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2020: The Year That Changed Everything

How 2020 Has Affected the Way We Experience the Theater

As the pandemic shut down traditional venues, Colorado’s alternative theater groups provided audiences with in-person experiences in unusual settings.

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Amanda Berg Wilson admits there were some logistical challenges involved in staging a full-length play on a golf course. Some surprise elements were pleasant, like residents living on the outskirts of the course joining in for a nightly call-and-response section written into the script. Others were less so, such as cast members having to take turns serving as “coyote babysitters” on the lookout for a roving local pack.

For Wilson and the Catamounts theater group, all this was…ahem…par for the course. Back in 2019, they’d produced a piece called The Last Apple Tree outdoors on a farm homestead. So when the city of Westminster approached the group in mid-May about producing a piece on Westminster’s Legacy Ridge Golf Course, the group responded with The Rough—an original piece that took place on the front nine, with audiences traveling in golf carts to follow the action. Running from August 8 to September 13, the show sold out its original four-week run before opening day, and prompted the group to add a second week, which sold out in one day, and one final additional week that included a wait list of more than 200 people. “As a company that’s adept at doing unusual theater,” Wilson says, “we didn’t think it was the time to go into hiding until we can do stuff indoors again.”

The Catamounts
Brian Kusic during the Catamounts production of The Rough. Photo courtesy of Michael Ensminger

For larger performing arts groups, the choice wasn’t as simple. When Broadway went dark at the start of the pandemic, it preceded a nationwide performing arts blackout, as major regional theaters across the country followed suit. The Denver Center for Performing Arts—which pulled in nearly $60 million in ticket sales in 2019 and employs roughly 300 full-time, part-time and seasonal workers—froze its season and canceled or postponed 25 productions in the 2020–21 season since March 13.

Despite the indefinite shuttering of long-established theater traditions across the country and here in Colorado, the months following the start of the pandemic saw a number of alternative performances crop up and draw audiences who still craved the live theater experience. Alternative theater groups pivoted quickly to venues and performances that allowed small audiences to safely view live shows, providing an escape from—or in some cases, a reckoning with—an especially chaotic year.

Denver-based Buntport Theater Company, for example, had a similar, take-it-all-outside idea. After noodling on the possibility of using a thin strip of grass in front of its building, the group began to wonder what cast of characters they might find between those blades of grass. The result was The Grasshoppers, a silly take on the classic nature documentary, which ran from June 11 to July 12. As the performers dressed in giant grasshopper costumes staged the production outside, attendees drove in and watched from their cars. Due to demand, Buntport added an additional run from September 2 to 13, and also brought the show to Colorado Springs from October 17 to 18 in a production sponsored by the Fine Arts Center at Colorado College.“You have no choice but to creatively respond to something like this,” says company member Brian Colonna. “Making do with what you have is something that we’ve played with over the years—smaller budgets, different spaces, things like that.”

Other local theater-makers turned their attentions to the heavier aspects of life in 2020. Contemporary performance director Julie Rada explored death and the five stages of grief in a piece titled Memento Mori, which ran from July 16 to 25 at Denver’s the Savoy at Curtis Park. For the solo performance, Rada encased herself within the storefront window, allowing audience members—or passersby—to come and go. Rada noted that in recent years, scholars have begun to recognize a sixth stage of grief known as meaning-making, which she says overlaps with the act of theater. At her performance, she provided attendees with scraps of paper and pens—plus hand sanitizer labeled as “elixir for extended survival”—and encouraged them to write eulogies of any kind. “It was an opening for people to feel and connect across distance,” she says, “and make a little space for their confusion and their grief and their sense of loss.”

Similarly, Jeffrey Campbell found that following the murder of George Floyd, people were reaching out to him with an outpouring of anger and grief. Campbell, founder and executive director of Denver’s Emancipation Theater Company, felt that, as a Black man, he needed to help channel those feelings into something productive. The result was I Am Raverro, a multimedia theater production accessible on the Museum of Contemporary Art’s YouTube page. I Am Raverro was the culmination of a 90-day campaign organized to seek justice for Raverro Stinnett, a burgeoning artist who survived a nearly fatal assault by security guards at Denver’s Union Station in 2018. Beginning on July 4, participants spent the summer months circulating petitions and amplifying Stinnett’s story, which Campbell ultimately told through a series of video montages and monologues.

Many groups are also shifting toward virtual productions as the weather becomes less hospitable. Buntport Theater has created the Buntport Bored Post Society Society—an interactive mail-in program where participants can take part in amalgamated art projects remotely. The Catamounts is planning a virtual whiskey-tasting production with interactive Zoom elements and a mail-in component.

As the pandemic drags on, larger organizations like the DCPA are establishing plans to reach audiences remotely for the immediate future. Part of that effort at DCPA includes releasing virtual productions to stream online—including Until the Flood, a one-woman show from writer and performance artist Dael Orlandersmith available through fall 2023, which is based on interviews collected in the wake of the 2014 shooting of Black teenager Michael Brown; the Live from the West Side: Women of Broadway series, which has featured legends like Patti Lupone and Laura Benanti, and which will conclude with Vanessa Williams on December 5; and a broadcast of Tantalus: Behind the Mask on December 16, a documentary which marks the 20th anniversary of the 10-part play created in partnership with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

The Year That Changed Everything

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