A tradition of community theater
October 26, 2006
John Trow, director of Aspen Community Theatre’s upcoming production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” doesn’t refer to the characters without names, without speaking parts, by the usual collective name, “the chorus.” Instead, they are each “villagers,” a term that, he said, gives each character something closer to an individual identity. And the idea of “villagers” furthers the idea that these characters are bound to one another in a significant way, a principal theme of the musical.”I wanted to create a sense of community,” said Trow. “It’s important in this show that this group of people live in a shtetl, a village. And it’s important for them to think of themselves as people who live in a shtetl.”The same goes for the actors playing those roles. Aspenites bemoan the rapid rate of change in the town, and especially the loss of long-standing institutions and the sense of community and continuity that goes with them. Aspen Community Theatre, however, stands as one of the strongest pieces of evidence that behind the shifting facade of buildings and businesses is a vital core of Aspenites – villagers – who care about theater, one another, and, most appropriate to this year’s production, tradition.ACT turns 30 this year, and it probably boggles the mind of folks who have been in Aspen that long to think what the town looked and felt like when the organization – first known as the Colorado Mountain Theater Association – took its first bows. But against that backdrop of constant turnover in the town, the players of ACT have shown remarkable staying power. Nancy Odén threw the cast party for the first production, “and yet another version of ‘The Wizard of Oz,'” in 1976. Two years later, she joined the board of directors, and has participated onstage, backstage and, for some 25 years, has coordinated the program booklet. Her daughter, Lisbeth, went from hanging out backstage with her mother to taking charge of the stage props. Lisbeth’s son, Zack, was a props assistant until he graduated from high school last year. The Odéns are one of ACT’s three-generation families; the Ryerson clan can also make that claim.
Rita Hunter has produced 28 presentations over 25 years. (Until the late ’90s, ACT did two shows a year.) Her producing partner, Jody Hecht, has been at her side for 16 shows. Set designer Tom Ward has 20 shows under his belt; costume designer Kathleen Albert, 16; orchestra conductor and member Wendy Larson, 20. The honor of most onstage appearances probably goes to Ned Sullivan, who has played supporting roles – a tree, a bush, a frighteningly realistic Nazi guard in 2004’s “The Sound of Music” – in 17 productions. That total includes two appearances in “Fiddler”: In the original production, in 1977, when he played Avrahm, the bookseller, and this year, when he plays a priest.”This spine has been in place, and it hasn’t varied at all. It’s the same every year,” said Ralph Sheehan, who plays the rabbi in “Fiddler on the Roof,” and also appeared in ACT’s second production, 1976’s “The Prisoner of Second Avenue” (which was directed by Herman Edel, who would become Aspen’s mayor). “People want to talk about things that have been lost, so be it. But you look at some other things, and ACT is definitely one of them – well, you can embrace that, too.”ACT celebrates what is has built over 30 years in the best way it knows how – by putting on some shows. The upcoming production of “Fiddler on the Roof” – a 10-performance run spans Wednesday, Nov. 1 through Nov. 12 – is a nod to the past; 29 years ago, ACT staged the multiple Tony Award-winner as its first musical. In late February, ACT will collaborate with the Glenwood Springs-based Symphony in the Valley for a show of numbers from all of the organization’s past musicals. Hunter expects to have some 60 performers, including as many as possible from the original casts.
Community theater, big-city standardsElements of ACT have changed over three decades, almost all of it for the better. The earliest productions were at Paepcke Auditorium and the Aspen High School Commons, which is now the cafeteria; neither was conceived as a theater. In the mid-’80s, the organization relocated to the renovated Wheeler Opera House, and in the mid-’90s, they settled in the Aspen District Theatre, which offers a more ample backstage. The quality of the productions has improved along with the venues. In Hunter’s opinion, ACT has “evolved into an almost semiprofessional quality.” The sense of professionalism has meant less clowning around; no longer can the actors count on a rubber chicken being tossed onstage during the closing-night performance.But the heart and soul of the organization has remained intact, even as budgets, sets and ambitions have expanded. It’s as if Cooper Street started serving using Kobe beef for their burger special – but kept the same décor, the same wait staff, the same cigarette smoke and the same prices.
