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The State of the Stage 

A roundtable discussion with the Colorado Springs theater community

You had to be there. If you were a part of the Colorado Springs theater community you had to be there anyway. And they were there. An unprecedented gathering of representatives from each of the city's public producing theaters gathered in the offices of the Independent for a far-reaching discussion examining the state of the art in our town.

We did it up right, circling a long, rectangular table, surrounding a spread of finger foods, soda pop and vino. As testament to the quality of the wine, Mike Stansbery, Performing Arts Department Chair at Pikes Peak Community College and artistic director of the PPCC Masquers, regaled us with his motivational thoughts on the shit hitting the fan.

"See that fan up there?" Stansbery queried, indicating the ceiling fan quietly keeping things cool at the thespian summit. "If you run across the shit on the floor, pick it up and throw it at it. It's going to create fertilizer. Especially in theater, it will create a lot of fertilizer which you don't want, but if you deal with it, we're going to grow again."

Three hours proved barely enough time to get started on a laundry list of issues facing the community. It was just short enough, however, to keep any throats from being throttled, enough time for dipping below the surface level differences and controversies to find the depth of communality and -- thanks be to Survivor -- the potential for alliances.

Despite various threats to foist seasons in the nude on unsuspecting audiences, nobody came to blows, no chairs were thrown, and only one commemorative wine glass had its plastic base shattered. And although it may be overstating the case to think of this gathering of producers as the ten daytimer toters that shook the theater world, it is well worth joining the Indy as we get to know out local theater companies, the way their upcoming seasons reflect their artistic missions and the ground on which they stand as we move forward to theatrical utopia.


Tennessee Williams and the opium dens of inEquity

With ten theater companies represented at the meeting, there were varied approaches to and perspectives on the level of professionalism presented on stage. Annual budgets range from under $10,000 to well over a half million dollars, but nobody is as determined to bringing unparalleled professionalism to Colorado Springs as Colorado Actors' Theater. The new kids on the block will get a chance to show the city how they measure up immediately as they open the first play of the fall season this week, The Glass Menagerie.

"Our mission is to celebrate and explore the human condition through theatrical performance with the purpose of understanding ourselves and each other," artistic director Gregory Wagrowski told the gathering. "Any play that fulfills that mission is worth taking on, whether it's a 30-year-old play or something that was just born yesterday."

Wagrowski stressed that his immediate goal is to build an audience. Having inherited -- by lease -- the facilities and equipment from the old Smokebrush theater company, C.A.T. has quickly moved to lay claim to their audiences as well. Wagrowski reports that season subscriptions are already triple what they were for Smokebrush last season, "pretty good considering we haven't produced a show yet."

"The choices that I made for our season are, first of all, great stories. They're stories about the human condition." Wagrowski hopes these stories will bring in an audience that will stay loyal as he branches out in years to come. "I hope, three years down the road, to go out and find new American classics, something that just happened today that people will be talking about years from now as American classics."

Among the enticements to attract and keep an audience is to up the level of professionalism. "It is my intent to turn the Colorado Actors' Theater into a full regional theater, which means that everyone not only gets paid, but they get paid a living wage. From designers to box office to whatever. I would like to provide that for the community, not only for the audience but also to some degree for the actors in town, to give them the opportunity, if they so choose, to join the Actors' Equity Union."

Currently, only TheatreWorks and Encore Dinner Theater report the occasional use of Equity actors, but the Fine Arts Center Repertory Theater Company is exploring the possibility of Equity guest contracts.

"We don't pay a full blown wage, but we pay a stipend," F.A.C. Director of Performing Arts Robert Geers informed the group. "As we started paying a stipend, we saw some people start pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. When you go from semi-professional theater to now-we're-going-to-make-a-living-theater, you're going to see other people looking at your theater company as an opportunity for them to work. Once that door is open, there will be other people coming from Denver, coming down and filling in the pool. There's a possibility that if you don't keep up on your skills, you will not be working in this theater."


The Denvy factor

Although Wagrowski reports hearing gossip about frustration within the community that three of the four actors in The Glass Menagerie are from outside of Colorado Springs, the group was supportive of a shifting policy toward finding the best actors, regardless of citizenship.

"I feel much more comfortable saying if I can't find it here, there's permission in the community, it's okay to go to Denver," said Geers. "Before, somebody would come up to my desk and say, 'You know, I design sets, and why the hell are you getting somebody out of Denver?' "

This critical issue of the "Denvy" factor, the sensitivity of a "second city" trying to maintain its unique personality and suppress the envy of the larger shadow cast from its norther sister, has created some crossroads of controversy during the current local theater growth spurt.

