Theatre out of the box


Steph Holmbo welcomes audiences to “and again,” her play about the Greek nymph Echo.Steph Holmbo welcomes audiences to “and again,” her play about the Greek nymph Echo and what it means to listen. And be heard. Through October 3. Photo by John Moore.

Those companies that got out of the box deepened relationships with grateful audiences. Those that grow stagnant do so to their own peril.

By John Moore, Senior Arts Journalist

It was a summer of theatre that no one saw coming – and no one ever wants to see come again. But the past few months of adventurous outdoor theatre born of desperation and innovation have confirmed a few theatrical truths to be self-evident:

  • You can tell a story anywhere.
  • It doesn’t have to be on an indoor stage.
  • You don’t have to spend a lot of money to do it.
  • And most emphatically, the summer of 2020 made plain what alternative tastemakers have been saying for five years: The future of the American theatre is in immersive, environmental storytelling. Long before COVID made indoor theatre presently impractical, live storytelling has been moving outside more and more. This summer, the theatre rebels among us have been pretty much the only show in town.

The ongoing pandemic has wrought near-total economic and artistic devastation on the local theatre community. Faced with the reality of physical distancing requirements, many companies have chosen to simply go dormant until it makes fiscal sense to present traditional indoor theatre again – and not bleed money doing it. Others have explored new storytelling forms such as Zoom readings, simulcast performances, radio plays, community conversations and drive-in concerts.

But then there are those few adventurers who have dared to present fully staged outdoor productions. And in doing so, they have delivered some of the most memorable, intimate theatre experiences their audiences will ever experience. And they only happened because those theatremakers got out of the box – and they took their small but willing audiences with them for a summer of back-to-basics campfire-style storytelling.

'Reach' Director Lia Young addresses the audience. Photo by John Moore'Director Lisa Young addresses the audience for 'Reach.' Photo by John Moore

Buntport Theater was the first local company to jump when it rolled out a 30-minute play called “The Grasshoppers,” a short, funny twist on a nature documentary. The four actors spread out on the lawn in front of the theatre and played out their scene for the occupants of eight parked cars. The run sold out in only a few hours (and the one after that, and the one after that), confirming that culturally starved audiences were willing to go wherever you want to take them to get their fix – masks and all.

The Misfits performed a broken romance called “Reach” in actor Emily Tuckman’s North Boulder backyard with audiences of about 10 spread throughout in lawn chairs. The play was accompanied by an evocative portable lighting design that made it feel like we were watching a 3D drive-in movie.

(Story continues below the photo.)

Tresha Farris and Sean Michael Cummings in 'The Rough.' Photo by John Moore.Tresha Farris and Sean Michael Cummings played a couple meeting on a golf course outside a wedding reception in 'The Rough.' Photo by John Moore.

The Catamounts, the local company perhaps best prepared to pivot to the new COVID realities because of its long history of performing in outdoor locations, presented “The Rough,” which took audiences on a wild ride through the origin story of golf (and beyond) by having them drive carts at dusk to storytelling locations spread throughout the front nine of a Westminster golf course. One audience member later wrote in: “After all the crap of this year, the entire experience of the production was like hitting the re-set button on my mental and emotional health level.  I'm smiling and hopeful again.”

Dteph Holbo. And After. Photo by John Mooreand again,” a poetic new play by Steph Holmbo, is taking place through October 3 on and around the patio of an East Denver residence. Holmbo presides over a welcoming, contemporary interpretation of the lesser-known myth of Echo. (She was a chatty mountain nymph who drew the attraction of Zeus and was therefore cursed to silence by his wife.) The setting invites the audience's investment in a way no traditional indoor theatre studio space ever could. There’s just something different watching a woman pour wine into your glass and her guts into your lap while you and nine other “new friends waiting to happen” are taking it all in like neighbors sitting around a tree with lights strung down its trunk. Suddenly a backyard window is powerfully transformed into an old-school storytelling scrim. It feels a bit like the natural progression from when we were kids telling stories after school in the backyard.

