Denver Sonnets Project, No. 44: John Carroll Lynch

By John Moore

IMG_7500SMCultureWest.Org is endeavoring to make short films out of all 154 of Shakespeare’s sonnets, each featuring actors with Colorado connections. The artistic intent is primarily to further CultureWest’s mission to spotlight the local theatre community and their current or upcoming productions. It’s also an attempt to promote Shakespeare education in a fun way. This is an entirely volunteer project with a proud budget of … zero dollars.

We will roll one Sonnet video a week for … zoinks! … 154 weeks. Here’s a link to the YouTube playlist that hosts the entire series.

For our ninth sonnet, No. 44, film and TV veteran John Carroll Lynch (“Fargo,” “Zodiac,” Gran Torino”) took us to the Satire Lounge on East Colfax to play a man who has a communication breakdown while missing his wife. Lynch is a graduate of Regis Jesuit High School. Video by  John Moore. Learn more about Adam Stone here.

The Denver Sonnets Project is a volunteer collaboration, with limited eligibility requirements for participation. For information on how to register, email your interest to culturewestjohn@gmail.com.

Completed episodes to date (in numeric order):

Sonnet 1: Cast of “Cult Following”: “From fairest creatures we desire increase …”
Sonnet 2: Josh Robinson, “See thy blood warm …”
Sonnet 23: Gabra Zackman, “As an unperfect actor on a stage …”
Sonnet 36: Rachel Fowler, “I may not evermore acknowledge thee …”
Sonnet 44: John Carroll Lynch, “Thought kills me that I am not thought …”
Sonnet 74: Lowry Elementary School: “Thou hast but lost the dregs of life …”
Sonnet 90: Adam Stone: “If thou wilt leave me, do not leave me last …”
Sonnet 94: James O’Hagan-Murphy: Sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds …”
Sonnet 136: Lyndsay and Jeremy Palmer, “Make but my name thy love …”

Look here for a new sonnet every Monday. For more information on The Denver Sonnets Project, and how to sign up, please email culturewestjohn@gmail.com.

Please consider supporting the Denver Actors Fund at www.DenverActorsFund.Org

 

 

Don’t be frightened, Regis High School students, but … We are your future

JCL
Please forgive that hideous white tie. I didn’t bring one to my senior portrait session. Intentionally. But the repressive “man” who ran the studio refused to take any boy’s senior photo without a tie, and that was the only one he had on hand. I guess the lesson, kids, is that you can’t be a rebel half-way. I am still a bit of ashamed for not walking out that day, photo unsnapped. Instead, I capitulated. What would Bro Simms say??? (Wow, I apparently still have issues from high school!)

By John Moore
May 20, 2013

Last year, I was interviewed by Regis High School’s director of alumni relations about the school’s decision to finally build a dedicated performing-arts center for its students after a period of, oh, 136 years when that was never considered much of a priority. I’m an opinionated guy, and let’s just say what my friend Colin St. John ultimately published was … heavily (and probably necessarily) edited.

I was already in a bit of hot water with my alma mater over an essay I had written the year before for The Denver Post: “Sticking it to Mullen, old-school style.” It was my “Wonder Years”-like look back at the Regis-Mullen rivalry as it existed in our day. Even though I was named Valedictorian and Senior of the Year … well, I’ve also never been officially invited to a reunion. (I did crash one, though.)

Given all the hate mail I got from present-day Regis parents over the Mullen column (which, interestingly, Mullen parents seemed to enjoy very much), I figured Regis would surely never want anything to do with me again. So I wasn’t sure what to expect when current Regis High School junior Hunter Gause (also an actor in Regis’ drama department) reached out to me a few weeks ago asking for an interview. He and co-writer Michael Cobb were preparing a report on notable Regis alumni for a super-slick magazine called the RJ Voice, the new student publication at Regis. Now, I was once the editor of the decidedly non-glossy Raider Review student newspaper, and one look at the thick, colorful and surprisingly tough journalism they are now putting out at Regis made me feel like a bit of a journo fraud. After all, I used the Raider Review to rail about the civil liberties that were being threatened each week by mandatory mass. In the most recent issue, Hunter interviewed a former Iraq hostage.

My fears were allayed when I was met at the “new” Regis by a large and daunting-looking welcoming committee including the two student reporters, Colin St. John (the alumni director), journalism teacher Adam Dawkins and even Regis principal Fr. Phil Steele S.J. himself. (Why did I feel like I had been duped into reporting for jug?) Instead, they were all so swell, I don’t even much feel the journalistic urge now to publicly point out to Hunter that his referencing me as one of the “most famous Regis alumni” is an exercise in gross hyperbole. (I just think at the very least, you should have to have a job to be seriously considered among that category).

He wasn’t exaggerating in co-referencing my big-shot actor friend John Carroll Lynch that way. I had offered to bring my classmate and pal along for the interview because John was in town tending to his dying mother, and this might afford him a little bit of a diversion from that. Over the next hour, the student journalists engaged us in a wide-ranging and challenging conversation about the influence our Jesuit educations had on the men we have become. I’m not sure if I had anything relevant to contribute, but it turned out to be an enlightening exercise in trying to put into words things I haven’t given much tangible thought to in 30 years.

You know John from “Fargo,” “Gran Torino,” “Zodiac,” “Shutter Island,” “Gothika,” “Paul,” “Mercury Rising,” “Pushing Tin,” “Volcano,” “Face/Off” and dozens more, including punching Ryan Gosling in the face in “Crazy Stupid Love.” Also from TV’s “The Drew Carey Show,” “Carnivale,” “Body of Proof” and “K-Ville.” John is a smart, serious, searching guy. I was (hopefully) comic relief.

