The theater’s the thing |

The theater’s the thing

Paul Conrad/Aspen Times Weekly

The Thunder River Theatre Company’s new building, in downtown Carbondale, is less than a week old, and already Lon Winston, the group’s founder and artistic director, is over the edifice.It seems that all Winston can think about is the black box theater that is at the heart of the building. On a visit to the new theater last week, Winston led me through the back door, and quickly through the building, barely mentioning the gallery space, the lobby and the office as we passed them. He didn’t spout statistics ($1.25 million, 11,300 square feet), praise the community effort (considerable) to get the building funded and constructed, or even rave about the two-night opening run (sold out, celebratory) that had inaugurated the theater just a few days earlier. But sitting on the stage in the 99-seat, 2,500-square-foot theater itself, Winston’s enthusiasm was unbottled.”The ideal thing about a black box is you can use it any way you want,” said the 59-year-old Winston, pointing out how the space can be configured for theater in the round, for three-quarter round, or, as is currently laid out, as a proscenium thrust, with the stage jutting out toward the audience. “You let the play dictate the space, rather than vice versa.”When I point out that Winston had given short shrift to the other 8,800 square feet of the building, located a block north of Main Street, he acknowledged the truth of his passion.”This is what I want. It’s all about the theater space,” said Winston, who is directing the opening production, an adaptation of Aristophones’ comedy “Lysistrata.” (The play opened with performances Dec. 30-31, and continues Sunday, Jan. 8, and Friday and Saturday, Jan. 13-14.) “All the rest of that space supports the theater.”

Part of the reason for that focus on the artistic heart of the building is, of course, Winston’s long, deep love of theater. Beginning in the late ’60s, when he became a drama and vocal teacher at a Miami high school, Winston has devoted himself to teaching and presenting theater. While he has taught in Connecticut and Colorado, his main academic affiliation was with Pennsylvania’s Villanova University, where he was a professor on the graduate faculty from 1980-92.But another cause for his close embrace of the theater space itself is the nomadic history of Thunder River Theatre. Since Winston founded the company, in 1995, Thunder River’s existence has, to a great extent, been dictated by the spaces it has played. Over its first 10 years, Thunder River had presented its 20-odd productions in nine different venues around the valley, in high school auditoriums and alternative spaces from Glenwood Springs to Aspen.Winston always searched to find the opportunities presented by such diverse spaces. For “Greek Shards – Medea” in 2003, Thunder River staged its original telling of the legend of Jason and Argonauts in an empty Aspen District Theatre. The audience sat on the stage, looking out at the unfilled, 500-seat space; the actors, who came out of those darkened seats, were cast as cultural anthropologists, searching for the mythical theater. Winston recalls that show of creativity fondly. But after 10 years of having to adapt each play to a new space, the spirit was running dry, and Winston had fleeting thoughts of disbanding the company.”Over the last couple of years, it started to become clear, the possibility of Thunder River folding,” said Winston, “because we didn’t have a place to work. Two years ago we were at 20 productions in eight or nine venues around the valley. It became clear to us, we couldn’t afford to rent facilities for the amount of time you need to run a play. It’s not like renting a space for one night to do a concert.”Apart from the cost, Winston felt his company was getting in the way of its various hosts. “The impact we would have on a facility – we’d do shows at the CRMS Barn, Roaring Fork High School, and that was fine,” he said. “But it was a huge impact on them. It interfered with their ability to run their programs.”

The idea of a theater for Thunder River Theatre has been in the air since the company’s founding. There was talk of combining forces with the Carbondale Council on Arts and Humanities for a building where the North Face once was, but that development fell through.But it has only been a year since Winston told his board that the company needed its own venue, and the current project was envisioned. From there, things moved speedily: Last February, Thunder River closed on the property, part of a larger development still to be built by the New Town Center company. When Winston announced last month that he wanted the new theater to open debt-free, four donors who had already given $100,000 each – Jim Calaway, Kathy and Dick Stephenson, Bob Young and Alpine Bank, and the Kruidenier Charitable Foundation – each pledged another $50,000 toward a challenge grant. When the theater opened Dec. 30, Thunder River owed some $55,000 on the building, which Winston considers close enough to be worth celebrating.Winston is pleased with the building on many fronts. The organization’s offices, on the second floor, are not walled in, but can be seen from the first-floor lobby or even through the front windows. “The concept for a nonprofit is one of transparency,” noted Winston. “It’s, this is who we are, what we do, what we’ve paid. Nothing is hidden. People can see us working.”The black box itself is almost the opposite. While a sliver of the inner theater can actually be glimpsed from outside the building, the space is basically sealed off from the world. “When you come into a space like this, you want a feeling like you’re in a blank space, with no interference from the outside. Like there’s nothing else happening,” said John Baker, the Carbondale architect who designed the building.The concept of openness extends to the philosophy of use of the theater. The basement is enormous – 4,500 square feet – so that the theater can be rented out, while Thunder River still has room to rehearse. (There are already dates booked for musicians David Wilcox, Tim O’Brien, Vince Herman & Great American Taxi, and the CU Jazz Faculty & District 8 Honor Students Concert; among the presenters are Jazz Aspen and KDNK. In addition, Thunder River will present magician Keir Royale in late February.) Winston says that renting the space is a financial necessity. But it also fits in with the spirit of community that has pervaded the project. Thunder River has received in-kind donations including the sign out front (from Jon Salamida of The Shirt Stop), carpeting (Balentine Carpets), etched glass in the front window (Crystal Glass Studios) and even a post-construction cleanup crew (Alpine Valley Services). Beyond generosity, there is participation: As soon as Baker finished his architectural work, he joined Thunder River’s board. Patrick McGarry, who served as the project superintendent, signed on to become a company member, part of the team that builds sets and props. Government officials have even chipped in with an unofficial policy of being supportive and helpful. “Every jurisdiction I came across just wanted it to happen,” said McGarry. “That made my job so easy, and so much fun. Most jobs are not like that.”Thunder River hasn’t always been so cooperative in turn. The developer, New Town Center, asked the company to build in the style of downtown Carbondale – red brick, Victorian.”But I said, we’re not a Victorian theater,” said Winston. “We said, we can use the materials so it blends in. But there has to be a modern sensibility to it. Because what we do is modern.”I want people to walk by this building and there to be no mistake, this is where art happens. This is not where your lawyer or dentist is. I want people to go, ‘Oh, that’s the theater.'” Winston stuck to his guns: “And the developers loved it,” he added.

Winston put much thought into choosing the opening play for the new theater. “It had to be a play good for the audience, good for the company, good for our times. And good for our building,” he said. He settled on “Lysistrata,” Aristophones’ 411 B.C. comedy about women protesting the Peloponnesian War – then in its 20th year – by going on a sex strike. There is an obvious resonance with the current war in Iraq. But Winston says the choice was more than political commentary. In Thunder River’s adaptation, “Lysistrata” opens, appropriately, with a greeting that plays off of Plato’s “Symposium.””It’s not about the politics of war, it’s not about Iraq,” said Winston. “It’s bigger than that. It’s a yearning to live in peace, something that everyone wants. It’s a peace play, about love and yearning and belonging. And that’s what we wanted to leave the audience with, a sense of the future, of out with the old and in with the new.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is

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