Not every live offering was so limited by crowd size. The Littleton Town Hall Arts Center had big plans to present a late-winter indoor production of the John Denver biography “Almost Heaven” on an indoor set accompanied by a provocative, original video underscore. When the shutdown ended those grand plans, Town Hall moved the production outdoors to the picturesque environs of nearby Hudson Gardens, which can accommodate about 70 on its expansive grounds.

Read more: Pivoting with Town Hall Arts Center's 'Almost Heaven'

By the time the run ends on October 11, Town Hall will have managed to sate about 1,500 of its audiences' theatre fixes. Yes, that only represents about half the crowd size for a single performance of any big Broadway musical downtown. But then again, there aren’t all that many theatergoers who have so far shown much willingness to venture out to any production right now (inside or out). But those who have are being richly rewarded. At such a lousy time, you have to appreciate the opportunity to take in an early fall sunset in a garden while birds fly overhead and you’re listening to lyrics like: "I guess he'd rather be in Colorado; he'd rather spend his time out where the sky looks like a pearl after a rain.”

(Story continues below the photo.)

'Almost Heaven' at Hudson Gardens. RDG Photography.'Town Hall Arts Center's Almost Heaven' at Hudson Gardens, through October 11. RDG Photography.

In every case, the thing that made those efforts special is the very thing that only came about through active problem-solving. Each of those environments enhanced the storytelling experience, and our understanding of the language or the lyrics. I would not have wanted to watch any of them indoors.

Granted, these few outdoor summer theatre adventures don’t begin to make up for the more than 500 planned Colorado productions that have now been canceled or postponed by the shutdown. They didn’t begin to make up for robust summer seasons from the Colorado Shakespeare Festival to the Creede Repertory Theatre. The pandemic has left nearly every company historically cash poor. It has robbed artists of income and creative opportunities.

But the greatest loss of all from this shutdown has been theatre itself. Gone with it are the epiphanies. The crescendos. The social justice. The roar of the crowds. The inspiration and the hope. The moments in art that can change a person’s life. "We need our artists’ voices now more than ever to help us face these unparalleled challenges and to help us heal,” Margaret Hunt, Director of Colorado Creative Industries, told me for a report on the sad state of the Colorado arts.

Read more: How the shutdown is impacting individual artists

“This summer reminded me that theatre is this actual, needed thing,” added Amanda Berg Wilson, founder of The Catamounts. “We can survive without it, yes, I suppose. But at what cost? There's something weirdly glorious about a live person telling a story – however and wherever. I don't think there's anything that can replace it. That's good news for us all.”

But now with the calendar changing to October, a cruel new reality sets in: As the weather turns colder, most theatre companies are preparing for a period of hibernation from which some may never emerge.(Meanwhile, a handful of companies are forging ahead with fully staged indoor theatre productions with strict physical distancing in place, including Candlelight Dinner Playhouse, the Aurora Fox and Adams Mystery Playhouse.) Others will carry on virtually, such as Emancipation Theatre Company's release today (October 2) of Jeff Campbell’s “I Am Raverro,” the multimedia story of a Black man who suffered permanent brain damage in an assault by security officers at Denver's Union Station.

'I don't think there's anything that can replace live storytelling. That's good news for us all.' – Amanda Berg Wilson

So what are the takeaways from this slim and strange and occasionally wonderful hybrid summer of outdoor theatre?

  • This was, foremost, the summer not to go broke. But it was not the summer to fully turtle. Those companies that stretched their resources and created storytelling opportunities for their audiences provided them with an invaluable service. By finding a way to maintain connection, they told their loyal patrons they get it: The essential role of the arts in our collective economic, psychological and cultural recovery is to play on. And in doing so, they solidified bonds with their audiences that will be steeled for years. Yes, there are union concerns for some and budgetary concerns for all, but those companies that grow stagnant in this long interim do so to their own peril.
  • For those theatremakers pondering a way forward, the message from this summer is to welcome a healthy balance between the conventional and the unexpected. To embrace flexibility and the unproven and the unlikely. Perhaps the one good thing to come out of all this is in the opportunity it offers theatre companies to change their way of thinking.
  • The future of theatre may be part outdoors and it may be part indoors, but it will continue to be less and less on a proscenium stage. The future of live storytelling is in bathtubs and hospitals, in museums, slaughterhouses and, yes, on golf courses. It's in the intersection of theatre with dance, music, games, puzzles, theatre, live-action role playing, art installations, cosplay, virtual reality, food and other entertainment disciplines. The pandemic, oddly, may be helping us to get on with that.