In any event, if you would like to read what a fine job reporters Hunter and Michael did in massaging an hour of muddled transcript from a couple of rambling fools (OK, one rambling fool) into a smart and breezy read, just click this link. Their story is titled, cleverly enough: The Graduates

Thanks, Hunter, Michael, Colin, Adam and … Fr. Steele. (Sorry, I still can’t call a priest – or a principal — by his first name.)

Read the RJ Voice article.

Click here to read “The Graduates: An inside look at two distinguished Regis Jesuit Alumni”

 

 

Anatomy of a theater director: A daily Q&A with Colorado’s creative minds

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By John Moore
May 3, 2013

My return to directing (“Always … Patsy Cline,” which closed April 27 at the PACE Center), had me revisiting a story idea I always wanted to do for The Denver Post, but never got around to: The anatomy of the theater director. So I am doing it now, while shamelessly cribbing off all the wonderful advice I am getting.

I asked some of the most prolific and respected directors in town one individual, tailored question about the craft, process and problem-solving of directing for the live theater. And two quick follow-ups for the entire panel.

Each day, I added a new director to this report. I didn’t get everyone I wanted but am so grateful for those that I did. I hope you enjoy this insight into one of the most important but seldom-discussed aspects of the creative process.

There is now a new addendum to this series to share with you. Think of Day 40 as a post-mortem on our “Anatomy of a Theater Director” series. It features a testy journalist named John Moore interviewing a churlish theater director named John Moore.

Click here to subscribe to the CultureWest.org Monthly E-Newsletter

 

Director No. 39: Kent Thompson.

KentThompson Most recent directing project: Denver Center Theatre Company’s “Other Desert Cities”

Upcoming directing project: World premiere of “Just Like Us,” opening Oct. 10 at the Denver Center Theatre Company.

Your question: What are one or two valuable lessons you have learned about directing over the course of your career that you wish you could go back and whisper into the ear of the young Kent Thompson who was directing his first few shows out of the gate?

I would tell young Kent: ‘Every actor works a different way. As does every designer, playwright, etc. Articulacy and persuasion are just as important as directing’ — which a lot of people underestimate in thinking that it’s telling actors what to do. The hardest part of directing most shows is ‘bringing the ship into port.’ Forcing yourself to zoom back from the intimate, imaginative and deeply personal process of rehearsal (and all your brilliant ideas!) so you can see the show anew during dress and previews. Then finding the courage to change things that are not working — even if it unsettles everyone and is risky.”

In one word: What’s the most important personal attribute a good director should have? Vision. Curiosity.

In one sentence, describe your directing philosophy: Know why you must direct this particular play now; inspire everyone else with your vision; describe how we will get there; then persuade everyone to collaborate, contribute, and improve the vision.
Director No. 38: Chip Walton.

chipwaltonportrait Most recent directing project: “God of Carnage,” running through June 8 at Curious Theatre (303-623-0524).

Your question: Say you just don’t like the way an actor is delivering a key line. Does a good director tell the actor exactly how you want the line delivered, so he/she knows exactly what you mean … or should the director give him/her something to think about in the hope that they will arrive at your way of thinking over time?

A good director never gives a line-reading, but always tries to help the actor get to where they think they need to be, including line delivery. I’m a big believer in technique -— so I tend to give a lot of notes about inflection, emphasis, playing through the end of lines, etc. — because I think the delivery of a line can be instrumental in how an audience receives it. This requires actors with a certain amount of training and technique, but with those tools in place, these questions of “line readings” become much easier to address. For example, I am currently working on ‘God of Carnage,’ and the last few lines of the play are very tricky, both in terms of tone and message. As we have worked on it, we have talked very little about ’emotion,’ and a lot about words like ‘feeble,’ or ‘slower,’ or ‘feathered.’ Given that we have such a strong company of actors who share a very common vocabulary, this is very common to how we work here at Curious.”

In one word: What’s the most important personal attribute a good director should have? Vision.

In one sentence, describe your directing philosophy: My directing philosophy is to arrive at the rehearsal room with a strong vision, leave plenty of room for good collaborative ideas from others, and never be afraid to embrace questions, rather than always feeling like you need answers.

 

 

Director No. 37: Geoff Kent.

geoff Most recent directing project: “You Can’t Take it With You,” for TheatreWorks in Colorado Springs

Upcoming projects: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” opening June 7 at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival
 in Boulder, and “Metamorphoses,” opening Aug. 16 at the Aurora Fox

Your question: “According to the Institute of Outdoor Drama, overall paid attendance at outdoor Shakespeare festivals is down more than 60 percent since 1994. So how should a director approach directing a Shakespeare play in 2013 in a way that will be true to the text, but also capture the imaginations of an audience that is drifting away?”

Tough question. We’ve been running the bard across the theater boards for more than 450 years. I think we have all heard the adage that his stories are timeless and resonate today. And I wholeheartedly agree. But cracking him open to today’s audiences is still a mean feat. I suppose on one hand, we can liven it up with technology: Ariel as a hologram projected on mist; epic scenic transformations, the ‘Macbeth’ witches chanting via Tweets. Hell, even the Royal Shakespeare Company is currently collaborating with Google for an online, interactive ‘Midsummer’ experience.

Framing the play in a setting that illuminates the themes to a modern audience helps to erase the feeling that it is outdated and stuffy. I once staged ‘Macbeth’ in the Wild West. You might set ‘The Tempest’ on the moon, or ‘The Comedy of Errors’ … with pirates! This summer, we are certainly aiming for a ‘ “Downton Abbey” meets “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” ‘ atmosphere. And next fall, I will be acting in a ‘Taming of the Shrew’ that is being billed as ‘ “Showboat” meets “Maverick” meets “Gone with the Wind.” ‘ Gimmicks, maybe. … But sexy gimmicks.

