Shows go on, theaters safe as fires rage near Creede, Pagosa Springs

A giant smoke plume from the West Fork Fire over the Creede Repertory Theatre's mainstage theater. Photo by Charles Maze.

Dramatic photos of the three forest fires near Creede that have cast a surreal haze over the Creede Repertory Theatre’s 2013 summer season. The shows are going on because fire authorities have determined the town 250 miles southwest of Denver to be safe. Photos by John Gary Brown and Charles Maze. To see caption information for any photo above, or to see this gallery if looking on a mobile phone, click here. (The information is posted on the lower-left corner of each photo.) Or just click the “show info” option on any photo.


By John Moore
June 25, 2013

A giant smoke plume from the West Fork Fire over the Creede Repertory Theatre's mainstage theater. Photo by Charles Maze.
A giant smoke plume from the West Fork Fire over the Creede Repertory Theatre’s mainstage theater. Photo by Charles Maze.

Creede was overrun last summer by a Hollywood movie company. But the scene in the tiny, remote mining town today is far more surreal than anything Disney could ever imagine.

Plumes of smoke and shooting flames from three nearby forest fires have painted a whole new picture of one Colorado’s most picturesque spots. The sky has turned yellow-gray,
and little bits of ash and burnt Aspen leaves sprinkle down on the town.

Fire officials have deemed this trio of Southern Colorado fires to be the most threatening in the state, and the highest firefighting priority in the country.

But the message from Creede, home to one of Colorado’s oldest theater companies: “It’s safe. The shows go on. … And please come.”

The 48-year-old Creede Repertory Theatre, the largest employer in Mineral County, is going ahead with plans to open its fourth of seven summer offerings on Friday. “Around the World in 80 Days” joins “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “The Language of Trees” and a children’s show ironically titled “Pants on Fire” at two theaters along what has become a deserted Main Street.

Well, not completely deserted.

“This place has really cleared out,” said artistic director Jessica Jackson. “But there are 70 theater artists, a bunch of law enforcement officials and, of course, our loyal locals. We want people to know we’re here … right in the middle of all this craziness.”

Creede is nestled high in the San Juan Mountains 250 miles southwest of Denver. The Thingamajig Theatre Company, which recently opened an ambitious summer season including “Spamalot” and “The Full Monty,” is located 60 miles south of Creede in Pagosa Springs. The shows are going on there as well, but Wolf Creek Pass is closed to motor traffic because of poor visibility, so the only way in for now is through northern New Mexico. No estimate has been given for when the Pass will re-open.

Creede has a hardy year-round population of 400. But that number typically swells to 20,000 in the summertime as tourists flock to the area for its hunting, fishing, hiking, theater and water recreation. So it’s more than a little strange for the company to be performing its award-winning plays in June to houses that are barely one-third filled.

The West Fork Complex Fire includes the West Fork Fire, the Papoose Fire and the Windy Pass Fire, which have burned 75,000 combined acres near highways 149 and 160 between Creede, South Fork and the Wolf Creek Ski Area. The closest to Creede is the West Fork Fire. It has large smoke plumes piling up over Snowshoe Mountain, about 10 miles from town.  The Papoose Fire is about 16 miles away along Highway 149, where firefighters are doing point protection behind certain homes and structures. Highway 149 between South Fork and Creede is now open to escorted traffic from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. (on the half hour from South Fork to Creede; on the hour from Creede to South Fork). The theater is taking steps to make sure anyone needing to be at the final evening escort checkpoint will arrive on time.

Fire authorities believe the fires will die out within five to seven days. They are making twice-daily safety assessments of the town of Creede, and so far, they have had no reason to call for an evacuation. For the most part, it is business as usual — except for the lack of tourists.

“But they really, truly believe Creede is safe,” Jackson said.

And because it is safe, she said, the fires are affording a once-in-a-lifetime experience for members of her company. When they take 10-minute breaks, the actors and crew run outside to take in a scene that’s breathtaking in more ways than one. But every afternoon, Jackson says, the smoke and sky almost miraculously clear out, and an evening calm settles in over Creede.

Monday was the company’s day off. As Jackson sat at a picnic table outside the company’s housing complex, she was surrounded by actors, technicians and staff members who were grilling hamburgers, jamming to Aretha Franklin and playing a game company members invented call Four-Pie. “Seriously,” she said.

“Maybe we are fools, but we’re having a great time making plays and being a family of artists.”

Last summer, Creede’s early season attendance suffered as well, but for different reasons. The crew that filmed Johnny Depp’s “The Lone Ranger” claimed nearly every vacant room within a 50-mile radius of Creede. But one thing is for sure this June, Jackson said: “You won’t have any trouble finding lodging in Creede right now.”

Because many regular Creede Rep patrons planned their 2012 visits to Creede around “Occupy Disney,” the theater company’s numbers bounced back quickly after “The Lone Ranger” wrapped.

“Last year, we made up those numbers in July and August, and finished with our second-best season attendance ever,” Jackson said. “That bodes well that we can rally back from this as well.”

Jackson said the company is getting by for now on support from the locals.

“Our community of townspeople, donors and patrons are very supportive,” she said. “After the fire has gone out, it’s possible some new ticket deals will be put into effect. We are going to call on everyone who loves Creede and the Creede Repertory Theatre to come and show their support by attending our shows, eating in our restaurants and staying in our hotels. It’s not just the theater company that’s been affected … it’s the whole town. We’ll have to remind everyone out there that Creede has not been touched by the fire. Our forests, vistas and canyons are still as gorgeous as ever.”

Creede will soon add its improv comedy offering “Boomtown” to the summer repertoire, along with a Westernized “The Tamin’ of the Shrew” and a fun zombie thriller called “William Shakespeare’s Land of the Dead.” The company will be offering live performances through Sept. 21, after which it will bring “Around the World in 80 Days” to the Arvada Center (Oct. 1-27).

“I have never been more impressed by this company,” Jackson said. “They not only believe that tired adage that ‘the show must go on,’ but they embody it in their actions with humility, bravery — and a healthy dose of irreverent humor.

“We’ll be OK. This theater has been around for 48 years, and some measly raging infernos won’t keep it down. We just have to convince people to come back once the smoke clears. And we will.”

124 N. Main St., Creede, 719-658-2540, 1-866-658-2540, or creede rep’s home page
Through Aug. 7: “The Language of Trees,” at the Ruth Humphreys Brown Theatre
Through Aug. 24: “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”
Through Aug. 31: “Pants on Fire,” at the Ruth Humphreys Brown Theatre
June 28-Sept. 21: “Around the World in 80 Days”
July 5-Aug. 30: “Boomtown” improv comedy, at the Ruth Humphreys Brown Theatre
July 26-Sept. 19: “The Tamin’ of the Shrew”
Aug. 16-Sept. 20: “William Shakespeare’s Land of the Dead,” at the Ruth Humphreys Brown Theatre
Oct. 1-27: “Around the World in 80 Days,” at the Arvada Center

2313 Eagle Drive, Pagosa Springs, 970-731-7469 or thingamajig’s home page
Through July 31: “Monty Python’s Spamalot”
Through Aug. 8: “The Full Monty”
Aug. 16-Sept. 1: “Good People”


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By John Moore

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