STRAIGHT TALK WITH OPENSTAGE, FIREHOUSE AND ADAMS MYSTERY PLAYHOUSE
OpenStage's 2017 production of 'August: 'Osage County,' starring Denise Burson Freetsone, left, and Sydney Parks Smith. Photo courtesy OpenStage.
Welcome back to "Straight Talk," our ongoing series with artistic leaders from the local theatre community about the unique challenges they face during this unprecedented time.
By John Moore, Senior Arts Journalist
OpenStage Theatre & Company was founded in 1973 by a couple of rebel beatniks named Denise and Bruce Freestone who, over the past 47 years, have grown their grassroots gypsy troupe into the longest-running live theatre company in Northern Colorado. Today, Openstage presents comedies, classics and cutting-edge dramas as the primary theatre presenter at Fort Collins’ city-owned Lincoln Center, as well as more intimate stories in funky, non-traditional spaces around town, cumulatively reaching about 10,000 patrons annually.
The shutdown so far has cost OpenStage runs of Neil Simon’s “Rumors” and Ken Ludwig's “Sherwood: The Adventures of Robin Hood.” And while the Freestones continue to serve as company producers, the mantle of Producing Artistic Director was passed last fall to Sydney Parks Smith, who says that in the past week, the conversation in Fort Collins has shifted from COVID to COVID and racial equity. As this agonizing shutdown wears on, Parks Smith is itching to resume OpenStage’s place as a driver of the dialogue in Fort Collins – especially in the wake of the George Floyd murder.
“I think it’s not enough that most every Colorado theatre company is now joining in the national dialogue,” Parks Smith said. “Every Colorado theatre company must also have a reckoning with its own record of commitment to artists of color – including OpenStage."
As both a parent and an artistic leader herself, Parks Smith added, “that starts by educating myself and making sure that my children grow up to be better human beings with a better understanding of systemic racism than we did when we were their age.”
When the ghost town that is at present OpenStage’s rehearsal warehouse is again filled with faces, Smith said, that means making sure all those faces aren’t white. “That means actively seeking actors and technicians and designers of color to help us tell stories that our people in Fort Collins really need to see and hear,” she said.
'Theatre at its best is a shared emotional experience with other people that brings civility and peace to any community.' – Sydney Parks Smith
During this pandemic pause, Parks Smith is focusing on becoming as nimble as possible while living in the “bubble of uncertainty” that surrounds any plan to return to live performance. “It is very unlikely that we will be able to mount a regular series of shows for the rest of this year, so we are preparing for – at best – a truncated season starting in the spring of 2021 or later,” she said, “depending on when it is safe for our audience and our artists to come together to design, build, rehearse, and ultimately to perform.”
OpenStage has a staff of four who will continue to work and be paid through July 31, supported in part by the federal Paycheck Protection Program. “But we will be cutting back salaries for next season,” she said.
“We have postponed any announcement of set dates for next year, opting instead to preview shows OpenStage plans to produce ‘at some point’ in the future. Until the time comes that we are able to perform responsibly, we will listen and respond to the needs, experiences and perspectives of our community, and pivot our efforts as an advocate for the arts and find new ways to serve – not just as artists, but as collective members of humanity.”
Asked what she thinks is the greatest cultural cost of this shutdown, Parks Smith said: “Theatre at its best is a shared emotional experience with other people that brings civility and peace to any community – and I feel like that’s the big thing we are missing right now.
“We are losing the ability of the arts to entertain and educate large groups of people in a way that starts a conversation without them feeling like they are being lectured to. Theatre gives people a chance to learn through a story, or to laugh for a moment and not think about how painful things are right now.”
(Pictured above and right: Denise and Bruce Freestone in 1973.)