However, when the rubber hits the road with Shakespeare, it is still all about the language. And if a director and the cast can crack it open, and speak the speech clearly so that you don’t need footnotes or a cheat-sheet to follow it, the plays stand on their own merit. They still make an audience bust a gut … or weep openly.”

In one word: What’s the most important personal attribute a good director should have? Passion.

In one sentence, describe your directing philosophy: To create an atmosphere in the rehearsal room where any idea can be fearlessly pursued.

 

 

Director No. 36: Robert Kramer.

kramer Most recent directing project: “Race,” the inaugural show at the new space for the Edge Theater

Upcoming projects: “Collected Stories,” with Billie McBride and Devon James; “Wonder of the World” and “It’s A Wonderful Life: The Radio Play,” all at Miners Alley Playhouse

Your question: Once rehearsals begin, what are the time-sucking traps that directors should be on the lookout for that can distract you from using your valuable time in the best possible way?

Time management is vitally important; not just because there is a limited amount of it in the rehearsal process, but also so your actors feel valued. The most popular thing a director with a big cast can do is make an incredibly specific schedule that calls actors only at the times they are needed, and then STICK TO IT! I also never run cue-to-cues with actors and always separate out the time spent with designers so that they can have my full attention and feel valued as well. In the actual process, the most dangerous derailing element is also a valuable one — conversations with actors. If you dismiss these during rehearsal, it can alienate an actor. and cause them to both share and collaborate less. But the flip-side is just as costly. So I tend to allow for a certain amount and then budget time after every rehearsal for extended talking time with actors. Then the impetus to triage these concerns falls on the actor — if it is truly important, they will stay and chat. If not, it typically was a minor or momentary issue they can work out on their own.”

In one word: What’s the most important personal attribute a good director should have? Vision.

In one sentence, describe your directing philosophy: My job as a director is to show everyone at their best: The actor, the playwright, everyone.

 

 

Director No. 35: Warren Sherrill.

WARREN Most recent project: Acted in “The Seafarer” for Ashton Entertainment at the Aurora Fox.

Upcoming project: The Paragon Theatre co-founder will direct “Dust Storm” for Theatre Esprit Asia, opening May 30 at the Vintage Theatre in Aurora (303-856-7830).

Your question: Directing has moved past the rehearsal room and into your actors’ e-mail boxes. Now that technology has made communicating with your cast and crew so much easier, some directors use every second in the rehearsal room for work, and then later send out long, specific overnight notes via e-mail. I’m not so sure this is the best way to be communicating the finer points of your production. There’s no dialogue, just a directive to “change this,” or “try something else.” It seems much could be misinterpreted in the absence of tone or direct response. Do you ascribe to “notes by e-mail,” or do you prefer direct dialogue, even if that cuts into your rehearsal time?

There’s no doubt about it: E-mail has certainly changed the way we do theater. I think those of us who have day jobs can relate to the fact that e-mail has taken over a large part of everyday communication. Time-saving? Definitely. Effective? Meh.

The way I like to use e-mail when directing a show is for communication that really isn’t dialogue driven … most of this happens with the tech crew, not with the actors. Communications that can happen without having to call a special production meeting but need to be addressed, such as lists, basic “how to’s” or instructions, answers, or even questions that require a simple answer. This is where e-mail helps in the birth of a production — and I always make sure to include the WHOLE team in every email, as this ultimately saves a lot of back-tracking during crucial production meetings.

With actors, I do my absolute best not to e-mail directing notes. There will always be the little e-mail here and there, such as, “Don’t forget to take that suitcase off after scene 2” — things that can be addressed simply and quickly. To me, face-to-face communication AND DIALOGUE with your actors is the key to a good production … especially during the last few rehearsals. There is no time for misinterpretations. I want opinions, I want feedback and ideas … and from everyone involved in the show. It makes it much more of a team effort and creates the mutual sense of “ownership” that is so crucial in the end.

As for time concerns? My theory always has been that you should give yourself enough time to end on time. If rehearsal is scheduled from 7 to 10 p.m … then finish at 10 p.m. … with notes. It can be done. No excuses.”

In one word: What’s the most important personal attribute a good director should have? Honesty.

In one sentence, describe your directing philosophy: My attitude is that director should eventually become an invisible character on the stage. … Only the actors and crew can see him, and that character can make or break the show.

 

Editor’s note: The following entries offer two perspectives on the same (volatile) topic.

Director No. 34: Scott RC Levy.

Scott Most recent directing project: “Other Desert Cities” for the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center

Upcoming project: Making my Colorado acting debut as “Man in Chair” in “The Drowsy Chaperone” here at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, ooening May 9.

Your question: Acting is an inherently vulnerable endeavor. What do you do if, in the normal course of rehearsing, your actor has some kind of a breakdown. Your show hangs in the balance. How do you salvage things, and quickly?

If my work as a director brings out an “emotional breakdown” from an actor, then the actor has more serious problems that need to be dealt with, and I probably shouldn’t have hired them in the first place. I would probably tell them to suck it up — and immediately try to find a replacement. We don’t have time to deal with that nonsense, nor is it my job to serve as the actor’s babysitter.

But yes, sometimes the work is emotionally raw and honest — and sometimes what appears to be a meltdown is actually a breakthrough of some sort. If there were a situation in which an individual actor were exhibiting signs that made the piece need to be salvaged, I would simply have a private conversation with the actor to get to the root of the issue, give them some time to regroup, and then move on. Especially in a drama, what I try to remind actors is that if and when they are successful at having an emotional release, when we rehearse or perform the scene next, they can not go back and look for that same emotion, because chances are they won’t be able to access it again, as it won’t be of the moment and on the breath.

