Theatre Aspen honors its past, looks to its future |

Theatre Aspen honors its past, looks to its future

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
Jordan Curet/The Aspen Times
ALL | The Aspen Times

ASPEN ” When Paige Price arrived in Aspen last summer, she was pleasantly surprised by the accommodations. The New York City actress came to appear in Theatre Aspen’s production of the two-person musical “The Last Five Years,” and having never seen the organization’s venue, her expectations were low. All she knew was that Theatre Aspen performed in a “tent.”

“It was a more sophisticated theatrical environment than I expected,” said the 44-year-old Price. “I expected a tarp with open sides, a full view of the sky. I didn’t expect a fully equipped theater.”

It’s a good thing Price didn’t arrive in Aspen 25 years ago. Her expectations would not have been exceeded; the word “sophisticated” is unlikely to have come from her lips. And she probably would not have signed on as artistic director of the company, as she did last fall.

Price probably would have wished for a full view of the sky a quarter-century ago. What she would have seen in 1983, back when the organization was known as Theatre Under the Jerome, was a primitive space that could only charitably be called a theater. The stage was a converted disco dance floor, often surrounded by cocktail tables. The lights were literal soup cans, painted black. The company earned most of its income by selling drinks. If it sounds more like a bar than a theater, that’s because, until a few months before the curtain lifted on Theatre Under the Jerome, the space had been a bar ” a nightclub, the Rocking Horse, that operated in a basement space under the pre-renovation Hotel Jerome.

What the company lacked in facilities, it made up for in enthusiasm, and time. Kent Reed, who founded Theatre Under the Jerome, lived in a room in the hotel that he rented for $40 a month. The convenience and the cheapness gave Reed plenty of time to think theater.

“I’d take an elevator down to the theater, and just create all day long,” said Reed. The company launched with “Fifth of July,” Lanford Wilson’s drama about an injured, gay Vietnam vet returning to his home in Missouri. Two years later, when the Jerome underwent its renovation, Reed moved out from under the Jerome, and into another basement space that had recently been a bar, under the Aspen Mine Company.

The 25-year-history ” from abandoned bars to its own 153-seat tented theater, from a budget of $5,000 to approximately $1.1 million ” will be recounted at Silver Sunday. The event, set for Sunday, Aug. 24 at the Theatre Aspen Tent, will feature Reed and others recalling, in words, video and slides, the company’s old days. There will also be a selection of musical scenes from past productions; Aspenite David Ledingham, who has appeared in or directed numerous Theatre Aspen shows, directs the entertainment. Among those scheduled to appear are Peggy Mundinger, Natalie Dulaney, Jeannie Walla, Michael Monroney, Darlynn Fellman, and Price, who will be united with her “Last Five Years” co-star, Hadley Fraser.

The major turning point of the early years came in the mid-’80s, when Reed went to the Aspen City Council, asking for a space the company could call its own. Reed had his eye on a patch of ground near Rio Grande Park that was used as a snow dump. The council, led by then-Mayor Bill Stirling, was receptive, and the organization became Aspen Theatre in the Park.

“That’s another thing that would never happen today,” said Reed. “If there was one square inch that some small, start-up arts group wanted, there’s no way it would happen. A zillion developers and nonprofits would be vying for it.”

With a loan from Aspen Community Theatre, Theatre in the Park bought its first tent ” a yellow-and-white circus tent. But in 1990, Reed left for Chicago, to focus on his acting career. Theatre in the Park went through a leadership shuffle, with directors usually lasting three or four seasons. The productions were generally strong, but the organization was wobbly, and every few years, a new vision would emerge, on both the artistic and organizational sides. David McClendon, Price’s immediate predecessor, spent much of his energy drumming up support for a year-round permanent theater; his contract was not renewed last year, and he parted with the finances in a mess.

While the physical structure of Theatre Aspen has been mostly a steady advance upward, the onstage progress has been more in fits and starts.

Early on, the organization often gambled on high art. There were productions of Tennessee Williams, David Mamet and Chekhov; productions were occasionally staged of work by local playwrights. And the actors were almost exclusively pulled from the local ranks.

The trend has been toward bringing in actors from out of town. Price says that has raised the artistry; she praises McClendon for increasing the creative standards at Theatre Aspen. In terms of selecting material, however, Theatre Aspen has been more of a roller-coaster ride through highs (such dramas as “Art” and “Proof”) and lows (the musical revues “Lies and Legends: The Stories of Harry Chapin”).

Price stepped into a financial situation that she calls “dire.” So before she starts taking creative risks, she wants to put Theatre Aspen on solid footing financially, and with its core audience. This season, Price took an audience survey, and found the great majority of theatergoers wanted more musicals and comedies. She has seen the proof in front of her: this summer’s production of the mock-horror musical “Little Shop of Horrors” often sold out; the comedy “Rounding Third,” directed by part-time Aspenite Jay Sandrich, also did well at the box office. (Attendance this summer was up more than 10 percent over last year.) So it’s doubtful that the Theatre Aspen season will be packed with Chekhov, Mamet and Sam Shepard again any time soon.

“I don’t think that’s my vision,” said Price. “So I’m glad [Kent Reed] has his own theater company” ” the Hudson Reed Ensemble, which Reed founded when he returned to Aspen four years ago ” to do that. “I don’t come from the classics. Which is not to say I don’t want to do challenging, or important work.”

Instead of looking to theater’s past for significant plays, Price would like to work with emerging, contemporary playwrights. To attract talented new voices, she wants to improve the theater facility by expanding the dressing rooms, replacing the tent truss, and making the tent more comfortable. And at least for the foreseeable future, Theatre Aspen has shelved the idea of building a year-round home.

“I just want to do good shows,” said Price. “I want the tent to be full all the time. I want people to take for granted that the shows are going to be of high quality. Because then maybe the audience will be more adventurous.

“If they come, we will build it.”

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