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Chip Walton believes this story should open in the late 1990s, when Curious Theatre Company began casting its first show. Walton and other local artists had recently earned acclaim for their independent production of the Pulitzer Prize–winning play Angels in America (“a stunning achievement for all involved,” gushed the Denver Post) and wanted to spin the momentum into a new theater company in Denver. They decided Curious’ debut show would be another Pulitzer winner, How I Learned to Drive.
“It’s a comedy-drama about a pedophile,” Walton says. The main characters are Uncle Peck, the pedophile, and Li’l Bit, the victim. Casting of the latter, who narrates the play as an adult but also appears at times as an 11-year-old, came down to two locals, C. Kelly Leo and Jada Suzanne Dixon. Leo and Dixon were evenly matched in terms of training and experience, but Leo won the role. “She had this real sort of—and it wasn’t an acting thing, it was part of who she was as a person—you just bought her as this young, vulnerable girl,” Walton says.
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The anecdote does have dramatic effect because—in a third-act twist worthy of Hitchcock—the once-rejected Dixon became Curious’ artistic director in August. Walton will step down as producing artistic director following the company’s 25th season, which opens this month with playwright Will Arbery’s Heroes of the Fourth Turning (September 10 to October 15). Co-founder Dee Covington, Walton’s wife, will also leave her role as education director. “One of the beautiful opportunities that is in front of me and the staff is that this is a transition year,” Dixon says. “It’s not, ‘Dee and Chip are out next week and Jada is in.’ ” Eventually, though, that will happen. The question—the thickening plot, if you will—is whether a theater company meticulously constructed in the image of its founder can succeed without him.
In 2004, the Denver Post wrote that Walton, then in his ascendancy in the Colorado theater scene, was “more competitive than Bobby Knight.” (Coincidentally, the native of Bloomington, Indiana, grew up friends with the son of the chair-hurling former Hoosiers basketball coach.) The truth is, however, that Curious had few rivals when it started: At the upper end of the Mile High City theater scene stood the Denver Center for the Performing Arts (DCPA), with its multimillion-dollar budget. At the other end there were amateur productions. There was little in the middle.
The DCPA thrived in that environment, topping more than one million attendees for the first time during its 1996-’97 season. It accomplished the feat by hosting traveling Broadway shows, including Phantom of the Opera and Show Boat. Its own productions were not typically controversial, says Thom Wise, then the theater critic for the Rocky Mountain News. “[DCPA] chose a very safe product. They weren’t taking any chances.” Curious saw an opportunity to stage the challenging sorts of works that the success of Angels indicated Denver audiences were ready for.
Although the company had seven founders (Walton and Covington are the only two who remain), Walton became the face of Curious. He was charming and attractive, with a wolfish smile—Wise says Walton radiated “animal magnetism”—and seemed naturally adept at fundraising and networking. One of the fledgling company’s first financial contributions came from the late Robert Garner, who was then in charge of scheduling Broadway shows for the DCPA. “I think it was for $1,500, which back then seemed like a shit ton of money,” Walton says. The donation helped Curious establish itself as an equity company, meaning a set number of its performers would be part of the labor union that represents stage actors and thus earn a regular wage, health insurance, and a pension. Curious became one of the few such theater companies in the state, behind places like the DCPA and the Country Dinner Playhouse, which performed musicals in Arapahoe County until it shuttered in 2007.
Walton may have been adept, but he was also lucky. He stumbled into How I Learned to Drive by asking for a different play. The producer agreed, but then had to back out of the deal because the regional rights had already been sold to the DCPA. To make amends, the licensing house offered Walton Drive. Once he got the play, Walton gave his actors freedom to explore their characters, a rare act among theater directors, who are notorious for wanting to execute their own visions. “You were part of the process,” says Paul Borrillo, who played Uncle Peck in Drive. “To take the role of a pedophile, I had to explore a reason that [Uncle Peck] felt it was OK to do that.… [Walton] allowed me the room to find it.” Walton might’ve given his players creative liberties, but he didn’t coddle them. Despite his man bun, Walton had role models who were more likely to don Nikes. “When you think about what Michael Jordan was to his teammates, people hated him and people loved him,” Walton says. “But he demanded that everybody bring their best every day.”
Debuting in 1999 at the Acoma Center, a former church in the Golden Triangle that would eventually become Curious’ permanent home, Walton’s Drive earned an A from the Rocky Mountain News and three and a half stars (out of four) from the Post. “[Li’l Bit’s] savior is also her destroyer,” Sandra Brooks-Dillard wrote in the Post, “as powerfully demonstrated in the scene in which he takes the pre-adolescent girl on his lap on the pretext of letting her get the feel of driving.” This, in other words, was no Show Boat. Borrillo remembers crowds leaving the Acoma Center visibly shaken—but only after having delivered standing ovations.
Curious would spend the next quarter century presenting works that similarly forced audiences to confront issues from new perspectives. That was easy early on: The DCPA gets first crack at regional premieres in Denver because of its size, yet from 2001 to 2004, it passed on the most recently available Tony Award winners: Proof, The Goat, Take Me Out, and I Am My Own Wife, respectively. Curious produced them all. When the DCPA’s new artistic director began snatching up New York’s best plays in 2005, Walton found classics that had something to say about modern society, such as Curious’ 2008 production of Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class, which revolves around a poor, dysfunctional family whose soliloquies on debt and poverty felt relevant to audiences during the Great Recession. Curious also began commissioning original work, starting with 2005’s Paris on the Platte, about one-time Denver Mayor Robert Speer, who spruced up local parks but also made deals with local magnates in Mattie Silks’ brothel (at least in the fictionalized play).