For actors, use your emotion. If you speak the words on the emotion and breathe on the emotion (instead of trying to exhale breath and throw away the emotion before speaking), then your emotion will transform into something else. It’s basic human nature. We don’t stay in one emotion for very long.”

In one word: What’s the most important personal attribute a good director should have? Chutzpah.

In one sentence, describe your directing philosophy: Honor the collaboration; create a fun and trust-filled room (rehearsal and performance); tell the story that has been written with thought and feeling; and never forget the audience.

 

 

Director No. 33: Jennifer McCray Rincon.

rincon Most recent directing projects: I am working on building up Visionbox, an actors’ studio and production Company in the Santa Fe Drive the arts district. Projects in development are: The American Chekhov Project; an adaptation of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters”; and Crisis Actors, a new company developing training videos and live re-enactments of emergencies in schools in Colorado.

Your question: Acting is an inherently vulnerable endeavor. What do you do if, in the normal course of rehearsing, your actor has some kind of a breakdown. Your show hangs in the balance. How do you salvage things, and quickly?

So if an actor has a meltdown, I suppose I would try to remind them that personalization is about the life of the character, and that their ability to walk in someone else’s shoes is the real truth in acting. Not what is going on in their own experience. And that by putting attention on the other character on stage, their work will be more intuitively true and free. Self is paradoxically our worst enemy onstage. All attention goes on to the others, other character’s on stage. It is not about you.”

In one word: What’s the most important personal attribute a good director should have? Humility.

In one sentence, describe your directing philosophy: The director is responsible first and foremost for the spine of the play. This is Harold Clurman: the spine is the human need that propels the play. Everything comes from that. The other characters’ journey or spine or superobjectives must connect to the spine of the play. This is the directors’ responsibility to define and organize. Also as Elia Kazan has said, the director translates the psychology of the play into behavior on stage. Nikos Psacharopoulos, my first teacher who convinced me to direct instead of act, always focused on the behavior of the play.

 

 

Director No. 32: Nick Sugar.

sugar2 Most recent directing projects: “Forever Plaid” for the Town Hall Arts Center, and “Noises Off” for Starkey Theatrix at the Lone Tree Arts Center

Upcoming projects: “Hair,” opening May 17 at the Town Hall Arts Center; “Minimum Wage,” opening June 21 at the Avenue Theater.

Your questions: As a director, what are some of the most common, deal-breaker mistakes you often observe actors make at an audition? As an actor, what is the most annoying thing you have observed a director do at an audition?

First question, common actor mistakes:

Perception is key. An actor needs to learn how they are perceived at an audition, as well as onstage. Several times a very talented actor will audition with the wrong material. Perhaps a song choice that is not appropriate for the style of show they are auditioning for, or auditioning for a character they would not be right for. As a director, it makes me question how they perceive themselves, and if we see don’t see eye-to-eye on a character, it could make the process of creating that character a challenge for both of us. An actor really captures my attention when I know they have researched the show, the character and the music style that I am looking for, ALL in 24 to 36 bars of music! Also, if an actor is truly not willing to accept any role in the production, they should not say they are willing. Honesty is always appreciated. An actor-and-director relationship begins at the audition process. Honesty saves a lot of time in the casting process, and it is something I remember from one audition to the next.”

Second question, common director mistakes:

The audition process is very challenging for all! I try not to focus on the director’s energy at an audition. You can’t know what is going on in his or her head. I practice the same thing I tell my students: It’s your time to do what you love. If you truly love it, and have spent a lot of time and money studying this craft, then just come into an audition as if you are walking on stage for a performance: Prepared, confident and professional. It’s your three minutes … Own it!”

In one word: What’s the most important personal attribute a good director should have? Trust. I need to trust the people I cast. I need them to trust my vision.

In one sentence, describe your directing philosophy: Tell the story!

 

Director No. 31: Brian Freeland.

freeland Most recent directing project: The LIDA Project’s “Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins.”

Upcoming directing project: “The Hairy Ape,” opening May 10 at the LIDA Project work | space,
2701 Lawrence St., 720-221-3821 or LIDA’s home page.

Your question: What are the most important attributes in a director who is creating a devised, original piece of theater along with an ensemble over a longer period of time than normal?

Being a director of devised work is more akin to drawing the short straw on a taser test. You are placed in the almost impossible task of pushing an ensemble to create theatrical work in new and often incredibly risky ways, while always providing a stable, grounded, environment to create. In the void of a formal theater structure, the role of director in devised work is equal parts playwright, dramaturge, audience, producer and critic. There is no “answer” to devised work, no previous performance, no “right way.” Being able to remove the fear is the most important attribute.

Working with an ensemble on devised work over a sustained period of time only can make the language of the work stronger. From a director’s eye, the ensemble only shows its strengths, proclivities, bad habits, etc., over time. It is only from creating a long and sustained body of work that an ensemble can truly work together and a director of such work can get at the true core.”

In one word: What’s the most important personal attribute a good director should have? Devotion.

In one sentence, describe your directing philosophy: Artists can never expect growth from an audience if they have not made a dedication to their own growth.

 

Director No. 30: Anthony Powell.

Anthony Powell 0910 B&W Most recent directing project: For the last few years, I’ve been operating in full-tilt “Jack-of-all-Trades” mode with Stories on Stage, which is a joy.