“We’ve tried to keep the small-town, community aspect to it,” said Hunter. “We’re still making cookies and soup, and asking people to do hundreds of hours of work. It’s this small-town, big-town show.”It’s changed a little in that our standards are higher. We’re asking more of everybody.”Audiences will see touches of big-time theater in “Fiddler on the Roof.” In the dream scene, which has the character Fruma Sarah rising from the dead, the flying apparatus is being handled by a Chicago firm, one of the biggest such companies in the country. “We didn’t want to do a slacker job,” said Hunter. Tom Ward’s designs hold a candle to virtually anything outside of Broadway. (My most vivid ACT memory is Ward’s set for 1996’s “The King and I.” The set itself earned a rousing applause as soon as the curtains opened, before one line had been spoken.) A good number of the performers are or have been professional actors, part of the cast of the Crystal Palace dinner theater. Pat Holloran and Tammy Baar, who star as Tevye and Golde, as well as Nina Gabianelli, who plays Yente the Matchmaker, and Jeff James-Schlepp, who plays the butcher Lazar Wolf, have all made their living as part of the Palace cast.But in most respects, ACT has the small-town feel. Hunter and Hecht are in the box office before every show, greeting theatergoers and gauging audience responses. The top ticket price is $18 – $12 for matinee tickets for children – and ACT is funded through ticket sales, program advertisements and small donations, almost all of them $100 or less. (Specific big-ticket items, like this year’s flying, are often sponsored by an individual or business.) A musical costs between $60,000 and $80,000 to produce; big expenses include rent of the theater and salaries for the director, musical director and several other crew members.The community flavor is most palpable, though, for those in the productions. On a Saturday afternoon some two weeks before opening night, 20 or so local residents, from kids to key production staff, were at the Aspen District Theatre schlepping sets, rearranging scaffolding, cleaning the stage. The crew included numerous “Fiddler” cast members, including Holloran, the top-billed actor.”That’s what’s necessary,” said Sheehan, a bartender at The Little Nell. “That’s the collaboration that makes community theater. All of the core people have put their life into this. You can go a lot of places, but you won’t find this, this coming together with an all-hands collaboration. All communities have theater, but this one seems special.”
Family feelingJohn Trow has been thinking about that special quality for 17 years. In 1989 Trow, who had been a Crystal Palace performer, made his ACT debut, appearing as Mr. Applegate (aka the Devil) in “Damn Yankees.” Trow then moved to Minneapolis, where he continued his theater career. Among his regular jobs was directing the fall production at Hopkins High School, which inevitably, and to his dismay, conflicted with participating in ACT. This year, Trow retired from the Hopkins gig, and the first item on his agenda was to call Hunter and let it be known he was finally available.”Damn Yankees,” said Trow, who still directs the Crystal Palace show, “was a great experience and very different than anything I’ve ever done. I’d do a scene, and half the cast was in the wings, watching. I’d walk offstage and get patted on the back. There was a camaraderie that was amazing, and just different. It exemplified the feeling of family, a family through a production. That stuck with me. That sort of coming together, everybody caring for each other, wanting you to do well – it’s very endearing.”That feeling extends beyond the long-standing members of the ACT family. Hunter is always eager to publicize actors who are new to ACT. “Fiddler” features 19 people making their ACT debuts, including Tyson Young (playing Motel the tailor) and Bill Hodges (the Constable). Last year’s production of “Pippin” featured newcomers in virtually all the main parts, including Paul Dankers in the title role. (Dankers returns as Nachum the beggar in “Fiddler.”) Even better for Hunter is when someone new to town starts laying down their Aspen roots by joining the local theater players. She loves the story of Ashley Sartaine, one of the “Fiddler on the Roof” villagers. Sartaine had a friend impersonate her to schedule an audition, as she hadn’t moved to town yet. “She literally wasn’t even living here yet. But she knew she’d be here in time for auditions,” said Hunter. Hunter is equally impressed with Amy Chevalier, a newlywed who had been in town for all of a week when she auditioned. She, too, plays a villager, and her real life – getting settled in a new job, new town and new marriage – will wait a few weeks.”The one thing they have maintained from the very beginning is how they bring the actors into the group,” said Sheehan, who lived away from Aspen most of the ’80s and ’90s, but rejoined ACT upon his return in 1999. “You are so warmly received. They create a garden for you. They embrace you. They nurture everything you do. And that’s as prevalent today as it was in the beginning. It’s such a good atmosphere to work your craft.”Sheehan’s thoughts remind me of another favorite ACT moment. Bobby Mason, an iconic presence on Aspen’s rock ‘n’ roll scene, was drafted into the theater realm to provide the voice for the ravenous plant Audrey II in the 1998 production of “Little Shop of Horrors.” Mason’s enormous voice proved ideal for the role.