By 2010, Curious had achieved, by most metrics, huge success. Its revenue had grown to more than $1 million from only $108,000 a decade before, and it had earned the Post’s Ovation Award for best theater season three times in eight years. Yet Walton had little patience for people who didn’t share his vision for what local theater should be. For example, Curious once resigned from the Colorado Theatre Guild, in part because Walton felt the organization’s Henry Awards lacked diversity among its honorees. (Curious has since rejoined.) “Chip’s pretty uncompromising,” says Erik Sandvold, who has been a Curious artistic company member since 2002. Walton doesn’t mind drawing a line, Sandvold continues, explaining that, “‘If you’re on this side, you’re with [him], and if you’re not, catch up later.’”
Jada Suzanne Dixon wasn’t too disappointed or surprised when she missed out on the role of Li’l Bit. After all, the character was written by a white person for a white person, and it was rare for theaters to cast a Black person in a white role at the time. Walton kept calling her back, though, simply because he says Dixon was an exceptional actor.
The Park Hill native is the daughter of former City Councilperson Bill Roberts, whom the Post called “the father of Denver International Airport” upon his death in 2005. Dixon gravitated toward another city institution, the Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex, where she took acting classes and as a middle schooler saw Ceremonies in Dark Old Men, a 1969 play about a Black family in Harlem. “I just remember sitting in the theater and leaning so far forward on the edge of my seat because I was so moved by the story,” Dixon says, “and so moved by the beauty of the work that was happening onstage.” She studied theater at New York University’s prestigious Tisch School of the Arts and received a Master of Fine Arts at the Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University. After 12 years of grinding out auditions on the East Coast, she moved back to Denver with her then-toddler in the late 1990s.
She landed a spot in a Curious production in 2005 (Paris on the Platte) but in future years continued to work with other outfits, including the Aurora Fox Art Center, Edge Theatre, Boulder Ensemble Theatre, DCPA, and Arvada Center, for which she directed last year’s Stick Fly. In 2012, Dixon joined Curious as a part-time artistic company member but continued working full time in health care.
Last year, Walton asked Dixon if she had ever thought about taking a leadership role in the arts. She laughed the suggestion off as the pipe dream of every regional dramatist. Over time, however, the conversation turned increasingly specific—until it was clear to Dixon that Walton and Covington wanted to step away from Curious, at least as full-time participants, and wanted to discuss the possibility of her becoming the company’s artistic director. The trio came up with a succession plan that allowed Walton and Covington to remain in their roles for one last season, the 25th, while Dixon learned the position.
Walton had been thinking about his exit from Curious before the pandemic hit; COVID-19 and its devastating impact on live theater motivated him to stay to ensure the company survived. Now that it is financially stable again, Walton believes he’s accomplished all he set out to do 25 years ago. In Dixon, he sees a talented creative who will protect Curious’ goal of producing challenging work. (The company’s credo: “No guts, no story.”) “Obviously, to Dee and I, Curious is our baby,” Walton says. “We wanted to make sure that whenever we left, we left it in the hands of someone who appreciated and understood the culture, the core values, the mission, and was ready to continue that while putting their own stamp on it.”
Dixon isn’t sure yet what exactly her personal vision will be, saying only that she believes there will be opportunities to “explore new ways in which [Curious’] values can be implemented.” Not that she lacks for more immediate concerns. Curious’ reputation is built on producing challenging work, but the competition for plays has become more intense, as more medium-size theaters have risen in Curious’ image. Ticket sales are down since the beginning of the pandemic, and the company needs to reckon with an older audience that might not come back because of lingering concerns about COVID-19. Dixon will have to find the money to continue to diversify players so the company better represents society—without pigeonholing dramatists of color by confining their contributions to plays that deal with, say, the Black experience.
“I acknowledge that what’s in front of us can feel daunting,” Dixon says. But she’s trying to look at problems as opportunities, as ways to attract new audiences. “That might mean some different kinds of community outreach than what we’ve done in the past, cultivating some partnerships within the community but also within our artistic community…. I don’t think we have to work in a silo.”
A move toward collaboration might turn out to be Curious’ most marked difference in the post-Walton era. Dixon, with her experience as a dramatist across different companies in Denver, could be a bridge-builder. “There’s been times when Curious blazes its own path,” Sandvold says. “And I’ve usually been on board with that…. But I think [Dixon] also understands how to use those contacts she has at other theaters to our advantage.” Within Curious, there are already signs of diffusing power: Walton’s role will be split into two, with Dixon handling the artistic side and Jeannene Bragg, the former business director, becoming managing director for the administration side. Both will report directly to the company’s board. “That kind of single-head leadership model,” Dixon says, “is an old-school version of leadership.”
Walton sounds like a man eager to escape from it: He’s looking forward to meditating for a while. “And then I think we’re looking at, like, let’s take this thing in six-month chunks,” Walton says. One chunk—maybe two. “By that point,” Walton says, “who knows?”