Upcoming project: In August, I’ll begin directing “Death of a Salesman” for the Denver Center Theatre Company. The offer came not too long ago like a bolt out of the blue, and needless to say, I am one unbelievably grateful puppy.

Your question: It’s tech week: The hours are long. The work is tedious. You’re being asked to make major decisions every 10 seconds. Everyone wants a piece of you. You seem to be doing everything except what you really want to be doing, which is working with the actors on the play. From mindset to what food you pack … What is your tech week survival strategy?

I’ve always been a bit of a weirdo among my peers because I actually love techs. They’re a hoot. You get a whole slew of cool new toys to play with (like sets and lights and sound); members of the artistic team who haven’t been in the rehearsal hall on a daily basis are suddenly running around all the time, infusing the show with their vision and energy and excitement; and — best of all — as director, you get to take a little vacation from the play and the actors and concentrate on other things for a while. Even more importantly, the actors get to take a little vacation from YOU. Techs can be goofy fun and a refreshing time for everybody.

Which is not to say that I don’t experience those idiotic tech moments when one starts thinking like Captain Queeg, obsessing about strawberries and duplicate keys, and wondering why everyone is trying to “RUIN MY PLAY?!?” That kind of ego-driven nuttiness is a function of not getting enough rest, and my only solution for it is to take some deep breaths and remember that this isn’t my play, it’s the team’s play, and that now might be a good time to concentrate on helping other people instead of worrying about oneself.

Besides, rolling those silver ball-bearings around in my hand all the time has a way of freaking people out.

Whenever I start heading down to Crazytown during techs, I try (… TRY!) to recall something my mentor Donovan Marley was always fond of saying: “The best idea in the room is the best idea in the room is the best idea in the room, whether it happens to be your idea — or someone else’s.”

In one word: What’s the most important personal attribute a good director should have? Openness.

In one sentence, describe your directing philosophy: Whenever possible, say, “Yes, let’s try that,” to members of your team — instead of, “No, that won’t work,” because when you can hazard saying “yes” on a fairly regular basis, the good ideas begin to flow, and the less effective ones commence falling out of orbit under their own weight.

 

Director No. 29: A. Lee Massaro.

ALM Most recent directing project: “On an Average Day,” at Curious Theatre

Upcoming directing project: “Dividing the Estate,” opening Tuesday at the Arvada Center

Your question: What’s one practice or method or exercise or advice or anecdote you ever personally observed from a director you learned from, and it affected you so greatly, you incorporated it into the way you have directed ever since?

I assisted the wonderful director James Nicola when I first came to town 20 years ago. (Is that possible?) I remember an actor getting emotional and dropping his head. James asked the actor to look up instead so that the audience could see “the symphony in his eyes.” I find actors have a tendency to focus downward and go “internal” when we most need to experience that symphony, so I often quote this advice. It’s a simple thing, but it often makes the difference between the audience merely watching the action — and being moved by it.”

In one word: What’s the most important personal attribute a good director should have? Humility.

In one sentence, describe your directing philosophy: I like to collaborate with great people, and strike a balance between rigor and play in the pursuit of truthful moments.

 

 

(Please click “Page 2” below to go to the next page of our series, “Anatomy of a Theater Director”)

Bonus photos: My night at ‘Noises Off’ in Lone Tree

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 The opening night of “Noises Off” at the Lone Tree Arts Center had a well-known guest, and not just local actor Carla Kaiser Kotrc, left. Joining director Nick Sugar (center) was film and TV star John Carroll Lynch, a Denver native and Regis High grad who performed in plays and musicals with Sugar (and me) for a former citywide theater group called the Original Scene, which operated for 20 years near 19th Avenue and Logan Street. Lynch’s credits  include “Fargo,” “Shutter Island,” “Gran Torino,” “Crazy Stupid Love,” “The Drew Carey Show,” two summers with the Colorado Shakespeare Festival and, now, the new NBC  drama “Do No Harm.”

By John Moore
Feb. 1, 2013

Here are some bonus images from my night visiting the cast of “Noises Off,” presented by Starkey Productions at the Lone Tree Arts Center. Michael Frayn’s celebrated farce (with its many, sardines) features Lauren Bahlman, Trina Magness, Michael Bouchard, Kurt Brighton, Evan Marquez, Ron Welch, Anna Gibson, Rachel Bouchard and Scot Cahoon. It is directed by Nick Sugar. Through Feb. 10 at 10075 Commons St., just west of Interstate 25 and Lincoln Avenue in Lone Tree. 720-509-1000 or www.LoneTreeArtsCenter.org. Photo by John Moore of www.CultureWest.Org. Thanks to Lisa Rigsby Peterson, Mathew Kepler, Lindsey Benge and Katie Malties.

To see the full, official 2013 photo series bringing you one intimate, iconic snapshots from 18 Colorado opening nights (so far), click here.

Click here to subscribe to the CultureWest.org Monthly E-Newsletter


 

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Members of the Lone Tree city council and other invited guests, below, are given a tour of the Lone Tree Arts Center facilities before the opening performance.

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(Please click below to go to the next page.)

What companies can learn from the reinvention of Denver’s Curious Theatre

Tara Falk stars in Curious Theatre’s current offering, “Time Stands Still,” Donald Margulies’ drama about an injured photojournalist just home from Iraq. Photo by Michael Ensminger.

By John Moore

Nov. 4, 2012

A tremor from a divisive national debate that has been growing among theater professionals nationwide for years finally rumbled its way to the picturesque Rocky Mountains — and Curious Theatre director Christy Montour-Larson felt it.

You won’t find anyone more loyal to Denver’s primary mid-sized professional theater company than Montour-Larson, a genial midwesterner straight out of “Fargo.” But when confronted with the hard question, she could feel the ground shift.

