After an eight-year run, the Edge Theater is leaving Colorado. Founders Rick and Patty Yaconis are moving to Chicago for new opportunities and to be with family, and with their departure, some of the vitality leaks out of the Front Range art scene.
Every theater company has its own personality and its own strengths, and there has always been a particular kind of warmth and energy to this small Lakewood theater. Over the years, a few of the productions were slight, some were very ambitious, and some were out-and-out killer terrific — but everything was produced with care, artistry and energy, evenings at the theater were always enjoyable, and the company built a loyal and passionate audience.
The choice of material was eclectic: There were small, funny plays like Mud Blue Sky, about off-duty flight attendants and the difficulties of the job; major and very different dramas, including Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem and a chilling Medea, dominated by an extraordinary performance by Karen Slack in the title role. We saw such risky ventures as The Nance, about the smirking, effeminate character often featured in 1930s burlesque. There was also Moira Buffini’s savagely comic Dinner, an esoteric choice appealing to those who get drunk on concept, language and metaphor. And perhaps most difficult of all: the Edge’s first and only musical, Murder Ballad, which required Rick Yaconis to figure out how to stage a complex piece that included dance, singers, and a small on-stage orchestra in a cramped space with an immovable pole in the center.
Yaconis picked his shows for entertainment value, though that didn’t mean unchallenging crowd-pleasers; for him, a difficult emotional play was entertaining if it fixed attention, provoked thought or left an audience just plain knocked out. “I wasn’t out to make statements,” Yaconis says. “It’s about the audience being involved.”
“Rick and Patty had a very clear vision of what kind of theater they wanted to do, and they did it with no apologies,” says actor-director Warren Sherrill, co-founder with Michael Stricker of the now-defunct Paragon Theatre. “As we all know, producing and creating theater is no easy feat. ... It demands collaboration and vision, but many times the vision can be lost or muddied due, ironically, to the collaborative part. You must choose your collaborators delicately and wisely, and that is what Rick and Patty did. They knew that it wasn't about them; it was about the Edge and the audience, and I admired that so much.”
Great theater requires great participants, and Yaconis had a knack for bringing in and nurturing top talent. It’s hard for actors to find regular work in Denver, and some of our brightest stars appear on stages far too infrequently. Until she connected with the Edge, this was true of Emma Messenger, the kind of actor you can’t take your eyes off even if all she’s doing is reading a grocery list. Messenger’s work at the Edge included roles as different as an enraged, vicious and resentment-simmering Irish mother in The Beauty Queen of Leenane, Annie Wilkes in Misery, and gossipy, hyper-powerful Hollywood agent Sue Mengers in I’ll Eat You Last.
“Any success that I have today I have to attribute in large part to Rick,” says Messenger, who’s now in demand at other top local theaters. “It wasn’t just that he cast me; it was the roles he cast me in, the roles of a lifetime, one after another — just gorgeous, deep roles that stretched you, made you a better performer. It was such a gift.”
She laughs. “We would fight, terrible vicious brawls, but in a healthy kind of familial way. It was safe, to be honest, to be yourself because you felt treasured. Patty was a large part of that. She was so kind. Every show, flowers for opening night, little touches that made all the difference. They were like hosts; it was like being invited to a dinner party with your favorite people.”
Though she’s delighted with her upcoming roles, Messenger adds that if the Yaconises weren’t leaving, “I would have stayed at the Edge for the rest of my life.”
Missy Moore, who’s both acted and directed at the Edge, echoes many of Messenger’s observations. “The beautiful thing they created is that they allowed artists to cross borders,” she says. “And they were a force in this community.”
After the closing of Paragon in 2012, Sherrill did little theater work. Getting him to act and direct at the Edge was a major coup. “Rick asked me if I was interested in directing, and after I had seen their production of The Beauty Queen of Leenane, I was very interested,” he says. “We both came with a handful of ideas and soon discovered that Jerusalem was on both of our lists. It was that show that got me excited enough to jump back in.”
Paragon’s history in some ways parallels that of the Edge: a small company that consistently produced excellent work and was held aloft by passion and long hours of unpaid work, but ultimately just couldn’t keep going.
“I think people don't realize how much work really goes into it,” says Sherrill. “It's not just putting up shows; it's marketing, managing a box office, managing multiple types of people, managing the space, writing grants, shmoozing for donations. Like Michael Stricker and I, Rick and Patty never took a paycheck, so there's also your full-time job on top of all this. It catches up with you eventually.
“You need a solid infrastructure of people, whether you call it your company or ensemble or simply volunteers," Sherrill continues. "You need people with the same passion, people who will be there to unclog the toilet in the lobby during the middle of the show, or someone to attend an event to represent your theater. Rick and Patty were so about not tasking people too much, and so they would take care of most things, and this, I feel, led to total burnout — though they still have a huge passion for theater.”
The loss of the Edge raises a lot of questions about how healthy the atmosphere in Denver is for small companies. Many, including the Edge, express gratitude for the funding they receive from the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District, but that money is very unevenly distributed, with most of it going to five major institutions. Rents across the Front Range are high, and getting higher. Yaconis has been renting the Lakewood space; he invested his own money to build out the theater.
Running a company “seems less troublesome in other cities like Chicago,” according to Sherrill, “but I think there is different support there. I really don't see why there aren't more shared spaces here that can house three or four companies with an umbrella-type board that manages the place.”
Some directors speak of the loss of media coverage and reviews, and the difficulty of getting word out about their work.
“I do think it is very hard to grow your audience without major funding that allows for better marketing, better spaces,” says Sherrill. I don't think audiences expect bigger, more elaborate shows, but I think they would like the overall experience to be a nicer one. Pleasant lobby, nice seating, air conditioning — all things we have come to expect when shelling out $30 or more for a ticket. All this takes money, and most money is going toward barely being able to pay actors and designers a decent stipend or production costs.
“I enjoyed working at the Edge, especially because of the parallels between it and Paragon,” Sherrill adds. “Our goal at Paragon was to provide the best experience possible for our audience and for our artists, and the Edge definitely achieved that. I also saw much of Michael and I in Rick and Patty — wanting to please everyone, taking on way too much at one time.”
“They put their heart and soul into it,” comments Messenger. “It was their child. You felt that.”
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Yaconis is optimistic about starting his theatrical life in Chicago, where he also has a new full-time job. During their time in Lakewood, he and Patty both worked full-time, and while they scraped together money to pay actors, directors and technicians, they never paid themselves a dime.
“Theater was a passion on the side,” says Rick. He wants to find a space in Chicago where he can do two to four shows a year, rather than the Edge Theater’s eight, and where a handful of companies share marketing opportunities. Chicago, he points out, is a much bigger market, and “they also have a really great co-marketing program between all of the theater companies, the League of Chicago Theatres: That is something Denver does not do well."
The theater space at 1560 Teller Street is not vacant. A relatively new company, Benchmark Theatre, run by Haley Johnson and Rachel Rogers, has rented the space. Benchmark mounted its first Lakewood production, A Kid Like Jake, in February, and moved into full occupation with a second offering, The Arsonists, which opened last week.
“I feel proud that we brought in a new theater group. We transitioned it. We didn’t leave Lakewood high and dry," says Yaconis. “So the Edge is saying goodbye to Denver, but it’s saying hello to Chicago.”