Thunder River Theatre founder Lon Winston stepping down after 21 years

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times
Lon Winston, founder of Thunder River Theatre, is stepping down as executive artistic director of the company next month.
Aspen Times file |

Thunder River Theatre Company founder and Executive Artistic Director Lon Winston has taken his final bow at as head of the nonprofit after 21 years.

Winston, 70, is retiring and will be succeeded next month by the Carbondale company’s Associate Artistic Director Corey Simpson.

“I feel like I’ve done the job I set out to do 21 years ago,” Winston said Saturday morning at Bonfire Coffee. “That was to create a theater company committed to talent in the valley, emphasizing a professional standard.”

Winston founded Thunder River in 1995 and made it a home for serious, often challenging theater in the midvalley — staging classics, contemporary works, and original productions with local casts.

“Early on we had this reputation as that theater that just does depressing plays,” Winston said. “If it wasn’t ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ then it was depressing. It took years to educate an audience.”

The opening season included David Mamet’s “Oleanna” and Sam Shepard’s “True West,” and in the two decades that followed Thunder River staged more than 60 shows, including works by Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill, Anton Chekhov and Henrik Ibsen (comedies and the occasional musical also had a place in Winston’s program).

“Our audience started to get it, and it became not just ‘You’re the ones who do the depressing theater’ but ‘Please, don’t stop,’” Winston said.

On New Year’s Eve 2005, the company opened the downtown building and black box theater it’s since called home.

“That changed everything, having our own space,” Winston said. “It allowed us to focus on raising the bar.”

With a consistent season schedule and a venue to match its ambitions, Thunder River became an incubator for acting talent in the valley, a creative canvas for Winston and frequent collaborator Valerie Haugen, and a well-respected, if unlikely, hub of the dramatic arts in Colorado.

The season after moving into the new building, Thunder River was a finalist for the El Pomar Foundation’s Award for Excellence in the Arts and Humanities. In 2012, it won the Colorado Theatre Guild’s Henry Award for Outstanding Regional Theater.

“In the span of those six years we were able to elevate the stature of Thunder River with the help of all the artists,” Winston said.

Before Winston and Thunder River’s supporters built its own space, the company was based out of an 18-wheeler, traveling up and down the valley to stage shows wherever they could get a room. In 2003, Winston mounted a production of Israel Horovitz’s “Park Your Car in Harvard Yard” in the Carbondale storefront of what is now a CrossFit gym. For the first 11 years, Winston worked for free. Depite Thunder River’s vagabond existence, the company earned a reputation for artistic integrity and originality. Winston and Haugen’s “Greek Shards” series of adaptations of Greek tragedies, begun in 2001, brought the pair to Dartmouth University for two summers, where they staged excerpts and lectured classics students.

The artistic mission of the company remained consistent through the years.

“It took educating our audience, not changing our mission,” Winston said. “I’m proud of that.”

Winston has directed the majority of shows for Thunder River and designed all of them until last year, along with acting in roles ranging from George Burns in the Thunder River original “Passionate Collaborators” to Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman,” King Henry in “The Lion in Winter” and Teach in “American Buffalo.” His hands-on approach also had him hammering nails to build sets and manning the concessions stand during intermissions.

When directing plays, Winston encourages actors to work with what he calls “informed vagueness,” an approach rooted in dramaturgy and research but with openness to differing opinions and interpretations. On the business side of leading the nonprofit — fundraising, working with board members and the like — he tried to use the same strategy.

“I run the theater that way, too,” he said. “So that anyone who gets involved with us feels like they are a contributor, not a puppet. And that’s a huge reason, I think, for our success.”

Winston moved to the valley in 1975 with his wife, Debra, a school administrator with tenure at the Aspen and Carbondale Community Schools. Early on, they lived above Thomasville on the north fork of the Fryingpan River, where Winston served for a time as a reserve deputy for the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office. The Winstons left in 1980, when Lon took a post as a theater professor at Villanova University. They returned in 1992. Soon after, Winston began working on the idea for Thunder River.

In retirement, Winston plans to travel, beginning with a series of road trips around the West this summer and fall.

But he’ll be back in Carbondale for the first Thunder River opening under Simpson’s leadership — “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” in September. Simpson, 44, comes to Thunder River from a job as digital marketing director for Timbers Resorts. A graduate of the theater program at the University of Colorado, Simpson has been performing in the company since the 2012 production of Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” and last year made his Thunder River directorial debut in “Bakersfield Mist.” Simpson’s enthusiasm, his collaborative nature and his business experience, Winston said, made him an ideal successor.

“I think of leadership on a horizontal model, not a vertical model,” he said. “That’s one of the things I want to instill in (Simpson).”

Winston will stay involved with Thunder River as a consultant and a board member. He also is slated to design and direct the spring 2017 production of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” As he put it: “I keep telling everyone, ‘I want to be the guide on the side, not the sage on the stage.”