Two-and-a-half hours south of Denver sits the small town of Westcliffe (population: 568). Unless you’ve been searching for a perfect Milky Way viewing vantage point—Westcliffe and neighboring Silver Cliff have an official International Dark Sky Community designation—the hamlet likely hasn’t been at the top of your summer destinations list. But there’s another reason to visit: the summer theater program.
Since 1992, the nonprofit Westcliffe Center for the Performing Arts has provided live entertainment to the region. This season, that includes Audition: A Backstage Musical in July, and August’s one-man show, Wyatt Earp: The Gentleman Doc Holliday (performed by Earp’s great-grandnephew). There are also robust youth offerings, including an annual children’s musical, camps, and a summer internship program for college students. And, of course, the highlight: Shakespeare in the Sangres, which showcase the Bard’s work in an outdoor amphitheater. Pack a picnic (the park opens one hour before showtime), bring some chairs, and settle in for an evening of Love’s Labour’s Lost (opening June 17) or King Lear (opening June 18). “The children love it; they’re fascinated,” says executive director Anne Kimbell Relph. “They lie on their stomachs on the grass. They’ve never seen live actors, never seen live swordplay. It’s really family entertainment.” Plus, the shows alternate, so if you stay for the weekend you can see one on Friday and the other on Saturday.
But it’s not just the Bard’s words that will take you back in time. There’s also the late-1800s Historic Jones Theater (pictured below), where you’ll take cover if rain blows in (and catch any of Westcliffe’s other productions). More than 30 years ago, Relph bought the dilapidated venue after seeing it was going to be turned into a laundromat. “If a town loses a theater, it never gets another one,” she says today. Though fixing up an abandoned theater wasn’t part of her plans (she was in town to buy some land), it was in her blood. Relph starred in numerous movies and TV shows in the 1950s, such as Monsters from the Ocean Floor; she also performed on Broadway (in The Seven Year Itch) and London’s West End (in Roar Like a Dove, produced by Vivian Leigh). She even performed at Denver’s Historic Elitch Theatre.
Today, there’s no longer a hole in the floor of the Jones and the insulation is firmly in the walls. The carbon arc projectors have been replaced with digital versions. (Relph kick-started the theater’s new era by showing first-run films, which are still screened every weekend. The theater program was added around 1992.) Actors have a true dressing room. A hearing loop was added in the auditorium, so those wearing hearing aids can now hear the films, live theater, and music. And the Jones is a central gathering place for the town’s residents, many of whom act in Relph’s productions. “It’s grown from an idea into something pretty special for this little town,” Relph says. “I’m proud of what we’re able to do.”