2020 TRUE WEST AWARD: BUNTPORT THEATER

Day 16 True West Buntpivot 6002

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'I can feel myself getting less smart when I'm not making things.'

– Erin Rollman

By John Moore, Senior Arts Journalist

As soon as it became evident that unconventional theatre was going to be the only kind of theatre in 2020, it stood to reason Denver’s decidedly unconventional Buntport Theater would be first to hop out into the wide-open field of new creative discoveries.

Buntport is a collaborative ensemble of five friends who have been producing smart, funky and all-original theatre for 20 years. Brian Colonna, Hannah Duggan, Erik Edborg, Erin Rollman and Samantha Schmitz entered 2020 on a countdown to the once unthinkable: Their 50th completely original, full-length theatrical play. Think about that. I mean, Shakespeare only wrote 37 … ish. (And really, who doesn’t prefer Buntport’s bloody Britney Spears take on “Titus Andronicus” to the boring bloody Bard’s?)

Buntport GrasshoppersJust a few weeks after COVID shut down indoor performances across the globe, Buntport announced a live, outdoor mini drive-in experiment called “The Grasshoppers.” It was a short, funny twist on a nature documentary they performed on a thin strip of lawn in front of the theatre while the audience listened on devices from the safety of their cars. The premise was based on a nugget of scientific trivia that solitary and otherwise chill grasshoppers, who are totally mellow when left alone, will morph into clouds of crop-destroying locusts when physically forced into close confinement together. Sound familiar to anyone in 2020?

The first full run of “The Grasshoppers” sold out in days. Then a second run. Next they took the show to Colorado Springs, where they produced an additional filmed companion piece for the Fine Arts Center at Colorado College. “Rocky Mountain Locusts” comically revisits a forgotten Rocky Mountain environmental catastrophe from back in 1875, when a swarm of 3 1/2 trillion locusts ravaged 198,000 square miles of land, farmhouses, towns and forests. (And you should check out what the little bastards are doing to the food security of millions of people along the Horn of Africa right now.)

(Story continues below the video)

Watch Buntport's short film, 'Rocky Mountain Locusts.'

Buntport had hoped to be presenting its 49th original show, "Cabaret De Profundis, or How to Sing While Ugly Crying” last March, but instead it has just kept Buntpivoting. “You have no choice but to creatively respond to something like this,” said Colonna. And that’s just what they have been doing throughout 2020.

The company not only thought outside of the box, they abandoned it altogether when they invented the Buntport Bored Post Society Society (B.B.P.S.S.). The idea there was to encourage people both to support the U.S. Postal Service and not focus so much on their computer screens. Participants received a series of interactive, creative prompts through the mail that inspired subsequent activity time far and wide.

Read more: Juliet Wittman of Westword interviews Thaddeus Phillips

In November, Buntport presented “Morale is at an All-Time High," its live-streaming (and still available) virtual comedy about life, love and the workplace, in partnership with Stories On Stage. And it has continued to digitally present “The Narrators,” a monthly live storytelling event (and podcast) that invites comedians, actors, musicians, writers and other fascinating folks to share true stories from their lives, all centered on a rotating theme.

Thaddeus Phillips on a plane somewhere over Iceland

Thaddeus Phillips on a plane somewhere over Iceland.

But for hard-core fans of the full-on Buntport aesthetic, their artistic cousin Thaddeus Phillips is presently providing what surely must qualify as one of the most creative, thoughtful and satisfying online theatrical adventures anywhere since the onset of the pandemic. It’s called “Zoo Motel” – a double-entendre that not only acknowledges that “Zoom” has become a kind of “Hotel California” for all of us in 2020, but also serves as a valid commentary that we’re all existing in a kind of global menagerie at present.

Phillips, a graduate of Denver East High School who attended Colorado College with his Buntport brethren, has become one of the most celebrated theatrical storytellers in the world for his sheer imagination, innovation and singular ways of looking at the world. “Zoo Motel” is Phillips at his most gentle, most searching, most playful and really, most wonderful.

When the pandemic struck, Phillips knew instinctively that the only way to make live theatre come alive on a screen was to make it into a cinematic experience. And he pours every bit of his training in world theatrical staging techniques to tell his story about connection in a time of disconnection.

There can be no be greater evidence of his success in that than to consider this: Phillips performs this one-man jewel from his apartment located about an hour north of Bogatá, Colombia – while the technical aspects are being run by a Stage Manager in Queens, New York. Those of us in the audience (limited to no more than 21 per performance), are guests of the Zoo Motel. And at yesterday’s performance, we checked in from as far away as Slovenia, Sweden, London, Edinburgh, Moscow, Israel, New York and Denver. It felt a bit like when I stayed in my first hostel. Before Phillips spoke his first word, it was as if he had pulled a slice of the entire world out of isolation and gathered them together to share a communal experience that was … well, nothing less than magic.

'The Family Tree' offers live holiday comedy from safety of home

While the world got smaller when COVID forced millions into isolation, Phillips’ storytelling only got bigger. If anything, Zoom only put more toys in his storytelling toy box. He employs playful visual effects, puppetry, pop-up books, door-hole peepers, shadow puppetry, music and mythology to take us on an all-too-brief adventure that is at once a joy ride, a plane ride, a space ride, a magic show, a drive-in movie – and the best card trick you’ll ever hope to see. The staging is directed by Phillips’ wife, Tatiana Mallarino, and the world of the play is designed by Steven Dufala.

“Phillips and his team have mastered the art of Zoom,” Josh Herron wrote for the Broad Street Review. “Rather than place the limitations of live theatre onto a webcast, they have made something surprising, magical and theatrical in its own right.”