It came in the form of a question that was being flatly laid out at a company retreat in Steamboat Springs.

“Are are we doing the best work we can do?”

And Montour-Larson wanted no part of it.

“I thought, ‘I am not going to go there,’ ” she said. Because even though Curious is one of Denver’s most accomplished companies, “I did not think we were doing the best work possible,” she admitted, “and I thought that might be a scary, and a hard, and maybe even a dangerous thing to say out loud.”

But something about the dynamic in the room emboldened Montour-Larson to come out and say exactly what she was thinking: “No.”

And, as it turns out, “the group was sort of glad that it was out there on the table,” she said.

And so, the artists and staff who make up the spine of the Curious Theatre Company on and off stage got down to the business of reinventing the organization in fundamental ways that speak volumes about that aforementioned national Great Debate.

After two years of planning and prototyping, Curious recently unveiled a new organizational model that founder Chip Walton believes is a replicable blueprint for similarly sized professional theaters around the country. One that merges the needs of the individual artist with those of the organization in a mutually supportive union.

It will work, Walton said, because “this is a model that I think really obliterates territorialism.”

 “When did being pro-artist make one anti-institution?”

At first blanche, the question reads as pure semantics, like so many chickens and eggs. But there is a prevailing sense that a wedge is being driven between individual artists and the institutions that house them throughout America. And how institutions proactively respond to that perception could shape the way the business of theater is conducted for years to come.

The artist vs. institution rift has been simmering, well, for as long as there have been artists and institutions. But the divide erupted from watering-hole banter into a heated national dialogue in June when Michael Maso, managing director of the Huntington Theatre in Boston, accepted an award for his contributions to the American theater at the Theatre Communications Group’s industry conference in Boston.

At the conclusion of his speech, the head of Boston’s leading professional theater left no doubt that he believes arts institutions, like Mitt Romney’s corporations, are people, too.

“I run a large institutional theater. Yes, we built new spaces with multiple performance halls in order to produce new plays and create programs for local playwrights and provide first-class facilities to other local theaters. Yes, we sell tickets to get an audience. Yes, we raise money because tickets alone don’t pay the bills. Yes, all of that takes people. Does that make us overstuffed bureaucracies? Bullshit!”

Artsjournal.com blogger Diane Ragsdale responded to Maso with a pointed salvo that included:

“With rare exception, artists (in this instance meaning writers, actors, directors, and often designers) are not generally part of the institution (meaning resident theaters). Administrators, marketers, and development staff have a home. Production and technical staff have a home. Literary managers and dramaturges have a home. But artists are not part of the institution. They are jobbed in as needed, and then sent home to live their precarious lives, unattached (in every sense of the word) to theater institutions.”

But a wedge? “how does one drive a wedge between two things that are not attached?” Ragsdale said.

To some, this whole topic might read as so much “inside baseball,” the very notion that institutions are somehow obstacles to the art — or the artists — that they present.

But to Curious’ Walton, “I can tell you this is an argument that is hot and it is heated, and it is deeply personal.” And it calls into unavoidable question the age-old cultural priorities of a country that endows institutions to a much fuller degree than it does individual artists.

So … have they had that backward all this time?

“There is a large faction of individual artists working in the field who have a pretty high degree of antipathy toward institutions,” said Walton, “and toward how resources within the field are skewed so tremendously toward organizations and institutions, and not  toward individuals.”

Actor John Carroll Lynch, a Denver native and a veteran of stage, film and TV, says the chasm is as obvious as the difference in paychecks between artists and the executives running their institutions.

“The institutions you are talking about, like the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, were started by people who run corporations,” said Lynch, “and so they were set up from the beginning to run as corporations. Just look at what the people at the very top of those organizations make in salary each year.”

A public records check shows that Denver Center president Randy Weeks made  $273,000 in 2010, Denver Center Theatre Company artistic director Kent Thompson made $250,000, and two vice presidents made about $150,000 each. For starters. That pales in comparison to longtime Guthrie Theater director Joe Dowling, who cleared nearly $700,000 running the Minneapolis institution back in 2007 — making him the highest-paid theater artist in the United States.

And what does an actor make in comparison? An actor might be lucky to get 16 weeks of work at a professional regional theater company each year. That would gross him or her around $24,000, depending on the company and contract.

“And that,” Lynch said flatly, “qualifies him for food stamps.”

Like corporations, Lynch said, artistic institutions are very much made up of people. And, just like corporations, “there is a 1 percent. And artists aren’t part of it.”

So the deck is stacked, naturally, in favor of institutions that consistently fail to incorporate artists into their planning, from architectural design to day-to-day operation.

“When the Goodman Theatre building was designed (in Chicago), they didn’t ask actors for their input,” Lynch said. “And because of that, there are no sinks in the dressing rooms.”

Lynch starred in “A View From the Bridge” in 2008 at the Guthrie, known as a kind of cineplex for live theater in Minneapolis. Lynch was surprised to discover there are not only no green rooms for actors in the entire facility, “there is no place for an actor to warm up that is not in full view of the audience.” That’s because most walls there are made of glass.

And that is just the way it is, Lynch said. “Because art is ephemeral. Art ends. Institutions don’t. So when it comes down to the survival of institutions vs. the creation of art, it’s going to be the institution that wins out, every time.”

The exception, and the solution, Lynch said, is for companies that start out small, such as the highly honored Buntport Theater in Denver, to maintain their original artist-driven value systems as they inevitably grow into bricks-and-mortar institutions.

Buntport is made up of a group of six Colorado College classmates who have presented ensemble-created original works for 12 years while maintaining a proud independence from the prevailing institutional model.

