Former theater writer Mark Collins has gone from critical to presidential in square product theatre’s “44 Plays for 44 Presidents.”
By John Moore
Oct. 19, 2012
For 10 years, Mark Collins was one of the leading critical voices in the Denver/Boulder theater community, combining a compassionate eye for the art of making theater with an opinion backed by a master’s degree. As a freelance contributor to the Boulder Daily Camera, Collins was always understated and well-informed.
In April, Collins wrote one of his most memorable essays, one explaining the transformative experience he had returning to the stage after a 15-year absence. He appeared in a friend’s play in Virginia, which inspired his thoughts on reconnecting with that strange alchemy that first attracted all of us to the stage.
The experience was so profound that a few months later, Collins did something extraordinary: He walked way from the Camera to pursue acting here in Colorado on a regular basis. He started with an appearance in Theatre Company of Lafayette’s new-play festival, “Comic Con con Comedy.”
Tonight (Oct. 19), Collins opens the ensemble-driven political comedy “44 Plays for 44 Presidents” for the lower-cased square product theatre company at the Dairy Center in Boulder. This rapid-fire biographical survey of each of the 44 men who have been president so far is described as a comic antidote to all the campaign negativity that hangs over the nation like a brown cloud.
As a contemporary of Collins’ who also recently – some would say inexplicably – walked away from my job as a theater critic, I was eager to talk with Collins and compare notes about “crossing over.” Just as some believe in an afterlife that will be as varied as heaven, hell and the Elysian Fields, I suspect we, too, have crossed over into very different critical afterlives.
But for this Wednesday afternoon, we both found ourselves at Ozo’s – me on my way to Boulder’s Dinner Theatre to see “Avenue Q,” he on his way to his final dress rehearsal. As someone who spends about as much time in a coffee shop as an altar boy at a bris, I order a hot Earl Gray (or is that Grey?). Collins, who earned his BFA in acting at the University of Colorado and his MFA from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, is already halfway through his Yerba Mate when I arrive — late, conveniently blaming my tardiness on the nonexistent traffic on Highway 36. (How is he gonna know?)
Collins: I am not totally comfortable yet being on the other side of the tape recorder.
Moore: That’s funny, because I feel soooo comfortable right now. … Let’s start by you telling me about performing in Virginia.
Collins: I was asked by a friend I went to grad school with. She’s a playwright, director, actor and producer.
Moore: What was the play?
Collins: Something she wrote called “Sarah and the Dinosaur.”
Moore: For you to say yes, you had to have been at the perfect place in your life when you got that call.
Collins: It was the perfect call at the perfect time. If she had called six months earlier, or really anytime over the past 10 years, I would have said no because of my responsibilities here.
Moore: How old is your son?
Collins: He is 18. He’s going to Pomona College in Claremont, Calif.
Moore: The ethics of being a critic dictate that you would have to leave your job in order to perform again, at least locally. How hard was it to give all that up, especially after the name you had made for yourself here in the Boulder/Denver theater community over the past decade?
Collins: I didn’t think of it in those terms. In fact, I am always surprised when somebody says that I made a name for myself. Frankly — and this is terrible of me to say — but mostly what I was thinking was, “Can I make up the money that I was making reviewing theater in some other way?” I don’t know if I can.
Moore: You paint houses, right?
Collins: Yeah. And I have been busy lately.
Moore: When did you start at the Camera?
Collins: In May 2002. So I did it for 10 years and a few months.
Moore: How do you describe the experience of moving to the other side of the aisle?
Collins: It felt like coming home. But I do feel older. It’s been interesting after all this time now being seen as someone who is middle-aged.
Moore: How old you are?
Collins: I’m 49.
Moore: So what are your artistic ambitions for yourself now?
Collins: I want to work with good people on good material.
Moore: What are you going to miss the most about being a reviewer for this community?
Collins: So far, I haven’t missed it at all. But there is a pleasure in being analytical about a performance. There is a pleasure in seeing a show and trying to figure out what the heck I am going to write about. That, I may miss — at some point.
Moore: Do you miss the other types of theater-writing more, like advances and profiles?