"I saw over a hundred local auditions and another hundred and fifty in Denver," Wagrowski revealed. "We're talking 250, 300 people that I saw in the immediate area. The reason these people weren't cast wasn't because they were local. The reason was because I saw somebody else that fit the bill better for that particular role. It really just comes down to that."

"I agree with that criteria," noted Pat Allen, owner and producer of Encore! Dinner Theatre, observing that if the goal is to improve the quality of theater and build audiences, "that's what you have to do." Her two hit productions since opening this spring have both featured paid casts of Denver actors. "I'm here to build a business. If the best actor, if every one of them came from PPCC, great, I'd hire them. If every one of them came from Denver, I'll hire them. The best for that role."

"We're trying to make the best possible theater and bring in the broadest audience possible with the resources that we have," affirmed TheatreWorks' Producing Director, Drew Martorella. TheatreWorks' resources allow them to bring half the New York cast of their two-man fall season opener and the original director out for the Colorado premiere of Minstrel Show.

In most cases, the financial resources available limit companies to sticking with local casts, but as Wagrowski wagered, "if Star Bar had the same budget that I have, I'd bet a hundred thousand dollars that you would bring in somebody from somewhere. Because you could afford it."

Keeping the discussion in the perspective of what's best for the theater community as a whole, Geers pointed out that "the coolest thing about bringing people in from out of town is that, if people are open to it, they'll learn. They can pick up from that person some of the things that brought them here."


The niche of time

While Colorado Springs certainly doesn't have as much going on theatrically as Denver -- the Springs will have 30-some mainstage productions this year, while Denver has 30-some each weekend -- the local scene is fairly well represented by a variety of niche theaters.

"We chose to do black box theater because every need was being met theatrically except for that one," said Tony Babin, Artistic Director for the Upstart Performing Ensemble. "There was nowhere you could go and see experimental theater or bare bones theater or theater where the concentration was just on the actors telling a story. If you don't want to see a helicopter land on the stage, then you can go to a church basement and see three naked guys reciting poetry."

Allen found a similar niche in dinner theater. "It's kind of neat that we're bringing something new to town," she said. "You can come see the show only, however 95 percent come to dinner and the show."

"We did not have a music theater program that was very strong at the time, once Colorado Springs Music Theater passed away," said Geers of the scene when F.A.C. started its theater in 1988. "The F.A.C. said, 'we'll pick it up, as long as it's financially stable.' "

And playing to a niche audience often serves a unique purpose. "We're doing South Pacific out of a sheer memoriam to one of our actors," Geers commented. "Bill Walters passed away, and he'd been doing music theater here in town and was doing a lot of music theater with us. He was one of the last surviving Pearl Harbor veterans. So we're doing that show out of respect for his craft, a person who had been doing something in his former life and moved on and wanted to do music theater."

The flip side is that Geers' musical theater audiences aren't necessarily open to a change in format. "When I start hearing of people going to Rent and walking out of it, saying 'I don't ever want to see that again,' I keep wondering what happened? What experience did they have in the theater? Even though there are some who are willing to experiment themselves, and actually take on a new project in their mind and embrace it, there are those that are sitting back unhappy about the experiment."


Arts eats news experimental stagings

Though C.A.T.'s bold experiment may draw the most attention this fall, the theater is an inherently risky business, and all of our local companies find themselves taking on challenges of one kind or another. "You gotta risk," Stansbery reiterates. "If you don't risk, you have really nothing to gain and you're playing it safe and you will not grow."

The vanguard for cutting edge experimentation may reside on the boards at Chaos Theater, an experimental black box theater preparing to open their season later this month with a one-man show from Tom "Atomic Elroy" McElroy.

"We're doing a lot of post-modern stuff this year," reported Lisa McElroy, co-collaborator in the venture. Chaos produces primarily original work created by their own company.

"We just wrote a one-man play," McElroy said. "We decided together that what we would do this year would be to take a lot of risks and stick our necks out there. It will be interesting to see what people in town think of what we're doing. People are either going to love it or hate it, with no middle ground."

The show is currently on stage at the San Francisco Fringe Festival, where Tom McElroy reports via e-mail that there's a growing buzz about it. Back at the roundtable, Lisa reported on the challenges of creating a show for an out-of-town festival. "It was sort of like trying to do theater with your hands tied behind your back blindfolded. We had an amazing amount of restrictions on us."

"All of the writing is Tom's writing," said McElroy. "We did an audio soundscape, so most of the dialogue is delivered over tape. Tom's on stage providing movement and just sort of tying these monologues together. He's really exposed and really raw out there. With my dance training, he's having fun right now.

