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Theater of Possiblity

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Theatre in the Park at the Rio Grande Park performs a dress rehearsal of Aesop-a-Rebop. From left to right is Ed Cord, Bob Moore, Austin Ford, Gina Virgallito, Missy Moore and Emily Cochran. Aspen Times photo/Devo.
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When David McClendon first heard about the opening for an artistic director at Aspen Theatre in the Park last year, he wasn’t interested. McClendon knew little about the organization. What he did know – a summer season of rotating repertory theater in an intimate tent, the smallish Aspen School of Theatre Arts – wasn’t enough to draw him away from his happy career as a Colorado-based freelance director of theater and video.Then McClendon learned that the Aspen Theatre in the Park (ATIP) board wasn’t just looking for someone to oversee the artistic side of their current operations. In their search, ATIP was looking for a director to take the 22-year-old organization into the future. The board had formulated a vision of an expanded theater company, with a permanent structure with multiple spaces, a year-round program and a bigger educational reach. That got McClendon’s attention.”I finally did look into it and saw the possibilities,” said the 50-year-old McClendon, whose first summer season with ATIP opens this week. “In my line of work, you learn to look at things on a piece of paper and envision the possibilities. With this, it seemed clear the possibilities were strong. “The passion and the vision of the board really caused me to do it. The board made the choice when they were doing the search that they wanted a permanent space and a year-round company. That piqued my interest, absolutely.”Of course the right person to head the artistic side of a theater company isn’t necessarily the right one to engage in fund raising, building and expanding. Fortunately, McClendon has experience with both.For 11 years, ending in the early ’90s, McClendon was the associate artistic director of the Globe Theatre in San Diego. When he took the position, the Globe had a solid reputation, but a fairly small role in the bigger theater world, with a $1 million budget. Coinciding with his arrival there, the Globe went into expansion mode; by the time McClendon left San Diego, the Globe had an $11 million annual budget, 53,000 subscribers and a three-theater complex.By then, the Globe also had a reputation for first-rate theater. The company won a Tony Award for Best Theater Company, and several Broadway productions were launched there. Neil Simon and Stephen Sondheim started some of their works at the Globe. This week, McClendon will continue his ongoing talk with the city of Aspen planning department about possibilities for building a permanent facility, and he will welcome to town Tom Hall, a principal with Albert, Hall & Associates, a top arts consulting firm. But McClendon sees his first order of business in Aspen as creating world-class theater productions.

“In a town as sophisticated as this – where people go to London and New York to see theater – we have to create world-class work,” said McClendon, who has lived the past 10 years in Black Forest, near Colorado Springs. “That’s what we’ll do and that’s what we must do. The key to it all is you have to have terrific work. An audience might see a play they don’t like – but they’ll also see you’ve done it incredibly well. That’s how you attract directors and designers and composers. I want this to be one of their artistic homes.”The summer seasonMcClendon believes he is off to a fine start on that score. The season of rotating repertoire – comprising David Auburn’s Tony Award-winning drama “Proof,” the stories-set-to-song production “Lies and Legends: The Musical Stories of Harry Chapin,” and the family production “Aesop-a-Rebop,” an original setting of Aesop’s Fables by local writer Janice Estey – was set before McClendon came aboard. But it is one that McClendon might have chosen himself.McClendon saw the original production of “Lies and Legends” in Chicago. He tried to bring the show – a set of vignettes set to individual songs by the late Chapin – to the Globe, but the producer wouldn’t give them the rights. Now McClendon, who helped cast the ATIP season, has a chance to present the show, which is directed for ATIP by Tracy Friedman, who choreographed the original production.”Harry Chapin’s music – he’s a poet,” said McClendon. “Each of his songs is a short story, and his music always talks about all of us.”And I have to say, the one we’re doing” – featuring such local talent as actors David Ledingham, Kathy Pelowski and Neil David Seibel, music director David Dyer and set designer Tom Ward – “is infinitely stronger than the one I saw years ago.”McClendon is happy to be associated for the first time with “Proof,” the story of a young woman confronting the legacy her brilliant father left behind won the 2001 Tony Award for best play and the Pulitzer Prize for best drama. ATIP’s production will be directed by Peter Hughes and features local father-daughter acting team Bob and Missy Moore. McClendon is a tad upset that his involvement isn’t closer.”I’d say my only disappointment is I’m not directing it,” he said. “It’s probably one of the best-written plays in the last five years. I’ll have to direct it somewhere else.”

McClendon saw a rehearsal of “Aesop-a-Rebop” last week and was impressed by the work of Estey. Estey’s last play for ATIP was the 2002 family production “Quack,” based on “The Ugly Duckling.” This year she puts her spin on Aesop’s Fables, including “The Tortoise and the Hare” and “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.””It’s wonderful, it’s charming, it’s funny,” said McClendon. And it’s got a fine message: “The basic premise is that one of the actors doesn’t like to read. And over the course of the fables, he discovers the joy and power of reading.”The season also includes the three-part Summer Play Reading Series, in which plays being considered for next summer are read and discussed.A new ATIP?Though his ambitions for ATIP are big – he aims to make it a significant regional company and make Aspen a destination theater spot – McClendon isn’t rushing toward those goals. There is no timetable or even a location, for that matter, for building theater spaces. (His wishes, though, are fairly concrete: two venues – a 250-to-300-seat thrust stage, and a 150-to-200-seat flexible black box – with adjoining classrooms, rehearsal space and offices; and distinct winter and summer programming.) And once a location is found, McClendon expects to move fast in hiring an architect and beginning a capital campaign. McClendon’s plans could spell the end of the things that have come to define ATIP: the short but intense summer season and the cozy ATIP Tent in Rio Grande Park.”I’m rethinking everything,” he said. “It will take a couple of years. For a couple of years, I want to step back and look. And in that time, we’ll continue with the structure we have now, with the tent. But we’ll begin now, that there’s a clear message to the audience, that there’s a strong, consistent quality to the work.”

McClendon is familiar enough with Aspen to know the status of the town’s arts organizations. He also knows that theater has long played a role beneath music and visual arts.”I’m here to change that,” he said. “I’m turning the page to a new chapter. I want to build not only a physical structure, but an organization that can attract, with ease, the best of the best.”The ATIP season of rotating repertoire runs July 1 through Aug. 28. The season opens with “Lies and Legends: The Musical Stories of Harry Chapin,” showing Friday and Saturday, July 2-3. “Aesop-A-Rebop” shows every Friday through Sunday at 10 a.m. through Aug. 22, beginning Friday, July 2. “Proof” opens Thursday, July 8.All productions are in the ATIP Tent in Rio Grande Park.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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