The Price of theater in Aspen |

The Price of theater in Aspen

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
Paul Conrad Aspen Times Weekly

ASPEN ” It was mentioned to Paige Price, the new artistic director of Theatre Aspen, that the first summer season she would be presiding over seemed to have a tidy overall theme. “Someone pointed out that it’s the land of the misfits,” said Price. “All of these characters are looking for a place to fit, someone they can fit in with. Some of them are outcasts, some are misfits. They have that in common.”

That mold applies to Seymour Krelborn, the nerdy loner who finds companionship with an insecure woman (Audrey) and an evil, alien plant (Audrey II) in the musical “Little Shop of Horrors”; Michael and Don, the odd-couple Little League coaches in the comedy “Rounding Third”; and Babe Magrath, the woman who shot her husband in the Pulitzer Prize-winning sisters story, “Crimes of the Heart.”

The misfit role also can be applied to theater generally in Aspen. For decades, classical music has had an international presence here, thanks to the Aspen Music Festival. Popular music has a regional, and sometimes even national draw, thanks to Jazz Aspen Snowmass and Belly Up. Aspen Film has built a loyal, local following with its fall Filmfest, while its fall Shortsfest has put Aspen on the international map for filmmakers. The Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, in just more than a decade, has appeared across the States and in Europe, alerting the world that interesting things in the dance realm are originating out of Aspen. The Aspen Writers’ Foundation has climbed a steady upward path in recent years.

Theater has struggled to gain similar footing. Theatre Aspen ” the former Aspen Theatre in the Park, and before that, Theatre Under the Jerome ” has had four artistic directors in less than a decade. When Price, a New York City-based actor and producer, and the first vice president of the Actors Equity union, took over last fall, the job was downgraded to a half-year position in an effort to save money. The artistic level in the recent past has been decidedly unsteady, with ambitious, excellent productions as often as not followed by tepid musical revues. Probably the most consistent criticism aimed at the organization is that it has failed to aim high enough: In a town that embraces Shostakovich and short films, why are we being given a jukebox musical based on the songs of Harry Chapin (“Lies and Legends: The Musical Stories of Harry Chapin,” Theatre Aspen, 2004)?

Smaller pockets of theater are showing promise. The Hudson Reed Ensemble ” founded and directed by Kent Reed, who also founded Theatre Aspen, as Theatre Under the Jerome, in the early ’80s ” has showed some staying power and a desire to present challenging work. Gottlieb Bartley Productions is creating a buzz, albeit doing children’s productions of familiar book musicals. Aspen Community Theatre is a model of community theater, but is likewise limited to musicals from the heart of Broadway.

So if theater is going to be a major player in Aspen, it is likely that Theatre Aspen is going to have to be the leader. It’s a situation that Price seems to recognize. One of the innovations she is introducing this summer season is curtain speeches ” a short introduction before every performance, given either by herself or Jeffry George, the organization’s recently hired managing director.

In her initial speech, given Thursday night prior to the first preview of “Little Shop of Horrors,” “I told them that theater is cool, that we were cool, and we wanted to be a part of their life,” she said. Price equated being cool to being good, doing worthwhile theater. “I think that’s our job ” to have people say, ‘Oh, they always do good work.’ So they can recommend us without hesitation. I want the community as invested in theater as they are in the other cultural institutions here. I want our work to be must-see work in the eyes of the locals.”

A recent profile in The Aspen Times noted that Theatre Aspen had recently been loaded with debt. On the subject of the organization’s finances, Price was quoted as saying, “It was a mess.”

That situation has been eased by a loan and a line of credit provided by the board of directors. But the financial stress has made Price’s job easier, at least in one way: Where her predecessor David McClendon, who headed Theatre Aspen for four years, spent a good deal of his time looking to build a permanent, year-round theater venue, and otherwise expand the organization, she is focused on putting on plays.

“I don’t have a vision for a new building,” said Price. “I want our building to go on in the theater. That’s not to say I don’t want to improve the structure we have now; there are definite improvements we could have in the existing space. We’ve improved the sound. But it’s not, if you build it, they will come. I don’t have a new hi-tech building in mind at some other site.”

Price says she has one goal that runs counter to her overall nonexpansionist notion. She would like Theatre Aspen to do year-round programming, and in that regard has been in conceptual talks with Gram Slaton, executive director of the Wheeler Opera House, with an eye on the vacant space next door to the Opera House that the Wheeler is looking to develop. Price would like Theatre Aspen at least to have a voice in what kind of structure gets built there, so that theater could be presented outside the summer months, when the Theatre Aspen Tent is usable.