"I think it will be difficult for our audiences," she continued, "because it's extremely intellectual. It's difficult for our actors. I think all of our pieces this year will be that way."

Chaos is small enough that they can afford to take risks with their audiences. But for more traditional theaters, the risks may seem more calculated.

"For me, not doing Neil Simon in a dinner theater is taking a risk," Allen pointed out. "The first show we came out with was a show written by some people in Denver. It had some flagrantly gay characters in it and I was told 'Don't do that, you're going to bomb, it's not going to work.' Everything I was warned against did not happen. The audiences are not uptight. Amendment 2 gets a lot of press, but that's not how the people in this community are. By putting up shows that aren't typically dinner theater, I am attracting a younger, hipper audience."

"We're conscious of pushing the envelope, but our envelope is a really small envelope at Star Bar," adds Mark Hennessy, president of the Star Bar Players. "Star Bar's been there for 30 years, as have many of the patrons who come to our shows. We have a long-standing loyalty from a number of people. There's certain things if we were to do, we would lose so much money."

Hennessy's range of risk has been to produce Oscar Wilde's Lady Windamere's Fan instead of his more popular The Importance of Being Earnest, or taking on King Lear this fall, inflated budget and all.

"At Star Bar we've been trying to take risks within the format that's been created," he said, and while Wagrowski pointed out that it can hardly be considered a risk to produce Shakespeare, Hennessy countered that asking patrons to sit in the uncomfortable wooden seats in the Lon Cheney Theater for three hours is plenty risky. "We could be the most riveting people in the world up there, and about an hour in they're saying 'When's the intermission?' It's a little hard in that regard. For us [King Lear] is a risk because we're putting a lot of money into it. Nearly three times what we normally put into a show."

Despite the fact that so many artistic decisions come back to financial realities, Martorella emphasizes the fact that "for the most part, we're non-profit enterprises, which means that we fall back on mission, we fall back on things like artistic integrity and things that we want to produce that fulfill our institution's artistic mission."

TheatreWorks puts its mission in motion this fall with the production of Minstrel Show, a new work by Max Barber. "It's a show that tells a story of an infamous event that occurred in Nebraska, the lynching of William Brown," Martorella recounts. "It is retold by two black actors steeped in this tradition of minstreling, which in and of itself is a questionable tradition.

"We do the show because we believe it's an excellent work. I think it speaks to everyone, but it specifically speaks to the issue of diversity in this town. Also, it has not only social relevance but also social importance. Social relevance because it's not just about a lynching, it's about hate crimes. Social importance because between 1882 and 1968 there were over 5,000 lynchings in this country. It's part of America's historical infamy that such things occurred."


Other voices, other stages

One of the consistent raps against this business known as show is its lack of accessibility to minority actors and audiences. While film and television draw the lion's share of attention for inequities in casting and programming, the gap is nowhere as pronounced as in the theater.

Upstart Performing Ensemble may well be leading the way for Springs theaters to address issues of diversity. The company is currently in rehearsal for their 5th Annual Gay and Lesbian Theater Festival, featuring three gay-themed shows running in October.

"Part of our mission is to make sure that minority stories get to the stage," Babin stated. "The festival was started as a direct reaction to Amendment 2. It's a quiet kind of activism. I think that a community that's afraid about a certain segment of their population is more apt to be able to relate to them in the dark with strangers. It's a safer environment than to go watch a parade or anything like that.

"We're ten years behind New York and California," Babin observed. "Ten years ago all you saw in New York and California were gay plays. I'm not taking risks blindly; I knew this was coming. And I knew that we were the right place at the right time with the right circumstances."

Martorella echoed Babin's commitment to diversity. "Having done Raisin in the Sun last year," Martorella said, "it broadened our audience reach and, literally, the whole complexion of the audience changed for that program. It's something we're very conscious of and challenged by to find these plays and make program choices within our mission."

While everyone agreed on an eagerness to produce ethnically specific plays, there was some practical skepticism from some of those who had taken the plunge in the past. "In doing The Colored Museum, we brought in a lot of black patrons," said Stansberry of his Masquers production. "However, the practical reality of having to cast a lot of students who have families, kids, work, school and then we throw theater on top of them, it gets to be really difficult financially to get enough students of a certain ethnicity that are needed for particular roles in various shows."

"Quite frankly, there are very few minority actors in this town," said Wagrowski, recalling his days as artistic director for Smokebrush when "many people in the community came to me frequently and said, 'Hey, let's do a black play.'