Collins: Absolutely. My favorite part of the job was writing feature stories, and being able to engage with the people who make theater. Since I’ve gone back to acting, I’ve realized that it’s different engaging with other actors in a show you are working on together, because then they are all typically focused on problem-solving. Whereas when you are writing a story about them, they kind of open up with you, and get a little more philosophical. I will miss that the most — and I kind of already do.
Moore: Do you feel any sort of guilt for walking away? Because I feel that every day.
Collins: No, because the powers-that-be at the Camera are still committed to covering theater with (my replacement) Liza Williams. And I am still freelancing for the Camera. I’m just not writing about theater.
Moore: We’re in the exact same boat. I am freelancing for The Denver Post, but the rules are the same — anything but theater.
Collins: I am also keeping the theater listings updated on our web site.
Moore: That’s hilarious, because so am I for The Post. But only because I know that if I stop, there is no one left there to do them, and they would just go away.
Moore: Now that you have “crossed over,” what have you learned about the way people who make theater look at reviews?
Collins: I have purposely not engaged in that kind of conversation. It takes so much to be an actor — that’s where my focus has to be. But I would say there are probably some misperceptions about what actually goes into being a theater reviewer at the Daily Camera.
Moore: I spent a lot of time recently embedded with the making of “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” for my long-form video project, and I recused myself from reviewing it or judging it for the Henry Awards, because whenever you spend a lot of time with people like that, of course you start to care for them. It’s also one of my favorite musicals. I really want it to succeed. So when opening night finally happened, it was great to just be there — and be relieved of the responsibility of being “the critic.” When I was later asked, “What do you think the reviews are going to say?” — I really didn’t have the faintest idea how it was going to be received. And that was kind of thrilling. Have you found that to be true with the shows you have acted in so far? Or do you know exactly what works and what doesn’t even better because you are living in it?
Collins: Oh, God, no. When I was in Virginia, my friend would say, “So what do you think, Mr. Theatre Critic?” and I really didn’t have a sense of how the whole show was doing. I was so focused on the things I was doing.
Moore: So does that make you develop a greater sense of empathy for the people in the creative community who are putting their whole hearts and bank accounts into these shows? They know all the trials and tribulations they have had to overcome, but we, as reviewers, are not generally supposed to know those things going in.
Collins: I have been reminded of the massive amount of work and collaboration that goes into putting on a play, absolutely. I feel like I always had empathy, but the further away you are from it, maybe some of that gets dulled a little bit. On top of that, the majority of theater done in this area is not by professionals, so they are working all day, and when they come in, they are already tired from working. And yet — here they are, putting it together. It’s really amazing.
Moore: But when your primary responsibility as a critic is to the readers of your newspaper, do you think that your empathy has ever compromised your reviews, when readers are counting on you to tell them whether, bottom line, it’s worth their $28 to go and see this play?
Collins: As a critic, my responsibility was to the readers first, for sure. But I think when it comes to empathy and understanding what it takes to put on a show – and I am sure I failed at this at times – that would come into play by my not taking any personal shots at people, or saying gratuitous things that were not necessary.
Moore: You were not the kind of guy to do that anyway.
Collins: I don’t think I was, in general, but I could go back and find times where I probably did.
Moore: But being tough is not the same thing as being discourteous.
Collins: Right. But I can remember reviews where I have later thought, “I could have said that a little differently, and gotten the same point across.” Because if I were an actor and read that about me, it would have been unnecessarily hurtful. It was beyond just saying, “This is not working.”
Moore: You know where I learned that lesson? Of all people, It was from (former Boulder’s Dinner Theatre owner) Ross Haley.
Collins: Oh yeah?
