STRAIGHT TALK WITH THE CATAMOUNTS, BAS BLEU THEATRE AND THINGAMAJIG
Backstage at Bas Bleu's 'Over the Tavern' in 2013. Photo by John Moore
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
Actor, director and theatre chef Amanda Berg Wilson co-founded The Catamounts in 2011 as “Theatre for the Adventurous Palate.”
From the start, Berg Wilson and her wild 'Cats have roamed the hills of Boulder pushing the boundaries of traditional theatre. “We make new and innovative professional performance by finding critically acclaimed, audacious scripts and imbuing them with our signature integration of music, movement, food and drink,” said Berg Wilson, the company co-founder and Artistic Director. The ‘Cats have presented theatre on a bus, on a farm, in a river and around your dinner table. Its sold-out FEED series, which incorporates fine dining into any given performance experience, had been scheduled to return April 24-26. Until the COVID19 shutdown hit – right as Berg Wilson also was planning her 10th anniversary season.
“The Catamounts are a small, lithe company with only one employee – me – and very low overhead," Berg Wilson said, "so we feel confident that even without the ability to program the anniversary season we had initially imagined, we will be able to survive the year as an organization."
Separately, the COVID shutdown cost Berg Wilson one major dream project. She was to be a co-Assistant Director for the Denver’s Center’s warehouse immersive experiment “Theater of the Mind” with Talking Heads frontman David Byrne. Talk about “Once in a Lifetime.”
Fortunately, The Catamounts finished their most expensive undertaking to date – the gothic children’s horror “Shockheaded Peter” – a week before the shutdown. “So we're not reeling from too much lost revenue from this current season,” Berg Wilson said. Both the final FEED of the season and Camp Catamounts (theatre games, storytelling and songwriting for kids) are being re-imagined as either socially distanced or virtual events. “We're encouraged that our audience seems game for a bit of reinvention."
'We've been experimenting with producing theatre in all kinds of places for almost nine years, so we feel primed for this moment.' – Amanda Berg Wilson
What is the way forward?
“We've been experimenting with producing theatre in all kinds of places for almost nine years, so we feel primed for this moment,” Berg Wilson said. “We already had been planning some original, smaller immersive works with fewer than 10 audience members for the fall. Now that seems like a fortuitous decision. Outside seems to be the safer place to be, so we're exploring how we can take those same pieces and produce some really innovative theatrical experiences for the fall.
“We're planning to produce some really wild, fun stuff in a socially distanced way, but we won't do it if we don't feel confident that its totally safe. We are looking at seven different budgets and seven different plans right now.
“What we do know is that part of our mission says we're dedicated to the constant reinvention of artistic forms. If that's not a clarion call to figure out how to make theatre in this COVID moment, I don't know what is. So that's what we will do.”
The Catamounts are just a few hundred bucks away from reaching a $20,000 goal for its 10th anniversary season campaign. “All of that money will be used to help us continue to innovate in this moment,” Berg-Wilson said. “We feel hopeful and confident that we'll be able to employ some of the artists who are so ready to work right now, and all donations will ensure we can do that.”
Arvada Center favorite Lance Rasmussen starred in The Catamounts' 'Shockheaded Peter.' Photo by Michael Ensminger.
The Bas Bleu Theatre Company (French for “Blue Stockings”) was conceived over late-night martinis by Wendy Ishii and Eva Wright in 1992 as a salon theatre for bold, innovative and adventurous works in the teensiest-tiniest of storefront spaces in Fort Collins. The company expanded into the historic (and spacious) Giddings Building in 2004, and it now has the distinction of having possibly the greatest leg room of any Colorado theatre space – and no internal support beams to obstruct the view. It also has a unique, 10-year partnership with the city that compensates Bas Bleu for providing rent-free space to local artists and arts groups. Over the past 28 years, Bas Bleu has been home to more than 3,000 artists.
The shutdown has cost Bas Bleu two productions so far: “Way to Heaven” and "Blithe Spirit,” which was to open on Thursday. “I was particularly saddened to lose ‘Way to Heaven,’ which was to have coincided with the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Theresienstadt,” Ishii said of the Nazi transit camp for Czech Jews.
“We had planned a number of community outreach programs that would have helped us wrestle with current issues of today as well as reflect on complex historical events of World War II,” added Ishii, who plans to reschedule both productions.
In the meantime, while Ishii continues working as a pro-bono Artistic Director, the entire staff and company of artists have been let go for the duration of the shutdown, except for Operations Manager Craig LoSasso. Friends and board members are stepping up are volunteers.
“We are taking advantage of this down-time to work on the infrastructure, organize the facility and plan for the future,” Ishii said. “We have ordered a Prolexus Sanitizer sprayer – the same kind used by some airline companies – and we are keeping up with the latest safety guidelines as they emerge.”
Ishii is also using this pause to gear up for the company’s long-planned Phase 2 Capital Campaign to complete exterior and interior renovations. “We are fortunate to own our own building, but our fixed costs are $7,000 a month during the shutdown,” she said.