“I want the actors and performers in town to be able to make a living,” she said. “Our conservatory program is strong; we’re training people well. It would be nice to have more performance opportunities for them.”

More in the nature of an adjustment than an expansion are the new Family Nights events. Recognizing how few kids-oriented, evening-time activities there were in Aspen, Price decided to fill the void by giving the season’s children’s theater production, “Seussical,” three evening presentations (July 29, Aug. 8 and 12) in addition to the Friday and Saturday mornings. The Family Nights will feature boxed picnic suppers and storytelling outside on blankets, followed by a 6:30 p.m. curtain.

As much as Price is interested in the relationship between Aspen and the theater, she is interested in onstage relationships. “I wanted character-based, story-driven shows about relationships,” she said. “That may be cliche, but it’s true, plays are about relationships. But I wanted complicated relationships. I do not want revues.”

The season she has assembled comprises “Little Shop of Horrors,” the mock-horror musical which opened last week and shows this week Monday through Wednesday, June 20-July 2, and Saturday, July 5; “Rounding Third,” which Price likens to “The Odd Couple” and which opens July 10; and “Crimes of the Heart,” about three sisters reuniting in their family home in Mississippi, opening July 24. The season, rounded out by “Seussical,” continues in rotating repertoire through Aug. 23.

There likely are going to be limits on the complexity of the work Price presents. Aspen, she notes, is a destination resort. “So I don’t know if Eunesco is going to play here, in the summer,” she said.

Price’s involvement with the theater world has been pretty straightforward. Though a native of central New Jersey’s Middlesex Borough ” “all Italians and football. Very blue collar,” she says of her hometown ” she knew what she wanted to do the minute her mother enrolled her, when she was 4, in a dance class. “And then I did a musical. And it was all over,” said Price. The musical was “Gypsy,” and the 8-year-old Price was good enough in a local production, playing Baby June, that companies around the state sought her out for the role. Eventually she graduated to the role of Dainty June. As a sophomore in high school, she landed her first professional gig, as a tap dancer in “The Mitch Miller Variety Show” (despite thinking that the show’s star had been long dead).

If there was a major curveball in her career, it came soon after she enrolled at New York University. She was cast in the 1983 Tom Cruise football film “All the Right Moves,” and unexpectedly made the jump from stage to screen. It turned out not to be a poor move for Price.

“That sidetracked me, the movie thing,” she said. “I moved to L.A., and the life was great, in my 20s. But the work was not what I was trained for.”

In 1991, Price was cast in “42nd Street,” moved back East, and barely has left the theater. She appeared on Broadway in “Beauty and the Beast,” did a national tour with “A Chorus Line,” and played several years in “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” which, despite being a musical revue, she cites as her career highlight.

After a rough time doing “Saturday Night Fever,” Price began producing, and also moved into another business corner of the entertainment business, working for Actors Equity, the actors’ union. Through the union she met Katherine Sand, a co-president of the board of Theatre Aspen. Several years ago, when Theatre Aspen needed a singer for a benefit event, they booked Price. Last year, Price was called on again, this time to co-star in the two-person musical romance, “The Last Five Years.” And when the organization looked to replace David McClendon, Price was contacted once again, and took the artistic director role, her first time heading a theater company.

Among the assets Price brings with her is an extensive list of contacts. Gordan Stanley, one of the stars of “Rounding Third,” was a cast-mate of hers in “Beauty and the Beast.” Janet Metz, who appears in “Crimes of the Heart,” is not only a friend; she also introduced Price to Michael Unger, Metz’s husband, who will direct the show. And Price already is making valuable contacts in her new, part-time home: Last summer, she met prominent TV director and part-time local Jay Sandrich, and signed him to direct “Rounding Third,” his first experience with live theater.

Price’s contract, a two-year agreement, calls for her to be in Aspen May through September. Which may not be enough: “I’m sure I’ll go through withdrawal in September, and not want to leave,” she said. But on one respect, Price’s splitting her time between here and New York may be advantageous to Theatre Aspen.

“The upside is I’ll be able to stay plugged in to the current world of theater. And that can only enhance what I do in this position,” she said. “I have access to people at the top level of experience. My job is to make this an environment in which they can thrive.”