On the morning of March 13, Denver theater lovers were preparing for an evening at the Aurora Fox Arts Center to see opening night of Sarah Ruhl’s For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday. The show is about an elderly woman who for many years played Peter Pan for children and now finds herself called back to Neverland on her birthday to puzzle out the mysteries of aging. The play was directed by Aurora Fox executive producer Helen Murray and starred one of the area’s brightest lights, Billie McBride. By afternoon, Governor Jared Polis had ordered the cancellation of all events involving gatherings of more than 250 people. The theater was shuttered; the magic had dissolved.
"When we had to close For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday, by Sarah Ruhl, only hours before opening, I felt crushed at not being able to share the work," says Murray. "This story of siblings who were mourning the loss of their father and contending with the last chapter of their own lives ends with the line 'I stayed in the theater for a little while longer. Where you don't have to grow up.' I think about that line so much these days, and how I want to bring that feeling of wonderment back into my own, and other people's, lives."
Ever indomitable, Murray — who transformed the Fox with a smart, eccentric repertoire, gusty staging and high-quality talent almost as soon as she arrived three years ago — has found a way to reopen, even as other companies, from the Denver Center for the Performing Arts to the Colorado Ballet, shut down for 2020.
The Aurora Fox’s 36th season opens with Tom Foolery: The Words and Music of Tom Lehrer, September 18 to October 11, continues with Black Nativity from November 27 to December 20, The Pavilion from January 29 to February 21, Queens Girl in the World from March 12 to April 4, and Wonderland: Alice's Rock & Roll Adventure, which runs April 23 to May 16.
We caught up with Murray to discuss the theater's plans.
Westword: Are you comfortable having people gather in this very old structure at this time?
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Helen Murray: It’s important to know that we are only able to open and be comfortable doing so because we have the support of the City of Aurora, guidance from Tri-County Health, and a personal advisor on infectious diseases. Once we had the green light from the city, we surveyed our patrons and learned that around half of them thought they’d be ready to come back before the end of 2020 provided safety measures were in place. I’ll spare you the comprehensive list of safety protocols — many of which people who have gone to grocery stores or their favorite restaurants will be familiar with — but rest assured that we’re taking the safety of our staff, our artists and our patrons very seriously. We’ll be releasing a video soon highlighting protocols and expectations.
Yes, the building is old — we’re very proud to be a historic landmark — but I’ll note we just had our HVAC system serviced, and it is very comfortably within safety guidelines.
I never realized in my line of work I would be so knowledgeable about MERV filters and rates of air return, but I am!
Our concessions center is closed; each of the shows has an approximate run time of only ninety minutes and will be presented without an intermission. Hopefully, this will make it easier for our guests to experience them without needing to visit the restroom. But of course we’ve got a plan for people who will use the facilities. Directional signage and rope stanchions should help clarify the one-way traffic patterns out of the auditorium and into the restroom line. Only two people will be allowed into each restroom at a time. There will be contact-free ticketing, distanced and low-capacity seating, and small cast sizes.
Is there any kind of tracking system in case someone does get infected?
Anyone who enters the Fox is recorded through ticketing or sign-in so that, should contact tracing be needed, we can immediately set that into action.
Your repertoire looks wonderfully original. Can you tell me a little about how you made those choices?
Revamping the season was almost like being given a creative prompt: Put together a season that speaks to the moment, allows for a budget cut, has small casts so that each cast member gets their own dressing room, can be done without an intermission, and will allow for a sense of community and hope.
Luckily, community and hope are where I tend to start from in any planning.
You begin the season with Tom Foolery: The Words and Music of Tom Lehrer. How did you choose that?
Lehrer's words are still so relevant — sadly so. But his ability to laugh at how absurd it all is lent a perfect start to the season. And Kenny Moten, our director, has really captured the signs of the times with his vision that embraces what people are going through.
Black Nativity, the second production, has been on my theatrical bucket list for so long, and I want to do it again one day with the full choir, but this intimate retelling will capture all the things I love about it — the hope we find in children, how much we will fight for our kids, the power of song to lift us up, and the unique and stunning way Langston Hughes reveals the magic of the narrative.
The Pavilion is a show I know well, having played [protagonist] Kari myself. I think of it as a modern-day Our Town, and it speaks to love, home and community in a way that will make us all wistful and hopeful about our place in each others’ lives. Caleen Sinnette Jennings's wonderful play Queens Girl in the World is funny and adventurous, and so beautifully captures an experience of growing up that will speak to many — the feeling of otherness, and the moment in youth one becomes aware of the color of one's skin.
The final offering, Wonderland: Alice's Rock & Roll Adventure, is the only show that was on the original season we had been about to announce. This version highlights how young people feel the world doesn't make sense and is out of control, and how to find confidence in who you are.
Do you have thoughts on the Black Lives Matter movement and how your work can advance it? I've noticed the Fox tends to have more Black people in the audience than most other theaters. Do you think that's because of the material, the location, the energy of the place?
Prior to the national demonstrations in support of racial equity, the Aurora Fox was known for programming that celebrated diversity. I’ve certainly tried to continue that legacy by programming shows like Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies and Miss You Like Hell. But additionally, I think it’s important for directors to stop defaulting to white actors when casting roles that don’t specifically mention race. In our For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday, the family featured Black and white actors, without any need to explain or justify casting. I think recognizing the diversity in our community and our audiences on our stage is one small way we can, and do, advance the work of organizations fighting for racial justice.
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And I hope the diversity you mention seeing in our audience means the Fox is a place where all people feel welcome and celebrated.
What do you think of as some of your primary achievements?
This pandemic would have never been something I’d accounted for in my artistic career, but it has afforded me some real perspective — about how important it is that we gather, why we need to laugh or cry together, and why we need to commune in story. I am watching as the health of our nation crumbles not just from COVID itself, but through loss of health care, depression, hopelessness, alienation. People are already choosing to gather informally because it is imperative for their mental well-being. Theaters can offer a place that is mindful and careful with current health needs as well as with their spirits. I cannot wait to bring people together again.
For tickets and more information about the five plays of the 36th season, go to the Aurora Fox website.