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Coloradans like to engage with the arts: We ranked third among all states in attendance for live music, theater, or dance shows in a National Endowment for the Arts study. But the Centennial State earned that ranking with just 44 percent of adult residents snagging seats at performances—meaning local theater companies are pulling audiences from a shrunken pool. And an aging one at that.
In an effort to reach new, and hopefully younger, audiences, Boulder-based Square Product Theatre and Local Theater Company—both known for tackling ambitious subject matter—are teaming up to promote productions that address difficult contemporary issues. The project is titled “The War on Women: A Cross-Company Exploration,” and each company is opening its season with separate plays centered on sexual violence against women and girls, community responses, and collective responsibility.
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“These are topics that people are uncomfortable talking about,” says Emily K. Harrison, producing artistic director at Square Product Theatre. “People want to have these conversations, but they don’t know how to have them. Art is a really great way because it engages someone’s empathy.”
“We discovered pretty early on in both of our independent theater processes that we were using our seasons to explore really challenging material that would be hard to reach audiences because of the subject matter,” adds Pesha Rudnick, artistic director at Local Theater Company. Rather than attempt to market separately, they decided to collaborate on both outreach and a series of community events around the plays. “It’s a way to share the challenge and importance of the subject matter,” Rudnick says. The Boulder Arts Commission agreed and awarded them a $30,000 grant to produce the shows.
Square Product leads off its 12th season with Gregory S. Moss’ House of Gold, an “allegory about childhood trauma” told through the perspective of JonBenét Ramsey. Don’t go expecting to see a reenactment of true events to play out on stage, though.”It’s about the ways in which women and girls are sexualized and objectified and the larger problems that causes in our culture,” says Harrison, who plays JonBenét. “We thought long and hard about whether or not to do this play here. It’s a play we’ve been sitting on for a few years.” Ultimately, though, the message and the themes were too important not to produce it.
In October, Local kicks off its season with The Rape of the Sabine Women, by Grace B. Matthias from playwright Michael Yates Crowley. The play—which takes place at a high school where a young woman, Grace B. Matthias, has accused two football stars of rape—takes its name from a 17th century work of art. Audiences were first introduced to the production during a reading at last year’s Local Lab, the troupe’s annual new play festival. Crowley spent the past year editing and revising the work for this first full showing. Though it’s a heavy topic, Rudnick says the play has doses of levity courtesy of well-placed humor. “It’s one of these plays that’s really funny until it’s not,” she says. “It makes the conversation a lot more accessible.”
Conversation is the goal for both companies. They’re co-hosting a two-part, panel-led conversation about rape culture in Boulder; the first will be held after House of Gold‘s August 6 show, around 7:45 p.m., and is free to attend. Square Product will be organizing additional talks, including an opening night talkback with Clay Evans, a Boulder Daily Camera reporter who covered JonBenét Ramsey’s murder. Local Theater plans to host four pre-show conversations with various experts as well as facilitated audience discussions after every Sunday production.
Sadly, many members of the community will bring personal experience to these performances and talks. One in six American women “has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime,” according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN). Locally, in January, former CU football assistant coach Joe Tumpkin resigned and was charged with five felony counts of second-degree assault resulting from domestic abuse allegations by his ex-girlfriend.
Rudnick also points to sexual assault accusations against President Donald Trump as a reason why she wanted to produce this play now. “I am not shying away from the fact that we have people in authority in this country right now who have either bragged about assaulting a woman or have a history of being accused of it with little or no accountability,” she says.
The majority of sexual assault victims are under 30 years old (according to RAINN), and as theater audiences become “grayer,” companies like Square Product and Local see value—for the community and their bottom lines—in producing shows that resonate with younger people. “We want younger people coming to the theater,” Harrison says. “Art is a really important part of our culture. Come see these two plays that focus on these themes and then let’s talk about them.”
If You Go: House of Gold plays through August 12 in the ATLAS Black Box Theater on the University of Colorado Boulder campus. General admission tickets are $22. The Rape of the Sabine Women opens October 27 at the Dairy Arts Center in Boulder; single ticket sales have not yet started.