'This is all so heartbreaking. We literally passed our final inspection the day the theatre went dark.' – Helen Hand
You can forgive Helen Hand for being a bit preoccupied these days. She’s not only focused on saving the Firehouse Theater, she’s trying to save the Colorado Free University. Both were started by her late brother, John Hand, who was murdered while performing an act of kindness in 2004. Helen Hand has dedicated just about every waking moment since to the survival of both the theatre and the school.
The COVID shutdown happened just after Hand pulled off something of a miracle – raising $60,000 to pay for improvements to her 85-seat boutique theatre nestled within the Colorado Free University on the former Lowry Air Force Base campus in east Denver.
“This is all so heartbreaking,” she said. “We literally passed the final inspection on our renovation project the day the theatre went dark.”
When John Hand started Firehouse in 2002, he knew as much about staging theatre as the novices he yanked onstage. Anyone with $1 could get on stage and sing, dance or spew. But together, Hand and his ragtag collective of students, homemakers and aspiring entertainers began mounting productions fueled by a passion that transformed, over time, into genuine talent.
Firehouse had just closed a provocative production called “When We Were Young and Unafraid,” about a secret 1970s safehouse for battered women, when the shutdown hit. Since, it has lost stagings of both Lauren Gunderson's “Ada and the Engine” and Agatha Christie's “Towards Zero.”
“Firehouse won’t be staging anything through the end of this year,” Hand said. “We hope to put up a show in February. We have a title in mind, but it’s a larger cast, and we may opt to switch to something with a smaller cast."
Hand has been doing regular Facebook Live check-ins with Firehouse fans. Next, she says, “We’re going to start having ‘Firehouse Chats’ where we feature actors presenting short pieces on video that we then post on social media and send in our e-newsletters as a way to stay in touch with our patrons and the theatre community at large.”
“I hope with all my might that we’ll be able to celebrate the success of saving the theatre and begin some kind of productions in 2021.”
The disarmingly friendly Adams Family Playhouse, nearing its 14th anniversary near Mile High Stadium, draws 10,000 blue-collar patrons a year who are eager to be part of the show. Many dress according to the theme of each title, like old-time movie stars or Old West gunfighters. Patrons of the final remaining true dinner theatre in the city of Denver gleefully mix it up with the professional actors.
Adams is known for its clever titles, such as “Murder on a Harley” and "Who Wants to Murder a Millionaire?" Owner Marne Wills-Cuellar and friends have been staging these so-called "Death for Dinner" performances since 1990. I once likened Adams to a combination of Heritage Square Music Hall’s rollicking high jinks with the Avenue Theater's venerable crowd-pleasing whodunit "Murder Most Fowl." Of those three local institutions, only Adams remains undead.
While Adams’ shows are, of course, temporarily halted, Wills-Cuellar has launched a 20-minute weekly podcast (available on YouTube, adamsmysteryplayhouse.com and PodBean) that looks back at her 30 years of presenting murder-mystery dinner theatre in Colorado. “The podcast is humorous, and we feature different actors every week,” said Wills-Cuellar. “I'm hoping more people will listen to them so that, miraculously, we might get advertisers for them.”
Wills-Cuellar is hoping against hope to re-open for the public by the end of this month with limited crowds of 40, instead of the usual 110. And she’s ready to jump head-first into safety measures that some say will become the norm – including patron temperature checks, sanitizing throughout, required masks for guests and, in opposition to one of the great sticking points other companies have expressed: Masks or face shields for her actors. For the time being, she will sell packaged snacks rather than offer full dinner service.
“We also will be presenting two shows per night, instead of just one, in our big dining room. We're going to shorten the run time of the shows to 90 minutes to allow time for cleaning between performances. We'll have a lower ticket price of $25-$28 – down from the usual $44-$52, with drinks available for purchase.”
Adams also has a robust line of mystery programming for kids, and Wills-Cuellar is working on having a performance filmed that she can make available to parents for download and purchase.
Monday: Straight Talk with artistic leaders from more Colorado theatre companies
Contact John Moore at firstname.lastname@example.org
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