“At Buntport, the mentality is completely different from most theaters,” Lynch said. “They are an artist-driven company. They committed themselves to working as a cooperative group, not as individuals. And they pay themselves. Their primary focus is to ensure that none of them have to also wait tables.”


The reinvention of Curious Theatre Company

Curious Theatre is a 15-year-old company that presents five “new to Denver” plays each year with an annual budget that has steadily grown to $1.23 million and a full-time staff of seven.

In 2010, Curious was a recipient of a MetLife/TCG “Aha! Think It! Do It!” grant. The company was given $75,000 “to explore innovative opportunities for reinventing the resident artistic company model for the 21st century American theater by re-centering artists within producing organizations.” The grant was for $25,000 to “think it” — and an another $50,000 to “do it.”

So this theater company was going to be paid $25,000 to think? Seriously? Shouldn’t  all theater companies be doing that for free?

Walton gets the joke. But he knew the work his people were about to undertake could not only fundamentally change the course of his company, it could provide solutions to the age-old artists vs. institutions conundrum by coming up with a way to fully integrate artists into the very core of how the organization operates.

“The debate caused me to be think, ‘We are asking these questions about the relationship between artists and institutions every year, and apparently everybody in the field is now asking the same question,’ ” Walton said. “So I thought, instead of spending several weeks every summer around a retreat debating this question, let’s spend a dedicated, concerted length of time and really try to answer it: How should artists be in relationship to the organization?”

It’s important to understand just where Curious was at in its development at the time it took on the task of reinvention. Curious was founded in 1998 like so many others — by a small group of eager artists who wanted to put on plays. To do so, the founding members would be expected to do everything from working the box office to painting the stage to acting in the shows.

But Curious officially began as a company of designers, gradually taking actors into a fold that by 2007 grew to 19. By then, a fully professional staff and a forward-thinking, fundraising-focused board of directors were long in place, and the actors were no longer expected to do those extra things beyond blowing people away on the stage.

Also by 2007, Curious had established a national artistic reputation by mixing Denver debuts of Tony-winning plays  like “Proof” and “Take Me Out” with original commissions such as “The War Anthology,” an evening of short plays inspired by snapshots of America at war, written by 10 playwrights including three Pulitzer-winners: Tony Kushner, Suzan-Lori Parks and Paula Vogel.

The company also was being noticed for its innovative outreach and fundraising initiatives. Now in its ninth year, “Curious New Voices” is a year-round playwriting intensive that culminates in a three-day festival of new works spawned from the fertile minds of writers ages 15 to 21, and performed by dozens of local actors. For “Denver Stories,” Curious employs playwrights, directors and actors who present short original plays based on the lives of local celebrities and politicians. This high-society annual event now raises more than $100,000 for the company in a single night.

For the past few years, the work on-stage has been mostly hit, but also, as Montour-Larson earlier intimated … sometimes miss. So, two years ago, the “Think It! Do It!” grant came at the perfect time for the company to re-examine everything from how it was structured, to how plays were selected for performance, to just how big the organization should be, to this biggie: “Are are we doing the best work we can do?”

As an organization, Curious had been growing so fast in a volatile economy that Walton knew things had to slow down. So he recently entered into a conscious three-year period where the priority has shifted away from rapid growth to sustainable stabilization. “We’re an interesting case study,” Walton said, “because we’ve had a great influx of some very generous foundation support over the past few years (including a recent $500,000 catalyst grant from the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation). But it is not support that is in perpetuity. So while the budget has grown accordingly and appropriately, now we have to make sure that we can sustain that budgetary level without those large foundation grants.”

But as a company of artists, Walton had a much dicier decision to make: As a collective, he knew the body count of company members needed to get much bigger — or much smaller.

“The company was then at an awkward size — 17 — in relationship to the size of the palate of our work,” Walton said. “It was just big enough so that there was no way I could give everybody in the company opportunities every season — but it was also still small enough that sometimes that felt really conspicuous to some of the company members. So whether you are a designer or director or actor — if it’s been two to three seasons since you’ve done a show at Curious, the question will inevitably surface: ‘Well, why is that?’ ”

The MetLife grant affords grantees the chance to visit other companies and compare notes. So Curious dispatched a team to the acclaimed Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, which claims as many as 50 artists as company members. Walton had two key takeaways from that visit: “There is an incredibly competitive dynamic inside the Steppenwolf company that they all acknowledge, and they actually embrace,” he said. “And because of the sheer size of the company, no one who is in it is sitting around counting on an automatic artistic opportunity next season — because they know that not everyone it going to get one every year. They also know that when they get one, it’s a really exciting opportunity, and they should make they most of it.”

But rather than simply expand the already large acting pool, Curious has taken fully committed theater artists whose only job before was to bleed their hearts out on the stage, and given them real institutional responsibilities and an actual stake in the running of the company.

Karen Slack is one of those actors who has expanded her involvement with the company to an organizational level.

“It gives me a huge sense of ownership,” said Slack, “not just around the artistic company but around the organization a whole. It’s also given me a tremendous amount of perspective as to how many people it takes to actually get things done, and how hard everybody in that office works.”

Curious Theatre Company members Josh Hartwell (Hellcat Hartwell) and Jim Hunt (Luther)  (Jim Hunt) came to play at the wrestling-themed “Smackdown-A-Mania” promotion organized in September by producer in residence Karen Slack. Photo by John Moore.

The new Curious Theatre Company

After great deliberation, Walton recently named 31 actors and designers as Curious Theatre Company members, an increase of 14. They were chosen from among those who have worked on Curious mainstage shows in the past. Some not for many years, “but one of our core values will always be honoring individual contributions,” Walton said.