"So finally we did one, Spunk. When you go out to do a show like Raisin in the Sun or Spunk you find yourself struggling to find a cast to fill the needs of the show. We ended up going to Denver and elsewhere.

"I'm still amazed at how the audience, by a huge percentage, was still a white audience," he concluded. "It shocked me."


The audience-- whooo are You?

It's easy to joke about actors and their egos, but nothing is more important in the theater than the audience. The only companies who did not report ticket sales as their number one source of funding are the two companies operating under the umbrella of college institutions.

There's no question that each theater has its core audience. "I think there are people who say, 'I'm going to musicals. That's what I do,' " said Geers.

In that respect, there may be less battling than you might expect to get Joe and Janet Theatergoer out to the gay play instead of joining the dinner theater crowd. The average audience member probably doesn't lose sleep trying to decide between spending Friday night at a musical comedy or out participating in street theater. In fact, it is the contention of the roundtable participants that there is more room for cooperation than competition in the area of audience development.

Throughout the course of the discussion, the group shared ideas about getting people out with "Pay What You Can" performances, led by C.A.T.'s preview performance aimed at the non-theater goer who can't afford $10 or more for a show, the low-income performances offered by First Strike Theater, the free tickets to the Shakespeare Festival, and the midnight performances that have enjoyed success for Upstart. Other ideas to consider include an "Industry Night," when fellow thespians can come see their peers perform on a typically dark night, the engaging post-show "talkbacks" that Star Bar will be offering at selected performances of King Lear, and the under-the-table talks of a proposed Alliance for Culture and Science, replicating Denver's Scientific and Cultural Facilities District in setting aside public monies to support the arts.

"I hope everyone here does wonderfully," said Allen. "I don't look at it as 'Oh god, they're doing good; I'm going to do bad then.' I support everyone. And I support bringing up the consciousness of theater and getting people to go out more."

"I don't think the competition is from other theaters," speculates Mary Sprunger-Froese, the Director of First Strike Theater. "It would be neat if there was a little more visibility to theater period in this town, in the media. There's all these blurbs on the movies, and you can rent a movie and watch a movie by yourself at any hour of the day or night. A production takes so much time and so much heart and money, and [then] it is gone. Art exhibits are on for three weeks -- the artist doesn't even have to be there. We're the perishable, in-the-moment, art, and you have to be there."

Allen's Encore! Dinner Theater has the unique luxury of being able to extend her shows indefinitely, based on audience response. Her first two shows have averaged three-month runs, and counting. "As long as it's selling, we'll keep running it," she assured.

Chaos is at the other end of the spectrum in terms of audience dependability, though the theater shares the challenges of operating for profit. "We've had many shows where the cast outnumbered the audience," McElroy admitted. "But we're hoping that we have a diverse enough audience now that will cover everything from the Fine Arts Center to the dinner theater to us."

Wagrowski brings the group to consensus about the fact that any quality theater benefits all other theater. "Once you experience good theater once in your life, you keep going back," he emphasized, comparing it to the experience of eating at a favorite restaurant and sticking with it even when the menu changes.

"We're all pushing our audiences," Martorella summarized. "We're just all pushing them in different directions. That's part and parcel of being a theater in Colorado Springs."


Inch by inch, row by row, gonna make this garden grow

Pushing the audience is a luxury of having an audience. Most people involved in the theater are familiar with the more common phenomenon of pulling an audience into their theater -- sort of like pulling teeth.

"One of the things that I noticed when we first started getting into theater," Geers recalled, "was that we were seeing not only our audience aging, but we were seeing our actors aging. We were getting to the point that we were trying to do younger works and saying, 'Oh, my god, there's just no way we can do Grease.' We started cultivating young people that wanted to do music theater. One of our goals was also to get young people up on stage by having an educational program that would encourage them and stroke them and get them on the stage to make it happen. They do everything. In some of our programs they do the set design, the lighting design -- everything."

Wagrowski has quickly realized the importance of hitting younger generations, but the enthusiasm with which his student matinees have been met astounded him. "High school matinees are a wonderful thing to do for many reasons," he told the roundtable. "It's the future of our community and our theater." Wagrowski is offering 11 a.m. schoolday matinees at $3 a head for The Glass Menagerie, Bus Stop, and Harvey. "We had so many phone calls. I could have done a whole week of nothing but high school matinees."

For Stansbery, reaching students in every way possible is the end all and be all of his job description. "Our primary mission is education. Most of you in this room have worked with my students, " he said, looking around the table as he checked off each face in front of him. "We have to keep things varied. We can't do the same type of show, gig after gig after gig. In any given four-year period, I try not to repeat the same type of venue, presentation, style of play, etc. because our primary issue is education, from the scripts right on up through the technical aspects. Our mission is to send all of those people out to you with some knowledge of what to do from stage management right through the acting, the design, master electrician, carpenter, scenic, the whole thing. We try to cover the bases."