Moore: I was very, very new to reviewing, but I was determined from the beginning to try to get at least one smile out of the readers in every review I wrote. It was a way of saying, “You know, we should not all take this theater business so, so terribly seriously all the time.” I never thought that was going to be at someone’s expense, but you sometimes have to learn these lessons the hard way. And hopefully, only once. So for me, there was this dark comedy at the Nomad Theatre called “Jake’s Women.” It was basically Neil Simon reflecting on all the important women in his life. So there was this one actor on the stage, and it was like her elbows were glued to her rib cage. And she was kind of waving these outstretched arms throughout the whole thing. And the other thing was that she would never look right at the guy she was talking to. Instead she was always looking above him, like way up and into the rafters. It was distracting. I kept wondering, “What is it up there in the ceiling that she finds so fascinating?” So I thought I was being really clever when I wrote in the review, “I kept expecting somebody to toss down a baby from the burning building.” I made myself laugh when I wrote that. But it was crazy Ross Haley who called me on it, and he wasn’t even from the Nomad Theatre. But he totally blacklisted me for it. He said, “You are no longer welcome at Boulder’s Dinner Theatre.” I was blown away. I asked him, “Why? I’ve written nothing but glowing reviews for you so far.” And he said, “If you are capable of that kind of cruelty, I don’t even want to give you the opportunity to be that cruel to one of my people.” And at the time, I was sort of seen as the nice guy on the theater beat. But it was a valuable lesson because I had not thought for two seconds about what it must have been like to be that poor woman who had to open up the paper and read what I had written about her and the burning baby. I decided right there that I didn’t want to be that guy. So, never again. I’m not going to skip saying something that needs to be said, but I am going to write it in a way that is not going to make a person never want to leave the house again.
Collins: Yeah. I remember writing something many years ago about Gary Culig, who is obviously very talented, in “Waiting for Godot” at the Bug Theatre. That was one of those I wish I could have taken back. Everything was just so loud. I probably wasn’t being gratuitous, but I think what I said was, “Every vocal choice is either soft — or foghorn loud.” And when that came out, somebody said to me, “Geez, Mark …”
Moore: But those are our “Come to Jesus” moments.
Moore: You kind of have to go through those things a few times before you truly realize the power that your words have on people.
Collins: I can tell you the review I got as a student actor at CU more than 25 years ago. I can tell you down to the sentence what they wrote about me, which is kind of ridiculous. So, yeah, I get the sensitivity.
Moore: I had an experience like that when I was reviewing theater right out of college for the Littleton Independent. We covered the Loretto Heights productions, and the college students I was reviewing there were both my friends and contemporaries. They generally did excellent work. But I lost a friendship over what I thought was a very innocuous remark, and it pained me for years. Now something like 12 years go by and I run into this person, and sure enough, she could still quote these really benign words that had hurt her so badly. I thought, “Man, I don’t want anyone committing a single synapse to something I wrote when I was 21 years old. I’m not worth it.” It still freaks me out a bit. I’m sure there is part of you that is glad to be rid of that, too.
Collins: I don’t miss it. The funny thing for me was Kathryn Bernheimer reviewed me in the Camera when I was in “The Actor’s Nightmare.” I played George, and it was only the second show I had ever done. Her review said, “Mark Collins was OK, but I preferred Kevin Hart’s performance last month at the ‘blah blah blah’ theater in Denver.” And then she wrote two more sentences about how great Kevin Hart was in the other show.
Moore: So did you develop a chip on your shoulder for Kevin Hart? Did you make him pay?
Collins: There is a funny end to this story: First of all, in retrospect, which I only gained a couple of years later, I probably would have totally agreed with her. But the funny thing is, Kevin Hart and I became brothers-in-law three or four years later.
Moore: In real life?
Collins: In real life, yeah. He married my wife’s sister. So we joked about that a lot.
Moore: Isn’t that interesting? Because that points out one of the many dangers of being a theater critic in a place like Denver/Boulder as opposed to New York — Here, you just might end up being the brother-in-law of someone you review.
Moore: That’s weird.
Moore: I don’t miss that. I am glad to be relieved of the pressure of knowing that if you do your job and you are honest to your visceral response to the art, somebody might get hurt — no matter how hard you try to avoid it.
Collins: I think your experience is so different from mine because of the visibility of The Post vs. the Camera. I didn’t get much feedback.
Moore: You were — you just maybe weren’t hearing it directly. And I mean that in a good way. People talked about your reviews. You were the guy with the MFA. You were the guy who had the academic credentials to be doing what you were doing — whereas, I was the dumb-ass sports writer.
Collins: I never came across anybody who didn’t have ultimate respect for you.
