All the World's Her Stage

Lucy Walker, the 74-year-old founder of EDEN Theatrical Workshop, sits sipping her coffee with measured grace. At this breakfast banquet extolling the benefits of the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District, which apportions sales-tax money to arts and cultural organizations throughout the Denver metro area, arts enthusiasts offer skits, fancy slide presentations and self-aggrandizing announcements. But as the rest of the audience cheers and claps with appropriate gusto, Walker clutches her napkin in her lap with both hands.

Before the program began, one SCFD official had approached her about making a few statements regarding the arts in Denver - if there was time, of course. In response, Walker handed him a piece of paper. "This is my statement," she said. "You don't want me to speak." Her letter, addressed to the SCFD board of directors, protests that after 37 years in Denver, her theater group "has been declared worthy of only $2,100 out of a $30 million budget to operate for a period of one year."

Later, a presenter tells the enthusiastic audience that SCFD supports institutions as diverse as the Butterfly Pavilion, the Denver Art Museum, El Centro Su Teatro and, yes, Walker's EDEN. Maybe her organization is included because SCFD officials know Walker is mad at them; although she's hardly said a word to anyone, her dark face and cool gaze are conspicuous this morning. At the mention of Walker's name, people at her table turn to nod and smile. Walker doesn't smile back, though.

Her aloofness may not be an act, because Walker can't really hear what the speakers are saying. (She refuses to wear a hearing aid.) But then again, maybe it is an act. After all, the script Walker's followed for most of her life is essentially this: If she can't hear you, what you're saying is not important.

EDEN's office is a yellow house on Gilpin Street. For years, rehearsals have been held in the cramped living room, where costumes hang from the wall, spare furniture crowds against the corners and pictures of penguins are everywhere. A fluffy black-and-white cat named Twine, who responds only to the sobriquet "Cat," hangs out on the windowsill at the front of the house, near a fat grant application package addressed to the Anschutz Foundation. Walker is constantly working on grant proposals, trying to secure funds, trying to keep the show going. "Nobody works harder than me," she says, and she can't stop working. "Ain't nobody gonna give a job to a 73-year-old woman who's already eligible for retirement."

She's apparently chosen to ignore all the birthday cards in the room wishing her a happy 74th.

If Lucy Walker didn't work, she might as well be dead. She said so herself after she appeared with her daughter, Lynne, at an SCFD board meeting in Parker last month. Walker had gone to complain about funding; boardmembers responded with dry reminders about procedures and rules and paperwork, promised to have someone get with her to make sure she understood the requirements, and sent Walker on her way within five minutes.

The money - and the lack of money - is what bothers Walker. EDEN has received funds from SCFD every year since the organization was founded in 1990 after voters in six metro counties voted into existence the .01 percent sales tax for the arts. Walker's take of the tax totals $45,340, an average of $4,100 a year. But this year, for the fourth year in a row, her award was reduced, this time to $2,100, the lowest amount she's received since 1994. (The smallest grant Walker ever received was $750 in 1992; the largest, $9,000, was awarded in 1996.)

That same year, SCFD gave a generous $27,000 to Eulipions, another black theater organization, which received an average of more than $14,000 a year in SCFD funds from 1990 to 1997. And, among the smallest arts groups in Denver that received funding, the year 2000 average is $12,000.

"I don't expect them to care about me and give me what I think I deserve," says Walker. But at the very least, she'd like to get some respect for her famously unknown theater. EDEN, one of the city's only black theaters, has been around since 1963 and has staged more than forty major shows on shoestring budgets. If EDEN is not Denver's best theater group -- and it isn't -- it is probably the group with the most heart.

Walker is "really bent out of shape about the process," says SCFD spokeswoman Ellen Dumm. "It has gotten more technical over the years. She has not particularly liked that." There is more paperwork to fill out, a more exact accounting of funds demanded. SCFD requires that grant recipients turn in reports on how they spent the previous year's moneys before they can receive this year's take; EDEN has not done that.