Theatre Aspen director Jed Bernstein looks back on his first year and ahead to a big summer
Jed Bernstein came to Theatre Aspen before its 2018 season with a Broadway pedigree and big ideas for this small regional theater company.
After more than a year on the job, with his first summer season at the Hurst Theatre in Rio Grande Park behind him and looking ahead to his second, his ambitious vision for the 36-year-old company has begun taking hold with a slew of new initiatives, an expanded educational program, some growing pains and a 2019 summer season led by “Guys and Dolls.”
Bernstein, a Tony Award-winning Broadway producer and former CEO of Lincoln Center, quickly launched new programs and initiatives with an eye on expanding the reach of the theater company outside the tent and beyond the traditional summer season.
“One of the first things I noticed when I was thinking about the job was that we don’t want to be in a situation where we close up the tent in August and nobody thinks about us again until June,” Bernstein said in an interview at the Red Brick Center for the Arts atrium last month, when he was in town for Theatre Aspen’s annual gala.
Among the new launches in his first year: a cabaret performance series, the year-round show choir The Miner Keys, expanding the run of Theatre Aspen School’s student show (“Mary Poppins” last year, “The Wizard of Oz” this summer) and putting it on main stage at the Hurst, moving the summer education programming to take over the Woody Creek campus of the Aspen Community School and pulling off a splashy inaugural collaboration with the Aspen Institute by producing interstitial scenes during the Afternoon of Conversation at Aspen Ideas Festival in the Benedict Music Tent.
“He is a great idea person,” said Soledad Hurst, the local philanthropist and longtime Theatre Aspen board member who began her tenure as board chair in January and whose family’s gift led to a major tent upgrade in 2012.
Bernstein also has grown the TA Apprentice program — from 17 college students last year to 20 in 2019 — and is eying an expansion of its local education programs downvalley and across the Western Slope.
The biggest of the new initiatives, though, is Solo Flights, the one-person show festival that’s scheduled to debut Sept. 18 through 21. This reimagining of the Aspen Theatre Festival, which ran from 2015 to 2017, is the company’s bid for a place on the national landscape.
“There are lots of places that are doing new play festivals and lots of places doing festivals of new musicals,” Bernstein said. “Nobody is doing a festival of one-person shows. It seemed like a gap that we could fill uniquely.”
Since announcing the new festival in early winter, Theatre Aspen received more than 100 submissions of in-development shows. Bernstein hopes that in as quickly as two or three years the event will draw the eyes of the theater world to Aspen the same way that Food & Wine Classic summons the culinary industry and Ideas Fest gathers Washington’s chattering class and the HBO Comedy Festival used to bring Hollywood here.
“Once we get the programming exactly right, I think it’s going to draw people from the theater world all over the country,” Bernstein said.
Still, most people know Theatre Aspen through its main-stage summer shows at the Hurst. The big musical last year, “Ragtime” was a timely production that proved to be well-received and attended despite a potentially devastating bad break. Its star, Michael Andreaus, ruptured his Achilles tendon during a rehearsal three days before opening night. Rather than bring in an understudy, Bernstein made the call to keep this emerging young actor in the role. Andreaus performed shows seated offstage, in the front row of the thrust theater. His vocal performance still wowed and audiences rallied around his resolve, making his hobbled performance a buzzed-about summer happening.
“I’m glad that he persevered and that we could support him in doing that because it was the right thing to do,” Bernstein said.
The job earned Andreaus his Actors’ Equity Card, helped him land an agent and launch his career in New York.
Hurst pointed to Bernstein’s decision as exemplary of Bernstein’s character and support for creative talent.
“He could have easily just let him go and replaced him,” Hurst said. “But I think that showed his humanity and kindness.”
Bernstein found that smaller, but significant, community gestures like offering free tickets to the first responders during the Lake Christine Fire, also went a long way in maintaining the goodwill of an Aspen that — despite its outsize global reputation — remains a small town.
The season’s play, “Our Town,” Bernstein said, was the most successful non-musical that the theater has ever produced, though Theatre Aspen has not released audience statistics or revenue numbers.
Bernstein said he’s open-minded in his programming choices and doesn’t want to be predictable, that he’s as open to crowd-pleasing fare as he is more challenging or politically charge pieces.
“This is a town of traditions and new things take a little time to get roots planted,” Bernstein said. “So, I’m sure there were skeptics about a lot of things. Was ‘Ragtime’ too serious? Was a classic play like ‘Our Town’ too ambitious? My feeling is that you don’t know until you try.”
