Miners Alley Playhouse is the latest Front Range theater company to join the actors' labor union, a decision embraced by executive director Len Matheo.
Matheo is that rare phenomenon: a businessman who thinks like an artist — or perhaps an artist who thinks like a businessman. He and his wife, Lisa DeCaro, now president of the Miners Alley board of directors, took over the small, welcoming theater in Golden in 2013 and launched their first season a year later. Since then they’ve mounted productions that ranged from a raunchy, full-scale Cabaret, artfully designed to fit the intimate playing space, to last month's gently touching Our Town; attracted a devoted audience; and collected several awards. Now they’re taking the next step: becoming an Actors Equity Union theater.
In applying for membership, Matheo was in large part thinking of the well-being of his actors: If an actor gets an Equity contract, the theater will pay a certain amount weekly toward health benefits and a pension. “We’re contributing to the giant organism that is Actors Equity,” he says, “and also helping make sure that actors everywhere are getting insurance.”
For an actor to earn an Equity card, he or she must accumulate a certain number of points, a benefit that Miners Alley will now be able to offer.
There are perks for the theater itself, too. Although Denver is rich with non-Equity talent, becoming an Equity house gives the theater more leeway and a broader pool of actors from which to draw. “For me, the quality of our shows is dependent on hiring the best talent,” Matheo says, noting that Miners Alley will now be more attractive to both local Equity actors and others from out of town.
Some things won’t change. Miners Alley has a strong reputation as a warm and friendly place for both actors and audiences; Matheo says he’s been asked if the atmosphere will now become more formal. Just the opposite, he explains: “All that changes is people will make more money and have the ability to get health insurance. It opens things up to even more.”
Based on size and the number of seats, Miners Alley will be designated as a Small Professional Theatre (SPT) Level One. Other metro Denver companies have Equity status, including the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, Curious Theatre Company, the Arvada Center, the Aurora Fox, the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, BETC and Local Theater Company. The addition of Miners Alley to the ranks indicates a growth of professional and quality theater in the area.
“I know this sounds like big deal,” Matheo says. “We’ve proven to ourselves we can run this business efficiently, we can raise and be responsible with money. All we’re doing in joining the union is guaranteeing we’ll pay people what they’re worth. Maybe our ticket prices will go up, but I don’t think so.”
Matheo himself used to be a professional actor working in New York, but after a divorce, he got into business. “I decided I liked making money,” he says, laughing. “I learned how to basically run a business. It’s difficult for me sometimes to have both an artistic hat on and a producer hat. The artistic hat says, ‘I want to do as I want’ and the producer: ‘How much does it cost?’”
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Part of creating value is putting on excellent work, he points out: “Your audience has to leave having had a theater experience. It’s that old saying, ‘Make ’em laugh, make ’em cry; scare the shit out of them.'”
To make sure that Miners Alley can put on that work, it's just hired a marketing and audience development director, to work on fundraising and ticket sales and help keep the theater a going concern.
One that can remain loyal to its actors. “People should be able to make a living wage considering how much their art, their talent, is giving back to the community,” Matheo says.
“I think Denver is unique in a lot of ways. There’s so much great work here. It’s a great place to live and be a performer, and if we’re helping make it better, I’m glad.”