At a May 29 panel at Denver's Acoma Arts Center, local critics, directors and artistic directors shared their thoughts on challenges facing Denver theatre now and over the next five years. Sponsored by the Rocky Mountain News, the panel was convened as part of the American Theatre Critics Association's annual convention.
The panel, conceived by director and acting teacher Chip Walton, centered mainly on the perceived gap between the Denver Center and all the other companies in the region. Former chair of the Department of Theatre at Miami University in Ohio, Dr. Donald Rosenberg, moderated the talk.
Walton began the discussion by noting that of the forty-plus producing theatres in metro Denver, 15 are non-profit -- "and 13 of those are homeless. While it's difficult to make a living in Denver theatre," Walton added, "Many dedicated artists choose to stay."
Rocky Mountain News critic Thom Wise concurred, saying, "We're at a take-off point for Denver theatre -- especially in the 1990s. We have plenty of room for improvement and expansion. The number one criteria for groups right now is where to perform. Some theatres are vacant and not renovated. Meanwhile, actors say there's not enough work (which is, of course, not unique to Denver). We have only two opportunities for union actors. That's not enough. We should have four or five Equity houses, at least. Especially since we're not just a winter theatre now; we're year-`round."
Chip Walton, assistant director for Colorado University at Boulder, was even more outspoken about the Denver Center/Arvada vs. non-Equity breach. Said Walton, "There's a significant gap between the top tier house, the Denver Center, and everybody else. In other cities, you get mid-tier Equity houses that can pay the artist but also give them a level of respect people in the theatre too often sacrifice. That gap is holding us back and drains some of the talent from Denver." Independent producer Britta Ericksen, who also serves as executive director for the non-profit Acoma Center, elaborated: "I want more opportunities to earn a full wage, plus more collaboration within Denver, and with other arts communities. We don't have a guild or a league. We should help each other out. I often hear audiences members say about the Acoma, `How long have you been here?' As much marketing as we try to do, we can't buy ad space. Maybe a guild could help us all work together. Still, the Denver community is really thriving with energy, commitment and hard work."
"There's no magic solution here," noted Jim Lillie, theatre critic for Westword magazine. "We have four theatre communities in Denver: Denver Center, touring shows, Dinner theatre musicals, plus the straight plays. All four are generally isolated, with no love lost. The number of local people on the Denver Center stage are damn few. Nobody gets work. Worse, Denver audiences are used to seeing three shows a year: Phantom and A Christmas Carol being two of them. We need to have shows that are just as stimulating that need to take that step up."
Walton surprised his colleagues a bit by decreeing, "There's entirely too much theatre in this town. The pie is only so big for grant money, audience base. We've got so many companies here, and the Denver Center there, and nothing in between."
Disagreeing, Ashton said, "No, I wish there were more theatres. I can only cast so many people. If somebody wants to open a store and do Neil Simon, well, good."
Sandra Brooks-Dillard, critic for the Denver Post since 1990 and founder of the National Association of Black Journalists, concurred, saying, "I'd like to see people make a living at their craft here. Even if the scene gets too crowded, that would shake out on its own."
The talk then turned to the critic's role in helping shape and champion theatre activity in Denver. "Critics here are very supportive in terms of seeing the work and reviewing it," said Walton. "But standards are sometimes on a sliding scale. There are often different standards for Denver Center shows than for smaller places."
Director and former theatre critic John Ashton put it plainly: "Critics have a responsibility to show up, be on time, stay awake, be fair, tell the truth from the head and hearts. Where there's a thriving theatre community, you have thriving critics. I think the Denver Center and touring stuff gets priority."
Critic Wise ascribed that inequity to the battle of theatre coverage for page space with other forms of popular entertainment. "We can write lots of stories," said Wise, "but they wouldn't be in the paper. If [the editors] need to cut something in the Friday section, it'll be the small theatres. On the other hand, film writing doesn't get cut - because the movies advertise."
Fellow critic Brooks-Dillard concurred: "Godzilla will always get the front cover, I'm sorry."
Steve Tangedal, executive director of The Theatre Group, noted that even theatre coverage itself was skewed towards touring and national news. "For example, the way they covered [Hayley Mills] when she came to town in The King And I," said Tangedal. "She's not really a singer, but she got all the publicity, while the understudy, who was local, and who could sing, got none. We need help from the press and the critics if the mid-tier thing is going to happen. It can't be that the only important thing to the press, especially on feature stories, is what comes from out-of-town."
Ultimately, though, the theatres themselves have to take the lion's share of responsibility for their futures. Said producer Ericksen, "Smaller non-profits sit around waiting for grants to come in. Sometimes it's easier to earn the money. Too many groups are artists and aren't adept at grant writing; they need to get consultants."
Ericksen agreed. "Theatres need to think about the marketplace. I get complaints all the time, `Why aren't they [sic] coming to see my show?' Well, of course not, how many times can you see Oleanna? We need seasons that are more balanced, with more new works and regional premieres."
[Ericksen was referring to a recent season when three separate theatre companies did, indeed, stage Oleanna at nearly the same time.]
Despite all the Denver Center-bashing by the panel, Ericksen allowed that "the Denver Center has brought more attention to theatre here. They've got more money than God. They've raised the awareness of theatre in town, which has a trickle-down effect which I think is good."
"Don't underestimate audiences," added critic Lillie. "The general public has good taste and know something good when they see it. We need good plays that work on an intuitive level that don't take a year of explanation."
Most philosophically, Walton summed up, "Over the next five years, we're gonna need to grow up. To move forward, we have to make decisions."
-- By David Lefkowitz