The world needs the imagination and inventiveness of artists now more than ever. When you come back, bring us theatre as we have never known it. Your fans, at present, are starving. Feed them something. They will follow your fresh breadcrumbs wherever you lay them.

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S. by American Theatre Magazine during his time at The Denver Post. He also is the founder of The Denver Actors Fund, and is now contributing reports on the arts community for the Arvada Center. Reach him at

Courtney Esser addresses the crowd at Lilghting Designer Stuart Barr's home for 'and after.' Photo by John MooreDirector Courtney Esser addresses the crowd at Lighting Designer Stuart Barr's home for Steph Holmbo's 'and after,' through October 3. Photo by John Moore.

Read more: Immersive theatre in Denver: ‘Tightrope shows are no fun if there is a net’ 
Home,Reignite the Arts,Art at Home,Support Arvada Center Artists,Virtual Auction,Donate Now,Corporate Giving,Subscribe,AC Flex Package,YP Access,Four Play Package,Visit Us,COVID-19 Entry Policies,View All Events,Gift Certificates,Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express,528.0 Regional Juried Printmaking Exhibition,Imprint: Print Educators of Colorado,Pink Progression: Collaborations,Stories and Songs to Celebrate the Season,Black in Denver,Carley Warren: Three Pieces,Wood.Works,Small Mouth Sounds,Race and the Myth of Rock'n'Roll,Million Dollar Quartet,Amplify with Cleo Parker Robinson,Viral Influence Art in the Time of Coronavirus,Brady Smith: (Don’t be embarrassed by) your trouble with living,Melody Epperson: 100 + 1: Women and the Vote,Simply Swingin’: Great American Crooners,Brazil Calling: Featuring the Music of Antônio Carlos Jobim,Big Band Royalty: Dukes, Counts and Barons of Jazz ,Colin Hay Testing,Kinky Boots,Rockley Piano Sale,Coffee Concerts: Moonlight Sonata,Keyboard Conversations: The Glorious Music of Chopin,Sans Souci Festival of Dance Cinema,Word Play,I Do! I Do!,Roland Bernier: In Other Words,Jazz Classics: The Music You've Been Missing,Elf - The Musical,Amplify: A Breakbeat Testimony,Sylvia,The Liar,Stick Fly,Animal Farm,Dining Partners,Amplify,Amplify Performers,Theatre,main stage musicals,Black Box Plays,Theatre for Children,Auditions,Million Dollar Quartet Auditions,Holiday Plays,Galleries,Current Exhibitions,Wood.Works Know Before You Go,Gallery Events,Upcoming Exhibitions,Art Sales,Art Market,Art Submissions,Viral Influence Call for Entry,Sculpture Field,History Museum,Education,Dance Class FAQ,View All Classes,Summer Camps,FAQ,Full Day,Summer Camp Performances,Classes for Kids,Classes for Adults,Ceramics,Front Range Youth Symphony,Dance Academy,For Educators and Community Groups,Arts Day,Arts Day Outreach,Ageless Adults,Scholarships,Teen Intensive 2021,Yesterado,Music and Dance,Jeffrey Siegel,Colorado Jazz Repertory Orchestra,AEDA Summer Concerts,Humanities,On Their Shoulders We Stand,Private Event Rentals,Humans of the Arvada Center,Straight Talk Series ,Straight Talk with Philip Sneed,COVID’s toll on Colorado theatre: 224 productions and counting ,Straight Talk with Lynne Collins,Straight Talk with Rod Lansberry,Straight Talk with Phamaly, Buntport, Colorado Shakes and Rocky Mountain Rep,Straight Talk with Creede Rep, Town Hall, Candlelight and Theatre Company of Lafayette,Straight Talk with Aurora Fox, BDT Stage, Cherry Creek Theatre and Misfits,Straight Talk with Su Teatro, Vintage, Backstage and Counterweight,Straight Talk with Local Theater Company, Theater 29, The Source and Equinox,Straight Talk with the Denver Center, Jesters Dinner Theatre, Glenwood Vaudeville Revue and Germinal Stage-Denver,Actors' union issues safety guidelines for re-opening,Straight