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)