Dancing draws newbies to Aspen theater production

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
Stewart Oksenhorn /The Aspen TimesStacia Bolitho, right, rehearses with Franz Alderfer for Aspen Community Theatre's production of "Evita," which opens Thursday at the Aspen District Theatre.

ASPEN – Aspen Community Theatre has plenty of institutional history behind it, with 36 years of performances. That sense of history is very much present in the organization, when you consider that key ACT participants like co-producers Rita Hunter and Jody Hecht, and set designer Tom Ward, count their service in decades.

But ACT is not bound to its own tradition; one thing they have not built into the organization is a good-ol’-boys (or gals) atmosphere. When ACT opens its production of the musical “Evita” Thursday, at the Aspen District Theatre, two-thirds of the adult cast will be newcomers, headed by Stacia Bolitho, the 26-year-old Silt resident who makes her ACT debut in the title role. That comes on the heels of last year’s production of “1776,” when Graham Northrup took the lead role of American forefather John Adams.

“When I think about ACT, I think of it as an organization that welcomes new people to the family,” said Carol Bayley, a former ACT board president who has been involved with the organization for 15 years, and now handles the group’s publicity.

“We have to go forward with new, younger people. We want to see ACT go into the future, and that will take a younger, newer commitment,” Hecht said. “We’re not spring chickens anymore. There will come a time when we can’t put in all the time that’s required. We all started when we were young, and that’s what it takes.”

Hecht said that each show brings out its own particular set of newcomers: perhaps Jewish people who wanted to do “Fiddler on the Roof,” or the history buffs who were attracted to “1776.” “I love that – seeing someone waiting for that one right part,” she said.

“Evita,” the story of Eva Peron, the controversial, memorable and largely beloved former first lady of Argentina, has drawn out an unusually large contingent of newbies, which might be traced to the emphasis on dancing, and in particular the tango dance culture, that exists in the valley. A pre-production tango workshop, with “Evita” co-choreographer Heather Morrow, drew 40 participants.

Gaby Rafelson, a 45-year-old who has lived in Aspen 10 years, said the chance to dance, without having to do much singing, finally pulled her back to the stage.

“I only had to dance – which for me is fun,” Rafelson, who did some acting in small Hollywood theaters 20 years ago, said. “They do musicals, which usually means you have to sing. And I’m not a good singer.”

For ensemble member Siam Castillo, joining ACT was a combination of things: a desire to get back on stage after a long absence, a fondness for the particular show, and, a reason that is common to ACT first-timers, simple timing.

“I was finally out of my panic mode with my store, and thought I had some space for myself,” said Castillo, who has lived in the valley six years and owns an Aspen jewelry store.

Castillo, who studied ballet into her teen years and appeared in music videos and in theater productions, auditioned for the role of Evita, based in part on her admittedly incomplete view of the role. “What I really liked was the idea that she was someone for the people,” the 35-year-old Castillo said. “I didn’t understand the other side of her, the tyrannical part, the rage. When I found out she wasn’t this Mother Teresa character, I was a little happier about not getting the part.”

Landing the role of Peron was Bolitho, a powerful singer who studied theater at Southeastern University in Florida and considered giving the life of a New York theater person a try before meeting her eventual husband, a Colorado native.

Aspen Community Theatre gets fresh energy from its new actors, and the organization also gets a renewed, broadened sense of community by spotlighting new talent. “Each one of these people has different friends, different people they’re reaching out to,” Hecht said. “Every year you get a new community. You get people saying, ‘I had no idea about ACT, but my friend is in it, so I’m going to check it out.'” This year, the community gets stretched especially wide; newcomers include Michael Schoepe, a new arrival from Germany; and Nicola Quinn, who recently moved from South Africa.

The new actors get a fresh perspective on their town. Rafelson, who has lived in Aspen for a decade, said, “I feel like I’m part of the community now.” She added that she was impressed by the local talent.

On the other end, ACT has its stalwarts. “Evita” director/choreographer Marisa Post has been behind a handful of ACT musicals, as has vocal director/conductor Bob Finnie. Onstage, Scott MacCracken, who plays President Juan Peron, is the most familiar face. “They definitely honor the people who have been around a long time. Which is the way it should be,” Castillo said.

Perhaps the best of worlds is when the newbies become, over the years, the old-timers.

“I could see doing it again,” Rafelson said. “I’ve definitely caught the bug of being onstage again.”