Talk with square product, Forge Light, Springs Ensemble Theatre and Coal Creek Theatre of Louisville,Straight Talk with the Fine Arts Center, Miners Alley Playhouse, Dangerous Theatre and Lone Tree Arts Center ,Straight Talk with Lake Dillon Theatre Company, Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company and Northglenn Arts,Straight Talk with The Catamounts, Bas Bleu and Thingamajig,Straight Talk with Curious Theatre Company,Straight Talk with OpenStage, Firehouse and Adams Mystery Playhouse,Straight Talk with Platte Valley Players and Theatreworks,Straight Talk with Parker Arts, Stories on Stage and Thunder River ,Staight Talk 2 with Philip Sneed: This much is uncertain,Pivoting With,Pivoting with The Black Actors Guild,Pivoting with ... Emily Van Fleet and Nathan Jones,Pivoting With ... Tammy Franklin and the Curtain Playhouse,Pivoting With Nick Sugar and the Town Hall Arts Center,Pivoting With Helen Murray and the Aurora Fox,Pivoting with Edith Weiss and Christy Montour Larson,Pivoting With Scott RC Levy and the Fine Arts Center Theatre Company,Pivoting with Todd Debrecini for Halloween,Pivoting with Ashley Campbell,Pivoting with Meghan Anderson Doyle,Pivoting with Jenna Moll Reyes,Pivoting with Erik Fellenstein,Pivoting with Ray Bailey ,Pivoting with Tara Falk,Community News,Inside the Arvada Center,Barbra Streisand,Governor's mask mandate does not apply to Candlelight actors,Pink Progression: Collaborations: Grow Love and Moe Gram,Director's Notes: A Midsummer Night's Dream,All About Printmaking Techniques,Watercolor Class,Humans of the Arvada Center: Meet Collin Parson ,Arvada Center Makes Masks,Earth Day Craft,Christina Noel-Adcock,"Bright Star" cast unveils video as message of hope,Podcast: B+ with Geoffrey Kent and Jessica Austgen ,Humans of the Arvada Center: Meet Christine Moore,Humans of the Arvada Center: Steven Cogswell,Humans of the Arvada Center: Ashi K. Smythe,City of Arvada to install new sculpture in Hoskinson Park,Humans of the Arvada Center Jessie Page,Here are the 2019-20 Henry Award nominations,Arvada Center to Offer Students World’s First Zoom Musical,Humans of the Arvada Center Cal Meakins,Humans of the Arvada Center: Adam Stolte,Supreme Court workplace ruling hits home for Lisa Leafgreen,'Time for talk is over': Arvada Center launch 'Amplify' series to raise black male voices,Humans of the Arvada Center Jon Olson ,The 5 Most Screwed Job Titles in COVID-era theatre,June in Colorado Theatre: 'The Reckoning' has begun,New Arvada Center, Aurora Fox seasons reflect current complexities,It's virtually impossible not to have fun in our summer camps,News roundup: Who The Denver Actor's Fund DEAR Fund has helped,Humans of the Arvada Center: Abygail Rosales,Pink Progression Collaborations: Jina Brenneman and Margaret Kasahara,Pink Progression: Julia Rymer and Drew Austin,Revealing The Dialogue,Amplify Epiode 3 launches, series expanding to include black women,Colorado Springs reaches the Mountaintop at 2020 Henry Awards,Photo Blog: Sweeney Todd Rehearsals,Humans of the Arvada Center: Gabriel Morales,Deeper Dive: A closer look at Million Dollar Quartet,Deeper Dive: A closer look at Small Mouth Sounds,Pink Progression: Sangeeta Reddy and Jodie Roth Cooper,Deeper Dive: A closer look at Private Lives,Front Porch Series Kickoff,Cleo Parker Robinson dances back in the box with Arvada Center,Amplify turns the mic over to local Black women ,Beth Malone bringing 'joy bomb' to Arvada Center oon September 4,Theatre news: Live streaming panel Monday on a big new 'Idea',Deeper Dive: A closer look at They're Playing Our Song,Humans of the Arvada Center: Meet Emily King,Amplify Women Episode 2,Special Book Honors Special Dance Teacher,Arvada Center