This summer’s main stage lineup includes the musicals “Guys and Dolls” and “Little Shop of Horrors” and the play “God of Carnage.” The trio mixes a classic musical everyone knows with a beloved more contemporary musical and a comic play that many have heard of — the 2009 original Broadway run starred James Gandolfini — but may not have had the opportunity to see.
With a year of experience, Bernstein is confident about summer 2019.
“There are fewer surprises, which is good,” Bernstein said.
Bernstein knows better than to call himself a “local” yet, but he’s gotten his Aspen routines down — the clerks at Local’s Corner and the laundromat know him by name. Living in a rented house on Buttermilk through the summer and splitting his time between Aspen and his native Manhattan over the rest of the year, he’s now seen the town through the heights of summer and ski season and the sleepy offseasons. Most importantly, he’s experienced the madness of Aspen’s culture-glutted summer.
“I kind of knew, intellectually, about the cultural intensity,” Bernstein said. “But you don’t know until you actually see it.”
After witnessing a summer of programming, he’s concluded Aspen is, on a per capita basis, “the most cultured place in the world.”
He added: “That’s thrilling and exhausting at the same time.”
Most nights in the summer, he’d give his curtain speech — and appeal for donations — before the evening performance at the Hurst and then have dinner downtown with donors, collaborators or community members (“I think I had at least one meal in every restaurant in town.”) He saw black bears, he took in the Fourth of July parade (and helped build a Theatre Aspen float), watched a few Jazz Aspen shows and a handful of Aspen Music Festival concerts. It was an Aspen crash course that is informing his decisions for the 2019 season and the future of Theatre Aspen.
The learning curve of understanding the mountain town audience’s idiosyncrasies, he said, led to some missteps with scheduling last summer. His early matinees of the musical “Godspell” last summer — running at 11 a.m. — struggled to bring in audiences. Bernstein chalked it up to his not understanding the competition of outdoor activities and Aspen’s commitment to be hiking, biking and such in their leisure time.
He’s responded by shifting the matinee schedule to Aspen’s apres hour at 4 p.m. for 2019. On two-show days, the nighttime performances will run at 8 p.m. He’s hopeful this will better accommodate the reality of Aspen’s mind-body-spirit ethos.
“If that works, it’s an example of trying to respond to the specifics of this place,” he said.
Also scheduling a midsummer hiatus for “Ragtime” last year to make room for a limited “Our Town” run, he found, led to losing momentum in ticket sales and word-of-mouth excitement. He’s responding by keeping “Guys and Dolls” in rotation through the entire season and keeping all three shows running regularly.
“It puts more pressure on the scenic design, it puts more pressure on the stage crew, but from an audience point of view it means that in a week that they will always be able to see two of the three and sometimes they’ll be able to see all three,” he explained.
That kind of pressure and the new initiatives did challenge the relatively small team of technical crews and staff who puts on Theatre Aspen’s shows, at times spreading them thin over the summer.
“I think some people were burned out and some were excited by it,” Hurst said. “It over-stretched our staff a bit and we are adjusting to make sure that we have enough staff in place going forward. But it was a growing experience for all of us. You are always going to have hiccups when you have someone new come in.”
In response, the company has hired an associate artistic director for 2019, after going a season without one, and split responsibilities among more summer tech staff to manage the load.
“We learned about better job responsibility and division of responsibility,” Bernstein said.
The company made huge creative strides under Bernstein’s predecessor, Paige Price, who helped make its stage a destination for Broadway talent and high-caliber productions like a monumental 2012 run of “Les Miserables” in the intimate tent theater. When Price left to run the Philadelphia Theatre Co., the board brought in Bernstein in a bid to continue that upward trajectory and elevate the company level of international prestige.
“We have so many incredible world-class institutions in Aspen — the Institute, the Music Festival, Jazz Aspen — and Theatre Aspen is of that caliber already, but it isn’t recognized as that yet,” Hurst said.
She said the board believes Bernstein is on his way to getting Theatre Aspen there.
And, of course, buying or building a permanent building has been an unrealized goal for the company for three decades. The tent, iconic as it may have become and idyllic as its setting may be, limits Theatre Aspen to a three-month performance window. A permanent home remains a hope for the Theatre Aspen, and the board of directors currently has a committee working toward it, but it remains a long-range “dream of dreams,” as Hurst put it. There are no current plans for a building, or for a fundraising campaign for one, but it remains a goal. If the elusive permanent building is to become a reality for Theatre Aspen, Hurst suggested, Bernstein is the leader to get it done.
“I think he’s somebody who thinks long-term on that,” Hurst said. “We don’t want to step on any toes, because we are partners with the community on it. So it’s premature, but we are taking steps to see what it would take to make it happen.”
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