Beyond entertainmentHunter’s favorite ACT productions have tended to be the most elaborate: 1997’s “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and 1999’s “The King and I,” which featured the Tom Ward set that Hunter still swoons over, calling it “completely beautiful.”But the experience that seems to have touched her deepest didn’t happen onstage. Instead, it was an example of the larger community being touched by theater. For 1992’s “The Diary of Anne Frank,” Hunter got in touch with a Holocaust survivor who lived in Denver. The woman came to Aspen to talk with the cast, “to give them an idea of the experience,” said Hunter. She also talked about the Nazi concentration camps to high school classes. “Griff Smith, the principal at the time, said he had never heard the classes so quiet,” noted Hunter.Most significant of all was the fact that, before the ACT connection, the woman had never come out publicly to speak about her past. “She said it was so cathartic; it changed her whole family dynamic,” said Hunter. “And this woman then went and spoke a lot of places.
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“I felt we were not only providing entertainment, but educating. And that’s part of our mission statement.”ACT provides not only entertainment for the audience, and education for the larger community, but also opportunity for the valley’s pool of talented people. Lighting and sound designers, musicians, vocal coaches and carpenters, as well as singers and actors, get the chance to operate on a scale that might otherwise not be available.”The theater people in Aspen will work on whatever fits their time schedule,” said Sheehan, referring mostly to the Crystal Palace performers, whose time off from the dinner theater fits perfectly with ACT fall musical. “The artist will work every opportunity that he has. In order to be accomplished in your craft, you have to do it.”The community theater has provided the most constant environment for the artist – the graphic people, the lighting designer, the people who work as stage managers. It keeps everyone busy.”Tradition!
If there is a price for ACT’s reaching for the artistic heights, it is that participating means setting aside virtually everything else. Hunter says that each musical puts her life on hold for two and a half months. Cast members typically put in six weeks of rehearsal; this year it’s seven, because of the large cast and the fact that Trow is making his ACT directorial debut. Rehearsals are held five nights a week, three hours a night – and right at the time when families are generally sitting at the table for dinner. Add in 10 performances, with four hours required each night for makeup and costumes, and cast members are looking at up to 45 nights devoted to a community theater production. “When I think about the people who put in more time than the people who get paid for what they do, I’m amazed,” said Hunter. “I guess they just love it.”ACT has been a success on several levels. According to Hunter, the organization has always been on solid footing financially. Attendance is strong – a run usually fills about 85 percent of available seats – though it does vary with the popularity of the show being presented. Audiences generally marvel at the quality of the shows. The sense of shared sacrifice is a key component in those achievements.”Whatever I can do, I’ll do,” said Sheehan, who spent a Saturday moving set pieces around. “And that’s what drives this. If it feels professional, it’s because it comes from the hearts of the people involved. That’s the emotion that’s transferred to the work. When you have a collaboration of all these people with that same motivation, this is the result.”Another result, this one away from the stage, is that the idea of Aspen as a village, like Anatevka in “Fiddler on the Roof,” becomes more believable. Why would Rita Hunter devote 25 or so of her autumns to ACT musicals? Why would Ned Sullivan put in weeks of rehearsal time for a few minutes onstage, often as an inanimate object? It’s to put on a show, yes, and do a fine job of it. But it’s more: Like the fiddler of Anatevka, who tries to make a pretty tune without falling off the roof and breaking his neck, the cast and crew of ACT are looking for balance. The sense of shared traditions and aspirations that makes a community comes alive each time ACT participants assemble for the next production.
Hunter feels it virtually every day. Especially in the weeks following a show, she can barely walk across town to her job at Pitkin County Dry Goods without being stopped for questions and congratulations for ACT.”Sometimes my boss must think, is this Pitkin County Dry Goods or ACT headquarters?” she said. “But what else could you hope for, to make your life worthwhile? I guess you could be in Darfur, but I probably won’t get there in my lifetime.”Instead, Hunter has devoted a sizable chunk of her life to making her own community a more vibrant place, with a strong identity. That seems to be a fulfilling pursuit.”Part of me says, gosh, it’s too bad people from other places can’t come to see [the shows]. Because there’s nobody else here the first two weeks of November,” said Hunter. “The other part of me says, good, this is the one thing we get to keep for ourselves. It’s by us and for us.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org