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Reflections on the untimely demise of Colorado Actors Theater

Theater companies are routinely at the mercy of the monied gentry who fund what is so often a labor of love. Witness Colorado Actors' Theater's premature demise when they could no longer depend on the kindness of strange matrons. The state of the theater at Smokebrush in the season before C.A.T. came to town was an indulgent fantasyland, a playground for performers with little concern evidenced for quality control, artistic standards or the kind of practical responsibility that accompanies the challenge of making disparate ends meet.

There is no question that C.A.T. was a blessing on the Colorado Springs theater scene, having won audiences over with outstanding productions of The Glass Menagerie, Harvey and, most notably, the more obscure and challenging The Nest. The success of the their last production was a welcome sign for the future of local theater, the pudding of proof that audiences would attend and appreciate a production that strayed from their own high school theater history curriculum, when they were presented with challenging work, well presented.

But the blessings of innovation come at a price, and when anticipated box office sales alone can't pay for salaries, facilities, sets, costumes, royalties and publicity, enter the deep-pocketed "angels," complete with all their confounding quirks, difficult demands and disappearing acts.

If C.A.T. made any mistake over the course of their first year in operation, it was to let loose a whirlwind of ambition on the stage of the Smokebrush Center. You don't overcome the odds in the arts without a heaping helping of ambition, but it is no coincidence that the very utterance on stage of the names of the patron saints of ambition, Lord and Lady Macbeth, is synonymous with theatrical doom.

All this makes you want to crawl back into the cloistered security of knowing that if you want to do something right, you do it yourself. When you need to rely on the whims of wealthy benefactors, you're at risk beyond what rational thought should allow. Those benefactors are removed from time and space by the gentle cushion of their greenback buffers, and it is too common a fate for artists to be left twisting in the wind while the commanding pinky is raised and another martini downed.

But on a practical level, without generous outside budgetary support there would have been no Christian Medovich and Tom Studer set for The Glass Menagerie, no David Millbern and Gillian Marloth on stage from L.A. for The Nest, no "pay-what-you-can" previews and student matinees. The steadfast independence that comes with the refusal to kiss the perfumed tushi of the donor/maven/wannabe producer drives theater into Mickey Rooney's barn and makes minimalist readings out of full-blown productions.

It's the actor's nightmare, one of many, and there are no easy solutions surfacing in the wake of C.A.T.'s departure. Artistic Director Gregory (Ziggy) Wagrowski is already back in L.A. auditioning for new work, and his wife, Producing Director Lee Ann Groff, suspects the couple will leave Colorado Springs shortly, following the work and their passion for the theater.

The strides the local theater community has made with C.A.T.'s catalytic kick in the pants this season are palpable. Whatever the lessons may be, let's hope they're not "never again in Colorado Springs." An immovable rock has been set in motion. Now is the time to lend a shoulder to the effort, safeguarding against the loss of momentum, tramping the deadfall and sending the meek scurrying from its path.

If a few bean counters are too weighted down with booty to avoid being flattened, so be it. All that glitter was upstaging the art anyway.

-- Owen Perkins (owen@csindy.com)

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