The Masquers are preparing for a fall production of I Never Saw Another Butterfly, a full-length one act about a teacher and her students at the Terazin concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. "Everybody went to the gas chamber, period," Stansbery summarized. "Why are we doing this show? It brings to this community things having to do with the Holocaust that aren't normally done. It's going to prick the consciences of some people."


Theater for the community

Stansbery proudly adds a third whammy to a phrase made up of two words otherwise seen in a positive light. Theater and community are harmless, even noble in the right context, but put them together and audience members shiver at the thought of an evening of community theater, let alone educational community theater. Why not just cut to the chase and call it "bad acting with worse sets and a message that's supposed to be good for you."

Nevertheless, Stansbery, Babin, Hess and Hennessy don't dodge the often denigrating perceptions associated with the label. "The basic idea behind Star Bar was to use the community in any way feasible," Hennessy asserted. "We're trying to reinvigorate that idea that it's a community effort. Trying to get anybody and everybody to come in and build sets just because they want to do that."

"I'm guilty of that negative perception myself," Hennessy continued. "I grew up in New York City. I have the definite snob thing that was built into me, and community theater when I was growing up, was 'ughh!' I'd like to see that change. If that means Star Bar calling itself a theater for the community instead of a community theater, well then, that's just our first step."

There are no such fears for The Springs Community Theater, who proudly wear the scarlet badge in their name. The theater was founded five years ago "largely to give people who didn't have ordinary access to theater groups some access, either because they had been shut out of their high schools or because there weren't the sorts of really high quality dance performances that were available," according to Hess. SCT has tended toward shows with huge production numbers like Singing in the Rain, The King And I and Anything Goes.

"We try to do as big productions as we can get to get as many people involved as possible," Hess continued. Dependent on the use of high school auditoriums, primarily during summer vacations, SCT is trying to raise money for a new theater, the Rocky Mountain Performing Arts Center, to host theatrical productions as well as variety shows, singing groups and dance groups.

"I look at Upstart as a middle ground between the educational aspects of theater in this community and the more professional aspects in the city," Babin said, noting that he got his start in Stansbery's program at PPCC. "We give a lot of people their first breaks. We can give writers, actors and directors their first break because we don't have to bring in $100,000 a year."

First Strike Theater has a slightly different dilemma for people trying to pigeonhole their political satire. "We've been here since 1990, and I feel like I struggle to be seen as theater," said Sprunger-Froese. "If I were considered community theater, that would be a step up.

"I think it has to do with our agenda," she continued. "We are a project of a non-profit in town called the Pikes Peace Justice and Peace Commission. We make issues entertaining and theatrical. The people who come seem to think that, but it feels like a big secret. Last year was the first year that we did two big shows that were public. And we never got reviewed on either one of them. I was so crushed. I just want a bad review. I just want people to know we're here."


There's no place like home

Ultimately, we got through the afternoon without having to vote anybody off the island, not even the Denver actors, the New York directors or the naked poets in the church basement.

And although there are different takes on just how strong the state of our stages is, there is emphatic concurrence that it is strong. No, the typical Colorado Springs show may not yet rate with the best anywhere. It will take a delicate balance between forging sensible alliances and making room for an upsmanship of healthy competition -- perhaps even the sparking of a niche-turf war -- to push the levels up a notch.

But don't let it be said that we are a community void of theatrical arts. If it is true that less than 20 percent of our population engages in an evening of theater each year, it is not for lack of opportunities. From the fringe to the freaks, from the classics to the Class Acts, from Raisins and Phantoms to chaos, the Holocaust and holographic bunnies, the stage has been set and the lamps are all lit on another season not to be missed.

Curtain up.

-- owen@csindy.com


Cast of Characters

Pat Allen, Owner/Producer,
Encore! Dinner Theatre

Tony Babin,
Upstart Performing Ensemble

Robert Geers, Director of Performing Arts,
Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center

Mark Hennessy, President,
Star Bar Players

Stephen Hess, Vice-President,
Springs Community Theatre

Drew Martorella, Producing Director,
UCCS TheatreWorks

Lisa McElroy,
Chaos Theaterarts

Mary Sprunger-Froese, Director,
First Strike Theatre

Mike Stansbery, Performing Arts Department Chair,
Pikes Peak Community College Masquers

Gregory Wagrowski, Artistic Director,
The Colorado Actors' Theater

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