unprecedented amount of money to help keep us going into the future.

As for disappointments, having to cancel the season after multiple postponements was disheartening. And seeing all of the unemployment claims letters come in from actors who’ve worked at Miners Alley left us feeling helpless for all of the performers who’ve been forced out of work in the theater community.

Are you still able to keep the staff together?

Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have been able to keep our full- and part-time staff paid, including their health insurance benefits. That is due to strong fiscal management on our end, as well as the generosity of our patrons, donors and the City of Golden, and others, including the federal government. We have also been paying every performer that has graced our stage in our Quarantine Cabaret Series.

As for 2021, it remains to be seen how long we can keep that up, but our goal — indeed, our mission — is to keep people employed.

How has the pandemic affected your views on theater and on your own role as a director?

So much to say here. Where to begin?

First, as an artist myself I, like most of my fellow artists, feel a deep sense of loss at not being able to do my craft. And I feel that live theater will never be the same again, especially the bigger theaters, such as Broadway and the behemoth regional theaters, such as the Denver Center. The business model, based primarily on serving wealthy patrons and tourists, will not be coming back soon, or at least until people feel safe again gathering in the theater.

For myself, I have a new sense of mission, beyond my own desire to create theater. And that is to help keep artists employed and to spread the message that the theater is not dead and will be back better than before. I think with our new season, focusing on local artists in the community, especially the playwrights, that we are sending a message to our patrons that any work we create here in Colorado is just as good and exciting as anything else out there in the rest of the country, including Broadway. And our work will be affordable and accessible to everyone. I think that we have an opportunity to be on the forefront and the cutting edge of a rebirth of homegrown theater, as well as classics, from the ground up.

For a full schedule, go to the Miners Alley website.
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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman