Before Rachel Rogers decided to co-found Benchmark Theatre with Haley Johnson four years ago, she made an impression on the theater community in several roles. For Cock, produced by the Edge Theatre, she created a character Westword found “so radiant, beautiful, open and vulnerable that you want to smack John (her indecisive lover) for causing her even a second’s distress.” Then there was Sweet Storm at Miners Alley, in which the disabled young woman she movingly portrayed was sometimes as sweet as the title, sometimes storm-level angry.
For Benchmark, however, she abandoned performing for other duties, bringing a welcome skill set that included design and bookkeeping to the difficulty and travail of creating a small, independent company from scratch.
Now, however, Rogers is leaving her role as executive artistic director, and no one is happy to see her go.
“I’ll be honest,” says actor-director Luke Sorge, whose play National Bohemians was slated for production by Benchmark before COVID-19 struck. “I’m heartbroken.”
Warren Sherrill, who often directs for Benchmark, says he finds Rogers’s exit tough, “not only because she was a terrific leader, but I felt a true connection to her as a theater artist and director. I feel like we had very similar ideas on what the director’s job is and how to create theater in that intimate space. I respected her vision and always enjoyed collaborating on projects with her; sometimes I just felt like we read each other’s minds. I loved her professionalism, her honesty and her willingness to do whatever she needed to make sure she brought the best experience to the Benchmark audience — including the proverbial scrubbing of the toilets."
“Rachel has a creative fire that burns bright,” says Johnson of her partner. “She was always coming up with new and innovative ideas. Her mind was always focused on Benchmark and how to make every show, every event, every experience something for our audiences to remember. She focused on quality in everything she touched. And she carried herself with integrity.”
Johnson says that Rogers “helped mold Benchmark into what it is, and it's now my job to continue the trajectory as well as help evolve the company with new vision, new artistic sensibilities and renewed passion."
Sherrill agrees, saying that while he will sorely miss Rogers, he has faith that Johnson will carry Benchmark forward: “I’m super-excited to work with her and the new executive/artistic team. Live theater seems so far away right now, but I know when it does come back it will be stronger than ever before.”
“One of my fondest memories is from closing night of The Nether, Benchmark's inaugural production, back in 2017,” Johnson says. “Rachel and I were the last two out of the theater after striking the set and cleaning up. We walked out into the Colorado night and looked at each other and said, ‘We did it.’ We had built a partnership and a company and a business and accomplished our very first production, and it felt great. Two friends, two women in the arts. There was something satisfying and bittersweet about it all.”
So why is Rogers leaving the company where she is so loved? Was the disruption caused by COVID, or the difficulties of keeping a company going in general? And will we still be seeing her on area stages?
Westword caught up with Rogers to find out.
Westword: Why are you leaving Benchmark?
Rachel Rogers: My departure isn't a reflection on the impact COVID has had on Benchmark at all, but on my own life. Last year brought a number of changes that weren't Benchmark-related, yet they greatly affected my ability to give the company the time and energy that the mission needs and deserves. The decision to step down was, and I truly say this without any hyperbole, the most difficult of my life. I don't know how to begin to share the love I possess for this company and our work. Unfortunately, things don't always work out the way we hope, and I realized the time had come for me to say goodbye. As far as the future goes, I'm taking an indefinite break from theater, and my husband and I have plans to leave Colorado in the spring.
Is there a reason you never performed in a Benchmark production?
It was partly because as much as I love acting, directing is where my heart lies. However, the main reason I never performed in any of our productions was because we always strove to have the best talent we could find for our roles, and I knew that there were better actors than myself for us to cast, so we did.
Would you remind us of which Benchmark shows you directed? Do you have a favorite? Any interesting anecdotes about things you learned through the directing experience? Any bloopers that now strike you as funny? Mistakes through which you learned a lot?
I directed The Nether, by Jennifer Haley; Smokefall, by Noah Haidle; Uncanny Valley, by Thomas Gibbons; Wakey, Wakey, by Will Eno; and Parfumerie, by E.P. Dowdall.
Picking a favorite feels like asking me to choose a favorite child. Every one of those processes was unique and with different artists, and I grew as a director and theater maker with each one. The Nether will always be close to my heart because it was our first production. But to be honest, Smokefall and especially Wakey, Wakey are the two shows that have truly clung to me. There are the plays that you work on, and there are ones that change you. Both of those experiences profoundly changed me, and I often find myself quoting from each of them, reminding myself "To love anyway" — a quote from Smokefall — and "Take care of each other," from Wakey, Wakey.
I think one of the most important things I've learned, both as a director and a producer, is how vital it is to surround yourself with imaginative, dedicated and trustworthy creators. Everything that has been successful for Benchmark is owed to the incredible people who devoted their time to our productions and our operations. We never would have made it to this point without them.
I also designed for a number of our shows, and I graphic-designed almost all of our materials with the amazing photography of McLeod9 Creative.
Any words on your philosophy of acting/directing/theater? And what about Benchmark are you most proud of? Is there something you'd do differently if you had it to do all over again?
I've always believed that you either do art for yourself or you do it for the world. I don't think either way is superior to the other, but that those are generally the two driving forces compelling us to create. While I most certainly began my life in theater as the former, that changed for me somewhere along the way, and I hope my work with Benchmark is a reflection of that. I'm unbelievably proud of the impact that our work has had on our community, both audiences and artists alike, and of all of the conversations, smiles, tears and hugs it led to.
Starting a new theater company strikes me as a challenging venture even without the perils of the pandemic. Can you describe some of the process, the ups and downs? Were you a pretty expert manager/organizer before Benchmark, or did you learn on the job? What advice, if any, do you have for other companies on the path you've just traversed?
Oh, the insanity of deciding to start a theater company! Despite all of our mutual experience, I'm not sure Haley and I fully knew what we were getting ourselves into, but I also don't think we could have. In a lot of ways, it seems like something you have to experience for yourself to truly understand. For us, we outgrew our carefully laid original plans for Benchmark when we took over the 40 West space in Lakewood from Rick and Patty [Yaconis, co-directors of the Edge Theatre Company], and had to learn to adapt quickly — though I wouldn't trade it for the world.
On my end, I had experience as a production and stage manager, so a lot of the larger, organizational side of things came easily. I also worked in a corporate office as my day job, which gave me a base skill set for running the business side of the company. But the majority of things were truly learn-as-you-go — though I am fortunate in that I enjoy doing things such as bookkeeping and taxes, so learning how to do them for the nonprofit wasn't a huge leap.
We were also incredibly blessed to have amazing company members right out of the gate who volunteered their time assisting with some of the work that a paid staff would normally handle.
In the end, I'd say that one of the greatest challenges in running a theater company comes from the unpredictable nature of theater itself. You can plan and prepare, but inevitably something is going to happen that you can't be ready for. But the truth is that's also what makes it so much damn fun and rewarding in the end.
Honestly, the majority of my more cherished memories come from looking back and laughing at things that felt overwhelming or disastrous at the time, such as when the bomb cyclone knocked the power out at the theater for days during tech week for 1984 or when the fire alarm went off and the fire truck showed up to the theater during pre-show for The Arsonists. Patrons asked us if it was a marketing stunt.
It's the late nights, the long techs, the production meetings that never end because everyone keeps throwing out better and better ideas, the rehearsals when an actor takes a major leap, the talkbacks that become a little strange, the fundraisers where everyone gets a little silly, the company meetings with breakfast casseroles, and the post-show hugs from affected audience members that I'll miss the most.
How did COVID affect you and your work?
The most difficult part was the roller-coaster ride of planning and hoping to produce something but having to change plans, scale down or not produce it at all. One of the worst things COVID brought to running a company was an incredible, constant disappointment. While the new, innovative work that it inspired most certainly should be lauded and not devalued, it can't fully erase the feeling of loss for the work we had all hoped to create.