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Aspen Times Weekly: The Price of Success

by Bob Ward

Paige Price is beside herself with excitement. And some anxiety too.

The artistic director of Theatre Aspen is leaning into the organization’s 30th summer season, which opens June 21 with “Les Misérables,” the biggest production in the company’s history. Staging the world-famous “Les Mis” is a deliberate stretch for the company, which will also debut its new, $1.5 million Hurst Theatre in Rio Grande Park this summer.

“It’s the biggest, most ambitious season we’ve ever produced,” said Price. “We have this spectacular venue that took us two years to fund and assemble, and the vision we came to in partnership with the city (of Aspen) was beyond even my expectations.”

City construction crews are still putting the finishing touches on a new network of trails, wetlands and gardens in the park surrounding Theater Aspen’s new venue, but the intimate, 189-seat theater itself is ready to go. And so are the cast and crew.

“We thought this year is the perfect year to bust through all the boundaries we’ve had heretofore,” Price said. “And so our 30th anniversary gave us a great platform to celebrate what we can do.”

Directing the epic musical will be New York-based Mark Martino, who has directed “Little Shop of Horrors” and “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” among others, for Theatre Aspen in the past. And while “Les Mis” may be the centerpiece, it’s not the only production on the 2013 calendar. Opening July 5 and directed by Emmy-winner and Theatre Aspen veteran Jay Sandrich is “Fully Committed,” a one-man comedy starring Matt Bailey that explores the frantic and often absurd world of a reservations host at a five-star restaurant.

“I think it’ll appeal to both the service industry folks in Aspen, and the patrons,” Price laughed. “Everyone might see a little of themselves in that play.”

And, as if Price didn’t already have enough to do, she’ll direct Theatre Aspen’s take on “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” which opens July 11. This well-known musical should appeal to children and adults, Price said, because the seminal Charles Schulz comic strip “Peanuts” used child characters to explore universal human emotions.

“It’s a family-friendly musical, and people often misinterpret it as a children’s musical,” Price said. “The themes on Charles Schulz’s mind, that he put forth in Peanuts, are kind of astoundingly adult.”

All three shows will run through the entirety of the summer season, which closes on Aug. 17. And Price says audiences should expect an intimate, “in your face” theater experience, with cast members entering and exiting through the aisles and audience members often at the center of the action.

Whether it’s the new theater or the productions, the 2013 season has clearly created a buzz. Price said 362 season passes have been sold, already exceeding last year’s grand total of 309. To Price, it’s a gratifying show of community support, particularly on the heels of a successful capital campaign to build the new venue.

“My motto was always, if they come, we will build it,” she said. “I didn’t want to be one of those theaters where they have a gorgeous, multi-million-dollar shell of a building, and no interest and no buy-in and no personality. I was very determined to do it the other way.”

The ambition of the 2013 season can be seen as an effort to raise the bar to match the professionalism of the new performance space. This summer, Theatre Aspen will balloon from a year-round, full-time staff of five individuals to 70, including actors, stage crew, directors, choreographers and designers. The total even includes 11 apprentices and a coordinator to run the apprenticeship program.

“We have always called ourselves a teaching hospital here,” Price joked. “That to me is one of the more fun aspects of my job. I think that mentoring young professionals is part of our mission.”

Uniting local actors with Broadway professionals, and teaming college kids with experienced stage and costume designers is part of perpetuating a craft that is, by definition, deeply collaborative. According to Price, a robust training program is a rarity in the theater world, with “slave intern labor” being far more common.

“At some of the best programs in the country, they charge people to come be apprentices,” she said. “Ours are getting all their expenses paid, except for food. And they get a little stipend. They also get, in each of their departments, professional experience.“

Needless to say, “full-time job” doesn’t even begin to describe Price’s role at the center of this seasonal explosion of activity. It was 7:30 p.m. when this reporter first reached her — at the office — to arrange an interview. During the interview, she shook her head and revealed, “last night I left the office around midnight.” She sees the various tasks as part of running a small theater company, and that includes, at least occasionally, directing her own production like “Charlie Brown.”

“It’s fun to orchestrate all this, a capital campaign, making sure the staff is happy and challenged — that’s a lot of management,” she said. “But I wasn’t brought here to be just a staff manager. I was also brought here for artistic ideas. So now that we have this new beautiful venue, I get to play a little more.”

It’s clear that Price simply loves theater. And on the eve of her company’s biggest season ever, she radiates confidence. She feels this is “the end of the beginning” for the 30-year-old company. And what about the opening of “Les Misérables,” set for June 21?

“I don’t think (audience members) are going to be ready,” she said. “I sat in on a rehearsal last night, and I had to put my sunglasses on because I was so overwhelmed by the sound coming from those people. It’s really emotional. To have that so close to people, I think we’re going to have some Kleenex in the aisles.”


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