Ishii has grown fond of the old Woody Allen quote: “If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.”
“Our plan – hah! – going forward is to invite our sister non-profit organizations to use our theatre for free once it is safe to do so,” Ishii said. “We will present skeletal productions with very limited scenic or design elements. That could be a hybrid of Readers’ Theatre, monologues or semi-staged works – whatever our imaginations can come up with."
Ishii is having discussions with Opera Fort Collins, OpenStage Theatre, Debut Theatre and individual Northern Colorado artists about collaborations.
To start, all events will be staged without an admission fee, and a 50-50 split of each night's donations with the guest artists. Patrons will be encouraged to bring fruits or vegetables from their gardens to share with anyone in the audience or company of artists who might be struggling.
“More important to us than making money right now is to nourish our artists and to re-assure our community that we are all marching our way back to whole,” she said.
“My own personal hope is that Larimer County will viscerally realize the emotional, psychological and economic importance of the arts and vote yes the next time they get the chance to authorize an SCFD for Northern Colorado,” Ishii said of the failed 2016 effort to establish a penny-per-$10 sales tax for the arts. “What a difference that would have made right now for all the struggling arts organizations in our community.”
Despite the overwhelming melancholy of the prolonged shutdown, Ishii can still appreciate the small blessings. “How nice not to be swatting Miller moths during performances!” she said.
'This is our first break after nearly 10 years of creating theatre at a relentless pace.' – Tim Moore
The 10-year-old Thingamajig Theatre Company is the resident professional theatre company at the Pagosa Springs Center for the Arts, located 275 miles southwest of Denver on the road to Durango. With its summer repertory Broadway musicals and popular educational programs, the company is a major economic driver for Archuleta County.
In mid-March, co-founders Tim and Laura Moore made the difficult decision to cancel the 2020 summer season, which was to include “Bright Star,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Sweeney Todd” and “Godspell 2012.”
“As for the upcoming fall season, we have not made any final decisions about programming, as both public sentiment for safety in mass gathering and health reports surrounding the transmission of corona virus continue to evolve,” Tim Moore said. “We are currently examining all options, including the development of unique, original content with playwrights we’ve established relationships with in previous seasons.
“In the meantime, spring cleaning has taken on a whole new meaning as we tackle every corner and department at the Pagosa Springs Center for the Arts. This is our first break after nearly 10 years of creating theatre at a relentless pace.”
Moore is also creating a podcast as a way to stay connected with audiences and artists in a meaningful way. The company’s finances have stabilized in part because TBK Bank signed on for a season sponsorship even after the season was canceled.
To save on expenses, the company has put its telephone service on hold and is asking that all inquiries by made by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“I was reminded just last week that Thingamajig’s first season was just a handful of shows,” Moore said. “We have grown so much since that time a decade ago. We will grow again, and we will innovate again. But, for a time, we will necessarily be a smaller organization – if you can get much smaller than we are right now. We remain focused on our mission, vision and values and are taking steps to ensure that we will come back in a way that allows us to grow and continue to serve the amazing community that has supported us from Day 1.”
Monday: Straight Talk with artistic leaders from more Colorado theatre companies
Contact John Moore at email@example.com
MORE STRAIGHT TALK
• Straight Talk with Lake Dillon Theatre Company, Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company and Northglenn Arts. READ IT HERE
• Straight Talk with the Fine Arts Center, Miners Alley Playhouse, Dangerous Theatre and Lone Tree Arts Center READ IT HERE
• Straight Talk with square product, Forge Light, Springs Ensemble Theatre and Coal Creek Theatre of Louisville READ IT HERE
• Straight Talk with the Denver Center, Jesters Dinner Theatre, Glenwood Vaudeville Revue and Germinal Stage-Denver READ IT HERE
• Straight Talk with Local Theater Company, Theatre 29, The Source and Equinox READ IT HERE
• Straight Talk with Su Teatro, Vintage, Breckenridge Backstage and Counterweight Theatre Lab READ IT HERE
• Straight Talk with Aurora Fox, BDT Stage, Cherry Creek Theatre and Misfits Theater READ IT HERE
• Straight Talk with Creede Rep, Town Hall, Candlelight and Theatre Company of Lafayette READ IT HERE
• Straight Talk with Phamaly, Buntport, the Colorado Shakespeare Festival and Rocky Mountain Repertory Theatre. READ IT HERE
• Straight Talk with Rod Lansberry, Arvada Center Artistic Director of Plays. READ IT HERE
• Straight Talk with Lynne Collins, Arvada Center Artistic Director of Plays. READ IT HERE
• Straight Talk with Philip C. Sneed, Arvada Center President and CEO. READ IT HERE
• Survey: Most theatregoers aren't coming back anytime soon. READ IT HERE
• COVID-19's toll on Colorado theatre: 224 productions and counting. READ IT HERE