And the narrative keeps coming back to those deeply meaningful themes of connection and missed connections.

Thaddeus Phillips phone of the windBy now, you’ve surely heard of that mysterious silver monolith that showed up in the Utah desert and is now popping up all over the world, including Boulder’s Chautauqua Park. But you might not know that for years, a disconnected phone booth has sat incongruously in a garden in Otsuchi, Japan. It’s called “The Phone of the Wind,” and it was placed there by an old man grieving his departed wife. Since the devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in 2011, more than 25,000 people from all over the world have come to this garden to call their dead loved ones over that phone.

When Phillips asks us quietly, “Who would you call?” it’s just one of the loveliest moments I’ve experienced in a theatre, and it mattered absolutely not that I wasn’t in a theatre to experience it.

A married couple's Christmas in 'Wales'

Buntport is listing virtual performances of “Zoo Motel” only through Saturday (December 19), but that’s a bit of a misnomer. Phillips will be performing the show through January 30, and you can book a room to any performance from anywhere in the world. He’s choosing a wide variety of performance times based on traditional theatergoing hours in various cities around the world. So the reason performances through December 19 are listed as the “Denver” performances is because they begin at 8 p.m. MST. But it’s worth seeing at any time in any time zone. (What is time, anymore, anyway?)

“Zoo Motel” was the perfect opportunity for Buntport to partner up again with their old friend. But Buntport itself is ending the year with a wonderfully sweet holiday gift for its faithful: A video anthology of Rollman’s 70-year-old father, David, reading Charles Dickens’ complete “A Christmas Carol” in five chapters, each available for free, on demand.

When Erin Rollman was a girl, David would read the full novella to his children each holiday season over several nights. “When I was young, I would marvel at how present he remains, clearly still affected by a story he has read countless times,” Erin said. Click here to watch

It’s wrenching to think that instead of planning for its 50th original production in March 2021, Buntport is asking the same existential question every arts organization in the world is presently suffering: How long can even the most supported and beloved of companies hope to survive without significant revenue if that lasts more than a year?

We all seem to be trapped in the Hotel California right now. This is a time of prolonged dread and death and disease and uncertainty and loss. And about all we have control over at the moment is how we choose to see the world, and our future in it. While we can’t yet see the door to exit this Zoo Motel, Phillips, for one, seems to be telling us that we can, in fact, check out any time we like. Of that mindset, at least.

Question is: When we make it outside, how do we stave off the swarm of locusts that's awaiting us?

'Zoo Motel'

  • Through January 30
  • Created and performed by Thaddeus Phillips
  • Designed by Steven Dufala
  • Directed by Tatiana Mallarino
  • Magic by Steve Cuiffo
  • Technical support: Newton Buchanan and Melissa Jernigan
  • Showtimes: Vary between noon MST, 5 p.m. MST and 8 p.m. MST
  • Cost: Each of 21 available motel rooms books for $21 each per household
  • Appropriate for all ages
  • Tickets: zoomotel.org

ORDER ZOO MOTEL ONLINE

Zoo Motel closing credits

Closing credits for 'Zoo Motel.'

They said it

  • "At its core, 'Zoo Motel' is about Earth, and our place on it, and our place in the universe, and how we’re all part of the same puzzle even if we’re far apart or even if we’ve never met. Even if we’re separated by time or death. And in 2020, that is a hell of a message.” – Alissa Smith, Colorado Springs Gazette
  • “By the time Phillips plays a clip from 'The Wizard of Oz,' we are losing our grip on the line between reality and fantasy. This room is both a place and a dream … The physical laws are unstable here in a show that amuses and beguiles.” – Mark Fisher, The Guardian
  • "A glorious, makeshift peephole into the marvels of theatre, the possibilities of the imagination and the human need to connect.¨ – Lyn Gardner, Stage Door

About Thaddeus Phillips

Thaddeus Phillips is a Colorado native who directs theater in Europe, tours with his own work globally and moonlights on TV. Created works include: "17 Border Crossings," "Red-Eye to Havre de Grace," "Inflatable Space," "A Billion Nights on Earth," "Capsule 33," "Lost Soles," "Whale Optics," "The Earth's Sharp Edge," "The Melting Bridge," "King Lear," "The Tempest" and "Henry 5 Live from Times Square." In addition to Denver's Buntport Theater, Phillips' work has been presented and commissioned by New York Theatre Workshop, BAM Next Wave Festival, Barrow Street Theater, Territory Festival (Moscow), The Broad (Santa Monica) Hong Kong Festival and Miami Light Project. He is a Pew Fellow, A Doris Duke Artist Award recipient, and appeared in ¨Narcos¨ and one of the "Spider-Man" films. Visit his website

About Buntport Theater

The Buntport Theater ensemble of Brian Colonna, Hannah Duggan, Erik Edborg, Erin Rollman and Samantha Schmitz have been creating original theater together for 20 years. Based in Denver, they have written and produced nearly 50 full-length plays, 150 live sit-com episodes, more than 100 short plays performed in the freight elevator at the Denver Art Museum, and countless one-off events. In all, they perform more than 100 times each year. They have collectively received more than 100 awards from a variety of organizations and media outlets, including the Mayor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts. Over the years, Buntport has collaborated with bucketloads of other creatives – from large institutions to individual artists, from fellow theatremakers to musicians to authors and on. Buntport is now well-established as Denver’s home for new, unique live theater. They are presently attempting to create a coffee-table art book celebrating examining their two decades of making weird, fun stuff. Visit the website

'The Grasshopers' from inside a carA look at Buntport's T'he Grasshoppers,' from insde a car.

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