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By John Moore, Senior Arts Journalist
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Maybe even more in our increasingly digital world, where a picture can easily outlast a million words.
What distinguishes a live theatrical performance from, say, TV and film, is the inherently ephemeral nature of live performance. You gather alongside a group of mostly strangers to share a one-time, communal storytelling experience that is unique just to those sharing space with you in that moment. The next night? Same play, same actors, but different performances, different people and, in the end, a different shared experience.
Over time, memories fade. Links to online stories eventually dead-end at the internet’s 404 graveyard. If you’re lucky, an impactful mental image, or a profound line of dialogue, or even a gut feeling might sear itself into your brain that you can then call recall for as long as you have reliably firing synapses.
Otherwise, it was a tree falling in a forest. It exists only in the moment, and it’s gone. That’s the point. That’s the thrill. That’s our contract with live performance.
Yes, you can record a theatrical performance, but as we have been repeatedly reminded throughout the pandemic, video tends to take a living, breathing 3D experience it and flatten it into a sad semblance of what it once was. Theatre simply was not meant to be experienced on a screen. It's meant to be delivered from the actors standing before you directly into your bloodstream like a transfusion.
But there is one tangible archival record that can reliably stand the test of time, and that is the production photograph. (Often called "the press photo").
The well-executed photo not only serves as evidence of what a production looked like, it can evoke and stoke a latent emotional response from the original experience. And once in a great while, you come across a rare photo that manages to capture the meaning and significance of an entire theatrical production in a single frame.
One of those moments was captured this year by veteran stage photographer Michael Ensminger for The Catamounts’ production of “Shockheaded Peter” at the Dairy Arts Center in Boulder. It’s an image that freezes actor Lance Rasmussen at just the right time and with just the right lighting and composition to tell the much larger story of the play.
And, of course, it was no accident.
“Michael Ensminger’s work is what lives on of our productions, visually speaking,” said The Catamounts founder and “Shockheaded Peter” Director Amanda Berg Wilson. “He always manages to capture our shows exactly the way I imagined them to be at their absolute, idealized best. I am so proud to put his photos out into the world.”
"Shockheaded Peter" is an immersive punk opera loosely based on a German children’s book of poems where bad things happen to misbehaving children. Playing a rather charmingly heartless emcee, Rasmussen explains the world of the play to the audience by introducing to them to a married couple who desperately want a child and are finally blessed by a visit from the stork. Ensminger caught Rasmussen just as he was revealing this bundle of joy to be instead rather hideous and ugly – not at all the child these parents wanted – and with real-life humans bearing witness in the background.
“That photo really captures this sadistic joy that my character is enjoying as he is inflicting this distress and fear onto both these parents and the audience,” Rasmussen said. Those parents respond by burying their wee monster under the floorboards because, well, they simply can't stand to look at it.
To Rasmussen, what Ensminger captured was a career-defining moment for him as an actor with a career-defining frame for Ensminger as a photographer.
“And I love that photo so much that I am sure I am a going to prominently display it for the rest of my life,” Rasmussen said of the shot, which was later chosen to represent and promote the 2020 Boulder Arts Week.
Billie McBride and Kevin Lowry in Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company's 'Ripcord.' Photo by Michael Ensminger
Ensminger is a multi-purpose photographer who has been chronicling the Colorado theatre scene for more than 20 years, with primary clients also including Phamaly Theatre Company, Curious Theatre, Local Theater Company and the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company.
“I'm blown away by his talent,” said BETC Managing Director Rebecca Remaly. “He has captured so many incredible moments on our stage that feel so alive, so intimate and so personal.”
For years, the art of the production photo went undervalued throughout a large swath of the Colorado theatre community. Ordinary, ho-hum photos taken with point-and-click cameras were the norm. As the longtime theatre critic at The Denver Post, I often spoke at media panels encouraging artistic leaders not to cut corners on this vital press and marketing resource. I would explain how, back in the relevant olden days of print newspapers, my editors often chose where and how large a theatre review would be displayed based solely on how good the photo was (not the play). An effective press photo moved you up on the page – and sometimes up to the front page.
The standard-bearers in the 2000s then were probably the late Steve Nickerson and his partner, Karen McClean, who elevated the art of stage photography while shooting for the old Paragon Theatre. That company broke the mold in its approach to press photos. Nothing was ever posed or staged. An entire, specific rehearsal would be scheduled that gave the photographers total access and freedom to be right up on stage alongside the actors – and the couple attacked their assignments with the ferocity of film documentarians. Together they created dozens of haunting images that surely still linger in the minds of anyone who saw them.
(Pictured: Jim Hunt in Paragon Theatre's 'The Caretaker. Photo by Karen McClean.)
Paragon co-Founder Warren Sherrill said Nickerson’s photos could stand on their own — or on the walls of art museums – primarily because he was a journalist by profession. So he focused on composition and moments of raw emotion that told their own stories.
“We got lucky to have Steve and Karen because they were able to capture these tiny brilliant seconds in time that became instantly timeless," Sherrill said. "That's not an easy thing to do.”
Ensminger believes quality press photos not only become important archival documents for theaters – they pay off at the box office. "It can be tough getting people to go to the theatre," he told me in a past interview. “So anything that will grab their attention, intrigue them and make them feel compelled to find out more is great."
Mare Trevathan in The Bug Theatre's 'Alchemy of Desire.' Photo by Michael Ensminger.
Ensminger is also an adventurer who's been known to take it outside. One of his all-time great photos was an environmental shot he took in advance of The Bug Theatre’s “The Alchemy of Desire” back in 2003. He took actor Mare Trevathan to a foggy bog in Westminster to get just the right shot, complete with a mysterious stranger in the deep background. Former Denver Post photographer Glenn Asakawa said of the result: "The black and white duo-toned quality and narrow depth of field give this well-composed image a nostalgic look that enhances the timeless nature and draws out the emotion in this moment."
Now in the almost exclusively all-digital world of theatre journalism, powerful stage photos are more important than ever. The templated nature of web pages dictates that pretty much every photo on a media outlet's site runs at the exact same size, so the only thing to distinguish one photo from the other — or capture a reader’s eye – is simple quality.
And these days, local companies are producing much more consistently quality work in this regard, with an impressive roster of professional photographers working the circuit including Matthew Gale, Rachel D. Graham, Sam Adams, Sarah Roshan, Susannah McLeod, Amanda Tipton and others who are collectively upping the bar across the board.
(Pictured: Sam Gregory and Jada Suzanne Dixon in Curious Theatre's 'White Guy on the Bus.' Photo by Michael Ensminger.)
But few if any have been doing it as long as Ensminger. And he keeps getting work, in large part, because he also happens to be a pretty decent person.
“Michael is truly one of my favorite humans on this Earth,” Remaly said. “He is effusive, passionate, generous and kind. As theatre artists, we are often looking for different things in the photography of our work. Designers want full and beautiful photos for their portfolios. Actors want flattering images of the characters they portray. Administrators want eye-catching press shots that we can put on our website. Michael makes us all very happy. And he makes us look good.”
And, she added, "his giggle is the best."
And don't let it be said that he's stuck in the old ways. Ensminger has become something of a TikTok sensation under the handle @TinyRevolution. His short comic videos parodying Donald Trump have garnered 30,000 followers and nearly 7 million views.
About Michael Ensminger
Michael Ensminger was born 1958 in Karlsruhe, Germany, and received a BFA in Communications, Anthropology and Art History from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Visit his website here.
BETC's 'The Wolves.' Photo by Michael Ensminger.
BETC's 'Vera Rubin.' Photo by Michael Ensminger.