Rita Hunter, ‘the heart and soul of Aspen Community Theatre’ | AspenTimes.com

Rita Hunter, ‘the heart and soul of Aspen Community Theatre’

Andrew Travers

During rehearsals for this fall’s Aspen Community Theatre production of “9 to 5,” Rita Hunter has been at a familiar perch backstage in the scene shop overseeing costume sewing and hemming.

But, unlike most of the community theater company’s shows over the past four decades, Hunter isn’t producing the musical. Diagnosed with ALS in June, Hunter is passing the torch to new leaders.

“At first I was holding onto it, like, who else is going to come in here and do all this?” Hunter said over coffee at Jour de Fete. “When we put together the team, I realized it was going to be amazing.”

Travis Lane McDiffett, who is one of five members of a “production committee” tasked with trying to do all that Hunter did herself behind the scenes, said nobody could fill Hunter’s shoes: “All these years, she has been the force behind it. You can’t mention Aspen Community Theatre without Rita.”

Hunter’s first show was a 1980 production of the play “Nightwatch.” She’d auditioned for the cast and when the director, Herman Edel — who also was the sitting mayor of Aspen — told her she didn’t get the part, he asked her to get involved backstage.

“I said, ‘Well, I have experience in costumes, I can sew and I could help out that way,’” Hunter recalled.

The next year, she joined the board of directors and soon after started producing the shows. Since then, she’s been rounding up talent to fill casts, build sets, raise curtains and man spotlights, along with organizing the sprawling details of putting on and promoting a show and fundraising year-round.

“I was like, ‘I think this is my calling, I think I can be more valuable to this community theater in that capacity than I would be onstage,’” Hunter said. “I just ran with it.”

She now fondly recalls disasters averted and the quirky bits of community theater recasting, such as when the star of “Annie” in 1986 broke her leg and had to be replaced. Or when the lead in 1982’s “Camelot” got a part on Broadway and left for New York before opening night (leaving his replacement hiding scripts onstage to keep his lines straight).

Hunter recalled her daughter, as a toddler, sleeping under the dressing room table at the Wheeler while mom was producing 1984’s “Guys and Dolls.” (“She grew up thinking the Wheeler was an extension of our house.”)

And she’s also proud of ways the beloved local institution has done more than entertain.

Hunter recalled the 1992 production of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” for which she spearheaded a fundraising effort that allowed anyone under age 17 to see it for free and during which the company partnered with Holocaust survivors to attend and speak to local schoolchildren.

For the 2010 production of “1776,” ACT again welcomed kids for free to learn about the founding fathers. (Casting all those fathers was also a memorable feat for Hunter, as pulling together a cast of 20-plus men meant convincing many first-time and only-time actors from Aspen to take the stage.)

Her final show as producer, 2018’s “Big River,” was deeply meaningful. The “Huckleberry Finn” adaptation is among her favorite musicals, and she’d been hoping to stage it since the mid-1980s.

Under Hunter’s leadership, Aspen Community Theatre’s shows have earned a reputation that belies the bungling stereotype of nonprofessional theater. With budgets ranging from $80,000 to $110,000, the annual shows have raised standards for production value and performance to a rare caliber.

“Once you go there, you can’t go back,” said Hunter, a California native who moved to Aspen in 1969 and worked at the Red Onion during the 1970s ski bum heyday.

“Rita has been the heart and soul of Aspen Community Theatre,” said boardmember and “9 to 5” castmember Tammy Baar, who is the only person in town who can claim a longer affiliation with the company than Hunter (as a high schooler in 1977, Baar was in the very first Aspen Community Theatre production.)

Looking back at her memories of the theater, it’s not the standing ovations or the spectacular song-and-dance numbers that stand out for Hunter.

“The essence of it is the middle word, ‘community,’” Hunter said.

For many Aspenites, devoting two all-consuming months to taking a role or a backstage task has provided a transformative personal experience.

“This is something you don’t forget,” she said. “It doesn’t fade from your memory.”

Hunter recalled romances and marriages sparked in the crucible of these productions. She remembered cast and crewmembers grieving loved ones or battling addiction and finding an unlikely safe haven and saving grace in Aspen Community Theatre.

All the work this community theater does is essentially altruistic, she noted, and in the frantic build-up to opening night, strangers form lifelong bonds.

“I don’t know many organizations, jobs, nonprofits that have the same sort of goal where everybody involved has a very important role to make this one thing happen for someone else,” she said. “It’s always like, ‘Well, it’s going to be crazy but we’re going to be so proud once we show this to our community.’ People put everything into this and find a family.”

In the months since her ALS diagnosis, as the degenerative disease has begun stiffening her hands, Hunter has focused herself on that family as well has her blood family.

“I have three families, really,” she said, referring to her daughter and 5-year-old granddaughter, her Aspen Community Theatre cohort, and her friends from Pitkin County Dry Goods where she worked for 29 years. “Some days I feel like I have to make the most of my time, with my theater connections, my family and my friends. Those are the things that invigorate me and can make me not dig a hole and stick my head in the sand. I’m going to have life while I can have it.”

And through the run of “9 to 5” from Nov. 8 to 16 at the Aspen District Theatre, Hunter the costume supervisor will be backstage, doing her part as she always has.

“I’d like to say that this doesn’t have to define you,” she said of living with ALS. “You can still have joy in your life and that’s what I’m trying to do.”