pivots to radio-play series for fall ,amplify-series-comes-to-powerful-conclusion,Denver Film moving forward with longer, smaller, virtual 2020 festival ,How COVID is impacting individual artists,Take a stroll through 'Sculpture in the Field',Arts In Education Week,Colorado Theatre News: Miscast pivots to CAST ,Essay: Was the Aurora Fox a safe house on Opening Night? ,Lessons from a summer of outdoor theatre in the time of COVID ,Humans of the Arvada Center: John Hamilton,Theatre news of the week: DCPA launches Recovery Fund,Zachary Andrews take a one-man bite out of 'Dracula',Trick Art Treat coming to Arvada Center parking lot ,What to do? Theatre happenings for October 16,Spotlight Manos Soap,Doreen Montalvo in Denver: Compassion and grit,What to do: Theatre happenings for October 23,Betty Hart's presidential promise: Build a bigger tent,Theatre happenings October 30,Virtual theatre sprouts a new branch with Arvada Center's 'The Family Tree',Humans of the Arvada Center: Brenna Clendaniel and Sophia Koop,Theatre happenings November 12,the barnstormers are back,On being Black in Denver and all the colors that it brings,Getting to Know: Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales,Theatre happenings November 19: Companies entering cancellation mode,A Married Couple's Christmas in Wales,2021 in live theatre: A look into the Crystal Ball,Senior Art Kits,2020 True West Awards: Buntpivot ,2020 True West Awards: Lily Bradford,2020 True West Awards: The Scenesters,2020 True West Awards: Podcastic,2020 True West Awards: Phamaly takes 'Honk' to Japan,2020 True West Awards: Christine Moore,2020 True West Awards: Alive Inside,2020 True West Awards: Michael Ensminger,True West Awards: They Wrote the Book,True West Awards: Rent-A-Pals,True West Awards: Of Spacious Skies,True West Awards: Christopher Page-Sanders,2020 True West Awards: Suffer the little children,2020 True West Awards: Spirit of Giving,2020 True West Awards: Secret Gardeners,2020 True West Awards: Denis Berkfeldt,2020 True West Awards: Amplify,2020 True West Awards: Reclaiming One Star,2020 True West Awards: William Hahn and Jessica Robblee,2020 True West Awards: Lisa Wagner Erickson,'The Family Tree affords actors rare chance to work during pandemic,SCFD: New picture of COVID carnage on metro nonprofits,New Arvada Center video offers diverse slate of holiday stories,20 for 20,Meet the Frasers,Bev Newcomb-Madden: Colorado's feisty, ferocious fairy godmother passes away ,Lucy Roucis' final act is a gutpunch,Reunite the Arts Collin Parson,Jodie Steeves and Nancy Terry,International Women's Day,Reunite the Arts Lisa Leafgreen,The Con Must Go On,Clear Fork Cider Spotlight,Remembering John Gratkins,Reunite the Arts: From our CEO,Adapting the Great Gatsby,Small Mouth Sounds returns,Danielle Johnson Q&A,Reunite the Arts Lynne Collins,The Show Must Go On,Diana and Mike Kinsey,Get to Know Kazu Oba,Reunite the Arts Rod Lansberry,Meet Suzanna Champion,Getting to know Eric Many Winds Herrera and Red Feather Woman,The Gear of Million Dollar Quartet,Music for the Young and Young at Heart,FRYS and the Symphony,Get to Know Carlou D,Stories From the Studio,Hispanic Heritage Month: Meet Lares Feliciano,Arts Advocacy,Volunteer,About Us,Ticketing Policies,Contact Us,Ticket discounts,Accessiblity,Health and Safety,Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Access,Digital Magazine,Careers,Entry,Tours,Art of the State Submissions,Adopt an Actor 2022,Dinner and a Show,Temp,Virtual Theatre FAQ,New Website ,Pink Progression Events,On Demand Troubleshooting,Blog,Lorem ipsum,Lorem ipsum 2,Newk’s,Steuben’s Arvada,The Family Tree FAQ,Home for the Holidays,Land Acknowledgement,Gala,Errors,404,The Family Tree Dining Offers