Moore: Oh Mark, the emails I could show you. Especially in the early years. It’s scarring, hah.
Moore: So, forget that. Let’s ask the big questions. Like, what do you think of the state of local theater criticism in the Denver/Boulder area right now?
Collins: You would think that’s something I would have an opinion on, wouldn’t you?
Moore: I would, and I’ll tell you mine. I think recently there has been an upsurge in a willingness to be tough, but I have to say I saw an awful lot of free passes in the first six months of this year. I would be reading all these reviews, thinking, “I am soooo glad I don’t have to do this anymore, because I would have had to have been much tougher.” Do you think theater criticism in this day and age is a healthy art form?
Collins: It’s changing. The fact that anybody can go online now and start a blog and get their comps and write about a show —
Moore: Is that a good thing or bad thing?
Collins: It’s a mixed bag. It’s good for the theaters to get the publicity, but for the readers? I don’t know.
Moore: When Liza Williams took your place, did you have any advice for her?
Collins: She was great about reaching out, and I really appreciated that. I just said, “You have to write for the readers. You have to be honest. Be careful not to be gratuitous.” And she’s not that way. I can tell that already.
Moore: Let’s take a moment to talk about your play, “44 Plays for 44 Presidents.” What’s this all about?
Collins: It’s literally 44 short plays, each ranging from 30 seconds to 5 minutes, about each of the presidents. Now, nobody is trying to imitate the presidents. It an ensemble piece, which is really fun. There are five actors, and the range is wild. There is some straight musical theater. There is a scene where three of us come on, and all we do is eat bread. It’s about (Millard) Fillmore, who I guess was very boring, and the writer could not find anything interesting to do, so we just state facts and eat bread. Hopefully it will be funny. It was funny last night when we finally got bread. In the Kennedy piece, no one plays Kennedy. The president’s coat is simply draped over the TV, and that’s a comment on the fact that Kennedy was the first media president.
Moore: What’s your favorite part?
Collins: William Howard Taft. I get to wear a fat suit and be fed applesauce and spit it and throw a tantrum.
Moore: This is why you left the Boulder Daily Camera.
Collins: Yeah. I get to spit applesauce at another actor.
Moore: What’s funny about that is that, as a theater critic, I used to do that all the time. … So how many roles do you play?
Collins: There are about 150 roles, and we each play probably 30 to 35.
Moore: I am kind of encouraged and shocked at how much political theater is being offered in Colorado this month, especially because any theater that attempted to be political in the fall of 2008 tanked. How is this going to be different?
Collins: It would not be right for me to say it’s not political, but it’s just a whole bunch of fun. It has the feel of an improv comedy show, and nobody comes off unscathed, except for maybe George Washington. … Actually, Richard Nixon comes off pretty good, too.
Moore: I’ll be curious to see how you pull that off.
Collins: Michelle McHugh Moore plays him, and she’s great.
Moore: So how much fun are you having?
Collins: I am having a blast. I don’t miss the theater reviewing at all. I am really enjoying making theater much more.
Moore: Do you feel like a burden has been lifted?
Collins: Not so much a burden as I would say … this just fits me better.
Moore: We’ll have to circle back around with you in a few weeks and ask how it feels to be reviewed by your old paper.
Collins: I’m not going to read the review.
Moore: You’re not?
Collins: Hell, no. I am smarter than that.
Moore: Are you sure you’re not going to be one of these actors who says they never read the review … but secretly they do?
Collins: Probably. But for right now, I am going to say that I am not going to read the review. … Unless I get a sense on Facebook that it’s positive — then I will read it.
Moore: That’s not a bad way to do it.
“44 Plays for 44 Presidents”: Ticket information
The cast of “44 Plays for 44 Presidents,” from left: Chanel Karimkhani, Bradley Spann, Ali Janes-Paulsen, Mark Collins and Michelle McHugh Moore.
Cast: Michelle McHugh Moore, Chanel Karimkhani, Bradley Spann, Ali Janes-Paulsen and Mark Collins.
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays through Nov. 3
Where: At the Dairy Center for the Arts, 2590 Walnut St., Boulder
Info: 303-442-0234 or square product’s home page