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Theater Masters adds to the local theater mix

Stewart Oksenhorn
"Shylock," a one-person play written and performed by Gareth Armstrong, will be presented by Theater Masters Monday through Wednesday, Jan. 23-25, at Aspen High School's Black Box Theatre. (Courtesy Theater Masters)
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When Julia Hansen moved to Aspen in 2001, she brought with her a huge enthusiasm for theater, and contacts and experience in the New York theater universe. But she also came with respect for Aspen’s existing theater organizations, and a desire not to duplicate efforts already being made.So Theater Masters, the nonprofit organization that Hansen founded and directs, focuses on distinct niches of theater: new playwrights, education, audience development.”The critical thing was to augment what was being done here,” said Hansen who, from the early 1980s to 2000, was head of The Drama League of New York, which presents awards and produces the Directors Project, a comprehensive training program for young directors. “We’re complementing the theater scene, the theater opportunities for audiences here.”

Despite the seeming modesty of those ambitions, Hansen and Theater Masters are going to have a significant stage presence in the months ahead. Theater Masters will have four programs through March, from a presentation of a Shakespeare-inspired work that has played off-Broadway and across the U.K., to the latest installment of Take Ten, a playwriting event that involves valley students, award-winning writers, local actors and prominent young directors.The Theater Masters season opens with a presentation of the finished play, “Shylock,” Monday through Wednesday, Jan. 23-25, at Aspen High School’s Black Box Theatre. Gareth Armstrong’s one-man play was developed after the Welch-born actor appeared as Shylock, the Jewish moneylender from Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” for England’s Salisbury Playhouse. Armstrong noticed that during the production, he became an outcast from the company, onstage and off. The son of a Presbyterian minister, Armstrong did extensive research into Shakespeare’s depiction of Shylock, the Old and New Testaments, and persecution of the Jews.”I was first shocked by my ignorance, and then by my impertinence for attempting the subject from my gentile perspective,” wrote Armstrong in the introduction to “Shylock,” in which he plays several Jewish characters (Shakespeare’s Shylock and Tubal, and Barabas, from Christopher Marlowe’s “The Jew of Malta”).”He talks about the history, the persecution, the segregation,” said Hansen. “He makes you so sensitive to the pain and suffering through the years.”The fourth edition of Take Ten, Feb. 4 at the New Space Theatre in Glenwood Springs and Feb. 6 at the Black Box, will feature some dozen 10-minute plays. Included in the evening, along with already published plays, are the two award-winning works from the Aspiring Playwrights Competition, for local middle and high school students. The entries in the local competition are judged first by a panel of local readers, and then by an established playwright. This year’s final judge is Alfred Uhry, the award-winning writer of “Driving Miss Daisy”; past judges include Terrence McNally (“Love! Valour! Compassion!”) and Christopher Durang. Directing the cast, which includes local actors, will be Lane Savadove, who became available when his New Orleans company, ErgoPo, had its theater destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

This past week, Theater Masters launched an in-school program, giving workshops in three local high schools. The program has East Coast director Laurie Sales talking to students about themes raised by “Shylock” and “The Merchant of Venice”: prejudice, justice and loyalty. The program also provides discounted tickets for the classes to attend “Shylock.”The New Play Development Program will present readings of two new works. “The Gigolo Confessions of Baile Breag” is set for March 13; “The Mysteries of Harris Burdick” is March 27. Both readings are at the Black Box.”The Gigolo Confessions” is the third in a trilogy of plays by Irish-born dramatist Ronan Noone; the first, “The Lepers,” earned the 2002 National Student Playwriting Award at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. “The Mysteries of Harris Burdick” is Theater Masters’ first development of a musical. Written by Joe Calarco, who had an off-Broadway hit with “Shakespeare’s R & J,” it was adapted from illustrator Chris Van Allsburg’s book of sketches about three friends haunted by childhood memories. In keeping with Theater Masters’ practice, there will be a Q & A session after each reading.The New Play Program is already building a track record. Brian Dykstra’s “Clean Alternatives,” the first play in the program two years ago, opens off-Broadway next month. Eric Winick, whose comedy “A Park Slope Story” was also read in 2004, has been chosen to participate in the Eugene O’Neil New Play Conference.Hansen figures the slate of presentations will stimulate, rather than exhaust, the interest in theater in the valley.

“If we can develop an audience that is adventuresome and loves theater, that can be shared with everybody,” she said. “And every theater company can benefit from that. That’s what we’re trying to do.”What she is not attempting to do is to build a platform for her own theater aspirations. A former investment banking account executive on Wall Street, Hansen has “done a little bit of everything” in theater. But she prefers to stay in the wings.”I’m a better catalyst,” she said.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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