That said, Walton is also one competitive guy, and competition is another core value he holds dear. While most of those who were asked accepted their appointments as company members, not all did. A few decided, with no guarantees of roles in future shows, to just say no.

*Company members: The core members include 21 actors (14 of them men), two playwrights and eight designers or  directors. They come out in force on opening nights, a veritable army of name-tagged audience greeters.

*The artistic council: From among the core company group, six nominate themselves for one-year terms on the artistic council. In return for a small stipend, they participate at a deeper, executive level of company business, focusing on accountability, innovative thinking and risk-taking. That also includes serving on the in-house literary committee that considers titles for the upcoming season — though the final decisions rest with Walton.

*Featured company: Each year, up to five company members will be given the opportunity to participate at a deeper level in the organization, in non-artistic capacities. That might mean anything from attending fundraising brunches to placing thank-you phone calls to donors, in exchange for a small stipend.

*Artist-trustee: Curious’ new model calls for one company member to serve as an ex-officio (non-voting) member of the board of directors. That means, for the first time, when the venture capitalists and business leaders make the big board decisions that impact the direction of the artistic company, there is now, for the first time, the  opportunity for an artist to have a say in the conversation as well. Erik Sandvold, a veteran actor at both Curious and the Denver Center Theatre Company, is the first to hold that job.

*Producers in residence: Two company members will be selected annually for one-year, part-time paid staff positions that include producing community-wide outreach events, as well as fun marketing initiatives that support the company’s mainstage programming. The first two producer designees are Slack, a multiple award-winning company actor, and Montour-Larson, who mostly splits her time directing at Curious Theatre, the Denver Center Theatre Company and teaching theater at a local college.

Their primary jobs are to enrich and expand the audience’s experience with any given mainstage play through social outings called “Urban Adventures.” A recent example was “Clues and Brews” — a pub crawl/scavenger hunt that sent participants to some of Denver’s iconic bars in search of clues centered around the play. Slack also recently talked local comedians, actors and real-life wrestlers into participating in “Smackdown-A-Mania,” a ridiculous, mid-week night of silliness filled with sweat and spandex. Urban adventures are intended to entice a new kind of audience to come and check out the company. “Smackdown” promoted the regional premiere of  the innovative wrestling drama “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity.”

Slack admits there’s a learning curve when you give a pure, undiluted actor responsibilities that once belonged to producers and trained staff. “I felt like the new kid at school who doesn’t know anybody,” she said. “But I think integrating artists back into the center of organizations is probably one of the smartest things you can do.

“I think most organizations don’t even consider having an actor at the table, because, they think, ‘What are they going to offer?’ The whole idea around this ‘producer-in-residence’ role is that we are at the table specifically because we think ‘out of the box.’ We are at the table because we are going to offer a ridiculous suggestion to do something like Smackdown-A-Mania. That is itself a testament that things are going to be totally different.”

Lessons learned

Montour-Larson said the two-year reinvention process has proven to be both scary and emotionally difficult for her, as she suspected it might at that first mountain retreat two years ago. “To go through a reinvention like this, one has to be very brave,” she said. “However, theater people are used to doing very scary and hard and brave things onstage. In the end, it was  difficult to separate the practical and the idealism from the personal. What I learned most is that this innovation process was bigger than all of us. And that Curious is far more than just a handful of people.”

Slack believes that by giving individual artists more ownership in the company, “that automatically changes the conversation you are going to have with people in the  community about your company,” she said. “Because now the company is offering you an opportunity to maintain your work not only as an artist, but to also expand yourself in a different capacity for the overall health and well-being of the entire organization. I think it’s very smart.”

Walton believes the reinvention of his organization will make Curious a more holistic organization. “And I believe this reinvention makes both the work we do on-stage — as well as the work that we do on a day-to-day basis in the office — better, and more informed and meaningful.”

Ticket information: Curious Theatre’s “Time Stands Still”

Now through Dec. 15: Donald Margulies’ intimate, character-focused drama is about a couple at a crossroads. Sarah, a photojournalist recently injured while on assignment in Iraq, returns home to Manhattan, where her partner, James, anxiously tries to nurse her back to health. But despite James efforts to keep her home, Sarah never feels completely comfortable staying in one place. The play was nominated in 2010 for a Tony Award for best new play. Directed by Christy Montour-Larson. The cast includes Michael Morgan, David Russell, Tara Falk and Devon James.

Showtimes: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays.

Information: At 1080 Acoma St. Call 303-623-0524 or go to curious’ home page

 

Curious Theatre: 2012 artistic company

Artistic council
Dee Covington (actress/playwright/director)
Shannon McKinney (lighting designer)
Christy Montour-Larson (director)*
Erik Sandvold, (actor)
Karen Slack (actor)
Chip Walton (founder, director)
*Also producers in residence

Additional company
Lisa Boehm (stage manager)
Paul Borrillo (actor)
Kevin Brainerd (costume designer)
Ed Cord (actor)
Laurence Curry (actor)
Richard Devin (lighting designer)
Jason Ducat (sound designer)
Brian Landis Folkins (actor)
Kathryn Gray (actor)
Bill Hahn (actor)
Josh Hartwell (actor/playwright)
Markas Henry (costume and scenic designer)
Jim Hunt (actor)
John Jurcheck (actor)
Christopher Leo (director)
C. Kelly Leo (actor)
Cajardo Lindsey (actor)
Michael McNeill (actor)
Michael Morgan (actor)
Josh Robinson (actor)
Jada Roberts (actor)
Jessica Robblee (actor)
David Russell (actor)
Mare Trevathan (actor)
Todd Webster (actor)