In 1998, Daniel Connell and Patrick Payne founded Spotlight Theater and began living up to their motto of helping audiences forget their worries and escape their lives for a night of fun at the theater. The first production was the Mary Chase classic Harvey, which was performed in the basement of a Presbyterian church in Westminster.
Soon Spotlight packed up and moved into the community room of Front Range Community College and then into a space on Colfax Avenue and Kipling Street in Lakewood before moving to the John Hand Theater in Lowry in 2010 and spending its golden years there.
“Every time we move, we move into a better and more theater-specific space,” Connell says. “I knew John. I brought Pat to meet him, and we negotiated to become the other tenant there for John Hand, and we’ve been there since 2010.”
After twenty years and over 75 productions of comedies, dramas, farces and mysteries, Spotlight Theater will take its final bow after its production of George Kaufman and Moss Hart’s You Can’t Take It With You, playing weekends through September 29.
The announcement came on June 6, when artistic director and producer of eleven years Bernie Cardell penned and published a letter announcing to patrons that the theater would close. The reasons cited: time and money.
Not surprisingly, the cost of putting on a play in 2018 is very different from what it was twenty years ago. Spotlight’s rent had increased by roughly 40 percent over the past ten years, and Cardell says royalties for plays have gone up.
“You used to be able to perform a published play for $50 per performance,” Cardell recalls. “Now that cost is $100 to $125 per performance.”
Connell adds that Spotlight never got ahead with its profits. Whatever money was made from one production would go directly into the next.
“We never went into the red, which I think is more than some companies can say,” Connell says. “While we did build a strong patron base and a strong ticket base, you still weren’t getting quite ahead.”
Connell and Cardell note that in addition to putting on shows, the theater's boardmembers all worked nine-to-five jobs. Cardell was also directing and producing shows for Vintage Theatre, where he ultimately decided to focus his efforts.
“There were a number of us who were getting older. And some of us who are younger; two of our members have families,” Connell explains. “In fact, one of the ladies is expecting. So it was kind of like we were running out of people.”
Besides Connell as president and Cardell, the board of directors included Katie Mangett, Luke Rahmsdorff-Terry and Molly Turner.
“For me personally, I am terribly sad to lose my theater family and home,” says Katie Mangett, who has been a Spotlight actor and director since the 2011-2012 season. “But I know this opens opportunities up for all of us throughout Denver and for other theaters to make the John Hand Theater their home.”
When Spotlight takes its final curtain call, new beginnings will unfold. Cardell will continue to produce and direct plays at Vintage Theatre. Mangett will direct A Christmas Carol Radio: The Radio Show for Vintage, Outside Mullingar for Firehouse Theater in March 2019 and Laughing Stock for the Evergreen Players in fall 2019. Connell, who plays Grandpa in You Can't Take It With You, will take some time off for the holidays and then continue to act in plays for other theaters, including Vintage.
“We loved being of service to our community,” Cardell says. “Providing entertainment that has allowed people to forget their worries and escape for a night of fun has allowed us to do the same.”
Since profits were low and the board members had other pursuits, what kept Spotlight open for all these years? Connell smiles and says it was a labor of love on the part of the cast and crew.
“If [patrons] love you and appreciate you and tell you that by either telling you that or by buying tickets or bringing friends or groups, you want to keep doing that,” Connell says. “It’s a win-win situation. We always wanted to keep it going, and of course you didn’t know where it was going to go.”
Spotlight was a family, Connell says.
Cardell remembers the curtain call for The Foreigner during the 2014-2015 season. “Our associate artistic director, Luke Rahmsdorff-Terry, proposed to our resident costumer, Susan, in front of the sold-out crowd,” Bernie says. “It was an amazing night.”
For every opening night of a show, the actors and staff would celebrate with an opening-night party. Daniel Connell always delivered a toast.
“One of the things I say in the toast, I tell actors, ‘You are immensely talented people,’ and they are,” Connell says. “‘You will work in many places in your career. If you ever want to come to a place that cares about you as much as you care about your work, come to Spotlight Theater.’ And I have never yet made it through that toast without tearing up.”
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.