National Theatre Conservatory offers final showcase performances

The National Theatre Conservatory -- a training ground for young actors, and one of the jewels of the Denver Performing Arts Complex -- is closing its doors after more than 25 years. As a parting gift, the last crop of graduating students will offer showcase performances of Fahrenheit 451, which opens today, and Charley's Aunt, which starts tomorrow.

In Charley's Aunt, a venerable English farce, an Oxford undergraduate agrees to impersonate a classmate's aunt in the service of romance. "It's sort of the first Mrs. Doubtfire or Tootsie," explains Chiara Motley, who plays the late-appearing real Charley's Aunt, as well as several smaller roles in Fahrenheit 451.

Motley decided to attend the National Theatre Conservatory's MFA program for several reasons. Since only eight students were chosen each year (out of some 800 applicants), "the entire faculty would be living and breathing by your side," she says. Each student received a stipend for the entire three-year program and could enter the profession free of debt. Students also got to perform with the Denver Center Theatre Company -- which has a strong national reputation -- during their third year and to appear in a showcase for agents in New York on graduation.

Motley appreciated the challenges she found at the school. During the first year, she took a class with trapeze artist Robert Davidson that culminated in a production. "I'm not an athlete," she says. "It terrified me, and pushed me beyond my comfort zone." Second-year students had to choose a Shakespeare character, write a piece using their own words as well as Shakespeare's, and stage a thirty-minute solo. "No other school in the country asks that of you," she notes. "They were both huge benchmarks for me."

And then there were the different approaches she encountered from her acting teachers: Sabin Epstein "is like a technician, a brilliant scientist. He teaches you all the styles: Moliere, Shakespeare, Stoppard," whereas Head of Acting Larry Hecht "is a rainman, a shaman."

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Steve Jones, another graduating student, plays the lead in Fahrenheit 451, and credits the conservatory with giving him an "incredible three years. I've learned so much, grown so much. There's a certain ebb and flow to this journey, times you think you're the best actor, times you think you're no good at all. Now I feel at the pinnacle of my confidence and ability because of the amazing faculty and facilities."

His character in Fahrenheit 451 is Montag, the fireman assigned to burn all books in a future dystopia. "He endures this crisis of conscience," says Jones, "wondering, 'What is it that we're destroying?' It's harrowing for him to take the leap and defy society and his role in society."

Most conservatory graduates have gone on to work as actors, playwrights and teachers. John Behlmann, who graduated in 2006, starred in The 39 Steps in New York and is a spokesman for the national Dairy Queen campaign. Mat Hostetler had a recurring role on Boardwalk Empire, recently appeared on an episode of Smash and has been selected for the national tour of War Horse. Caitlin Wise, recipient of a Best of Denver award this year, is performing at Creede Rep and other regional theaters.

Both Jones and Motley mourn the closing of the conservatory. "The community is losing this youthful energy that infuses and infiltrates the hallways of the Denver Center," says Jones, "that wave of young talent that came through every year to shake things up."

Fahrenheit 451 and Charley's Aunt run in repertory through April 21 at the Conservatory Theatre in the Denver Performing Arts Complex. Tickets are $18. For a complete schedule, call 303-893-4100 or go to www.denvercenter.org.

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