Theatre Aspen cutting back |

Theatre Aspen cutting back

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

ASPEN ” Auditions held recently for Theatre Aspen’s upcoming summer season drew a light turnout, surprising the nonprofit organization’s artistic director, Paige Price.

Given last spring’s closing of the Crystal Palace dinner theater, which had given local performers significant job opportunities; the tight job market overall; and the fact that Theatre Aspen was coming off one of its strongest seasons, artistically, Price was expecting waves of thespians.

“Maybe they can’t afford it,” mused Price, who splits her time between Aspen and New York, and was here last week for board meetings and other Theatre Aspen tasks. “Maybe they think they can’t ask for Fridays off for rehearsal. Maybe the people from the Crystal Palace, after it closed, can’t keep their careers going. Or maybe it’s too early for them to plan.”

The shortage of auditioning actors is part of the mixed bag of fallout that is hitting Aspen’s nonprofit arts organizations. But along with scaling back their offerings, the groups are also showing creative ways to make their dollars go further.

Jazz Aspen Snowmass, for example, has shortened its Labor Day Festival, which has customarily run four or five days, to just three days for 2009 (Sept. 4-6). But its June Festival has been lengthened to cover two weekends (June 18-27), a change that comes with an overall restructuring of the event: The principal venue for the festival has been moved to the Aspen Music Festival’s Benedict Music Tent, obviating the need for Jazz Aspen to erect its own tent; and the second weekend will feature small-venue shows around downtown Aspen.

Theatre Aspen, too, will see a combination of reduced programming and expanded offerings. The most obvious effect of the economic climate is chopping a production in the coming summer season: Instead of three main productions plus a kids-oriented show, as has been the standard for years, there will be just two feature shows to go with the family fare. The operation also eliminated a position, of company manager, which it hopes to reinstate for the summer.

Behind the curtain, however, the scene is not dire. Theatre Aspen is actually planning to have more performances this summer than last, thanks to the installation of a cooling system that will allow for daytime shows. The nonprofit organization, which was founded in 1983 as Theatre Under the Jerome, aims to revitalize its Sunday Series, which presents musicians, readings and more, usually featuring local talent.

Price is determined to make the most of tough times. In New York, where she is first vice president of the Actor’s Equity union, she sees theaters closing left and right. In Aspen, she wants the local theater group to enhance its vitality.

“This is not when you want to step back,” said Price, who is in her third year heading Theatre Aspen’s artistic side. “That impacts the community adversely ” in morale, loss of jobs. Between the vendors, the rent we pay, the actors, we’re a pretty good economic engine in the summer.”

Even more significant, Price said, is reaching out to audiences. Theater provides a place for people to get together, a chance to share their experiences, and even forget their worries for an evening.

“You should look outward to the community you serve and see how your mission can accomplish that,” she said. “If you look to what the community needs, it becomes very obvious what you need to do. You see your purpose. And that’s got me charged up about our season.”

The season comprises the musical, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”; the drama, “Same Time, Next Year”; and the family show, “A Year With Frog and Toad.” All are known quantities: The 1978 film version of “Same Time, Next Year” earned four Oscar nominations; the other two have both been recent stage hits. In fact, “Spelling Bee” is so recent that Theatre Aspen was initially refused in its attempt to get the rights to perform it. But Price was adamant about doing the regional premiere of the musical comedy about misfit kids.

“The writer, Bill Finn, lives in my building” in New York, she said. “I threatened to sit outside his door. I worked every strong-arm tactic I could.”

“A Year With Frog and Toad” is based on Arnold Lobel’s simple books about two woodlands friends. The musical broke ground in 2003 by bringing children’s theater to Broadway. It also earned three Tony nominations, including for best musical.

“Same Time, Next Year” tracks the changing eras through the story of a couple who have an annual romantic rendezvous. It will be directed by part-time Aspenite Jay Sandrich, a prominent TV director who made his debut in live theater with last year’s Theatre Aspen production of “Rounding Third.”

Price projects a calm reaction to cutting a production. “I felt it was the most reasonable thing to do. Reasonable, right and responsible,” she said. The material that does get presented should provide needed comfort to audiences.

“‘Same Time, Next Year’ is about perspective,” she said. “‘Spelling Bee’ is about determination. ‘Frog and Toad’ is about hope. It sounds so cheesy, but that’s the spectrum I wanted to hit.”

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