All the World's Her Stage

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EDEN is "just like any other theatrical organization," says actor John Martinez, who got his first break with EDEN in a play about life in the Appalachian Mountains. "They're always operating on a shoestring. You're always doing what you can with what you have. It's always nip and tuck."

Walker had no ambition to run the group she'd started. "I never felt I was capable of leading the group, even though I founded it," she says. "I didn't have a degree in theater. I didn't know much about theater. I didn't know much about anything." In fact, the director of the group's first play doubted Walker's talent and refused to cast her; she got a role only after an original actor dropped out. It was a small role with only a couple of lines: Walker played a murderess who was cuffed on stage by a few cops, then taken away.

In the '70s, Walker moved to Texas for a while, and EDEN almost folded. When she returned, she took over day-to-day operations, and she's never let them go. She began taking theater classes at the University of Denver, and EDEN soon hit its stride with a series of works called Plays for Living, one-acts about social issues such as alcoholism, teen sex and elder care.

"I had always considered myself more of a social worker than a theater person, and my involvement in theater had always had more of a social leaning," she wrote in the 25th anniversary program. But Plays for Living didn't just fit Walker's philosophy, it fit with funders' needs. The plays became an "educational component" of Human Services, Inc., an agency affiliated with the Mile High United Way. Human Services purchased scripts, paid royalties and helped book theater space for EDEN. A reviewer described one Plays for Living show as "a combined dinner/theater/discussion/support group. It can't be legitimately evaluated as either art or entertainment, but it worked on its own terms, stimulating a discussion afterwards that seemed important and useful to the audience."

In 1978 EDEN moved into the house on Gilpin Street. A grant from the federal Comprehensive Employment and Training Act increased EDEN's annual budget from $4,000 to $25,000; when those funds dried up, in 1981, other organizations, including the Piton Foundation, stepped in. EDEN's theater season expanded to five productions, and the workshop was buzzing. "Nearly any day, there is a rehearsal, performance or workshop," Walker related in 1988. "There are more people who want to be involved than our little house can hold or for whom we have leadership. Often you will find two groups rehearsing or meeting at the same time."

EDEN performed at schools, community centers, nursing homes, hospitals -- anywhere it could. And it performed whatever it wanted: James Baldwin plays, a Scott Joplin opera, a take on Aeschylus's "Prometheus Bound" called Prometheus (re)Bound, works by writers as diverse as Ossie Davis, Lorraine Hansberry, Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee. Nor was casting limited by traditional thought. Jeffrey Nickelson, who now heads up the acclaimed Shadow Theatre Company, auditioned for a show in 1979; Walker cast the black actor as a white character. He turned it down -- he wasn't ready for that. "Now that I look back on it, what a risk she was taking," he says.

After returning from pursuing theater in Korea, of all places, Nickelson approached Walker again in 1986, asking to direct a play. She was suspicious at first, but warmed up and agreed to let him direct Black Gravy, marking the start of a decade-long collaboration. The experience was a confidence-builder for Nickelson, who didn't have anywhere else in town to go.

Lucy Walker is a woman who's rarely influenced by other people, and that position has its price. Walker, says Nickelson, is the kind of person who will hug a child with a snotty nose and ashy knees while a nicely groomed, well-dressed child standing nearby garners the attention of everyone else. "People won't understand why she's doing that," he adds. "Instead of embracing the wonderful things she's done and moving them forward, she feels the negativity and refuses to conform."

Walker is stubborn, and if she's overlooked opportunities to shake the right hand or make the right compromise for EDEN's economic benefit, well, that's a tradeoff she'll live with. "There are some folks who play the game well," she says. "I don't play games. I was brought up free. Too free."

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T.R. Witcher