A new role
Since he was in eighth grade, when he got the part of the Prince in a production of “The Princess and the Pea” at his Eden Prairie, Minn., school, Adam Bartley has had his eye on a particular vision in the theater: “My goal was to find a community of like-minded artists, that could afford me the possibility of earning a living and continuing to find inspiration,” said the 29-year-old.
Bartley began his search in some fairly obvious places: Southern Methodist University in Dallas, whose acting department, says Bartley, is known as one of the finest and most competitive in the country. New York City, where he spent nearly five years; Los Angeles, for a relatively brief stint. He also checked out some lesser destinations for aspiring players: Chicago, and Aspen, where he spent most of two years in the early ’00s in the cast of the Crystal Palace.
None of those locations quite panned out. So recently, Bartley has put his chips on a particular community of actors that he didn’t quite have in mind when he articulated his career vision. In February, Bartley moved back to the Roaring Fork Valley to become a full-time member of Jayne Gottlieb Productions, the children’s theater company that has been staging musicals locally since 2005.
Bartley has been a part of the team since the beginning, when the troupe debuted with “The Jungle Book,” at the Basalt Middle School. In fact, hasn’t missed any of the nearly dozen shows the group has presented. But for nearly three years, his participation has meant dropping his usual routine of auditioning during the day and waiting tables at night, to fly to Aspen to work with the troupe of kids. This past winter Bartley decided to give the local venture his full attention, and when the latest round of musicals are staged ” “Bye Bye Birdie,” which closes its three-day run with a matinee performance on Sunday, May 11; and “Beauty and the Beast,” which plays Saturday and Sunday, May 17-18, with both shows at the Wheeler Opera House ” they will be presented under a new name, Gottlieb Bartley Productions.
For Bartley, that school production of “The Princess and the Pea” opened his eyes to the possibilities of theater, and it gripped him completely.
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“I came from a team-sports background. I dropped all sports right away,” said Bartley one afternoon last week outside a Basalt cafe, where he and Gottlieb had been preparing for their upcoming shows. “I did everything: choir, show choir, speech, wrote and directed my own shows in high school. I was a mediocre catcher, a mediocre offensive lineman. But this became my thing, my niche. I was able to find confidence and success with a natural talent.”
Bartley was determined to test that talent in the adult arena. Right out of SMU, he headed to New York City. His abilities were enough for him to get a foot in the door. He had agents for both commercial and theater work; he appeared in a bunch of commercials, got plenty of Broadway auditions, and came close to getting a part in a Broadway revival of Sondheim’s “Into the Woods.” He also did some Off-Broadway work, some short films, and traveled to Dallas for parts in regional theater. Several summers were spent in Colorado, with the respected Creede Repertory Theatre. And there was a year and a half stretch in Aspen, at the now shuttered Crystal Palace. A fellow member of the freshman class at the dinner theater was Gottlieb, a spunky Californian, the same age as Bartley, who had a passion for starting a theater company for children.
Bartley didn’t quite share that vision. “Kids theater wasn’t on the agenda,” he says. But he began to readjust his goals after several years of grinding it out as a struggling actor. The travel, the uncertainty, the restaurant work at night, and the poverty eventually overtook the glamour and artistic fulfillment he got from the life.
“You know, searching your pockets for subway fare to go to an audition, looking for loose change, kind of got old,” he said. “Ten years, I waited tables ” and I vowed I’d never do it again. The hours ” auditioning during the day, waiting tables at night ” it’s brutal.”
At the same time he was burning out on that existence, he was finding increasing satisfaction with the valley’s young actors. As more kids saw the early productions that he and Gottlieb were presenting ” especially a version of “The Wizard of Oz” staged outdoors, in Basalt’s Arbaney Park ” more kids signed up to train for, and appear in those musicals. The company has grown from 20 participants three years ago to some 120. Running the company was no longer a one-woman show, so Bartley became a full partner.
“Truthfully, I love being an actor, trying to be an actor,” he said. “But I get more fulfillment out of one day with these bright little eyes looking up at you, being inspired by what the can do.”
Bartley says he sees his troupe getting the same things out of being onstage that he got out of it as a kid: confidence, poise.
“Initially, I think they come in just to be onstage, to sing and act,” he said. “But they keep coming back because they love the way it feels to succeed at their art form. They want to keep challenging themselves. I get inspired seeing them find this confidence. When I pit that against the life of a struggling actor, trying to get that next TV show or commercial or Broadway gig, it’s worth it. It’s more quality in this life.”
Bartley and Gottlieb are not only training kids; they are also offering entertainment to the valley. Gottlieb’s mantra is that the company is doing theater on a professional level, and there is truth in that. After confining itself to Basalt for two years, the troupe made its Aspen debut in December with a version of “Singin’ in the Rain” that validated Gottlieb and Bartley’s claims about what kids are capable of. Also in December, their production of “Peter Pan” sold out its run at the Basalt Middle School.
“What interests me is tapping these kids’ abilities that are rarely tapped,” said Bartley, who handles the majority of the directing and technical elements of a show, while Gottlieb focuses on choreography, costumes and business matters. “Kids have so much potential and talent and possibility in this realm, and that’s why people are enjoying our shows. They see how talented the kids are, how hard they’ve worked, how much they’ve learned.”
With the added manpower, Gottlieb Bartley Productions is looking to expand. They are planning an adult production of “42 Street” (which she has already done with kids) for the fall. This summer’s kids productions ” “Fame” for the younger ones, and an age-appropriate version of “A Chorus Line” for the older children ” marks a return to the outdoors, with dates on Fanny Hill in Snowmass Village. (The shows will also be presented in Basalt, and the organization hopes to bring them to Vail as well.) Bartley is planning to start acting classes in the fall, apart from the shows, for kids who want to get more intensive training for the stage.
Bartley hasn’t given up on acting. “I do want to act. There’s an itch. It’s there and it’s hard core,” he said. He has his eye on all the local acting options, from Aspen Community Theatre to Theatre Aspen.
As a person, though, Bartley has stretched himself. Immersed in working with kids, he has found it more satisfying than he imagined. And that itch to act himself, while it may be there, it is being scratched in other ways.
As far as being disappointed in giving up his pursuit of a big-city acting career, Bartley says, “I thought I would be, but I’m not. It’s a relief. I’ve grounded myself for the first time in seven years.”
And he has, in fact, fulfilled that vision of being part of a community of actors.
“I’ve found that, in a roundabout way,” he said. Kids theater “came up and surprised me. And now that I’m here, it seems to be the best decision I’ve ever made. For sure.”
“You get to feel like you’re onstage through every one of them,” added Gottlieb.
“Bye Bye Birdie”
Sunday, May 11, at 2 p.m.
“Beauty and the Beast”
Saturday and Sunday, May 17-18, at 2 and 7 p.m.
Wheeler Opera House
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After 14 years, a lengthy lawsuit by area residents and nearly $4 million in construction costs, a half-mile trail to two school campuses in the Castle Creek Valley was finally completed this week.