Britta Gustafson: A district theater legacy in its second act |

Britta Gustafson: A district theater legacy in its second act

With an eye toward the future, we should honor the District Theater’s past

Britta Gustafson
Then Again
Britta Gustafson for the Snowmass Sun

Amid all the recent talks about upgrades to the Aspen District Theater, I’ve found myself thinking about the history of the space — both public and personal — and reading though playbills, documents and articles that my dad tucked away from that time in his life, when he was the architect who worked on the design of the space.

“The precious thing we are interested in conveying to the younger generation, through dance, is an interest in culture life,” wrote Andrew Hecht, president of the board of Dance Aspen, in a 1991 playbill dubbed “the prelude season” as the community prepared to usher in the brand new District Theater era in partnership with the Aspen schools.

And from my perspective, it has done just that. Over the past 30 years, not only have our students and community at large enjoyed exposure to world-class performing arts experiences, but our children have had the priceless opportunity to experience a professional theater facility on their campus. Many Aspen High School grads went on to pursue high level careers in theater, including some of my own classmates.

“The training I received from learning in the District Theater made me a knowledgeable and versatile artist, which helped launch my career in theater,” said Joanie Schultz, who attended Aspen schools and now works as the associate artistic director of Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. “I hope every student can have the opportunity to learn on such a stage.”

Now, nearly three decades into the life of the Aspen District Theater, we’re waiting in the wings for the space’s second act.

I feel grateful for the time I’ve spent sitting in that theater for school plays, assemblies, ceremonies and concerts, first as a student and now as a parent in Aspen School District.

The energy that radiates when the seats are filled with excited elementary schoolers is an awe-inspiring performance in itself: as the buzz nears a crescendo, the lights go down, the curtains rise and a hush goes over the young audience. Their eyes sparkle; they’re transported.

For those about to step out onto the stage, that moment in the limelight will last a lifetime in their memories. It is a truly magical experience. To have a facility like this for our school children that is available right inside the school is exceptional.

And it almost didn’t happen.

Even as a kid, I knew the District Theater was a precious thing that required great efforts and perseverance to bring to fruition. I knew this because my father, Jim Gustafson of Caudill, Gustafson & Associates, was the architect who not only designed the elementary school and District Theater, but also advocated for it against a significant headwind of adversity.

This struggle to exist was, as he put it, “an uphill battle all the way,” and that work was a part of my childhood. Many flat-out opposed having a performing arts facility of that caliber in the elementary school.

It was a “venture perhaps unlike anything in America,” Hecht wrote in his 1992 letter to the community in the District Theater’s opening season playbill. “Two important institutions, both charged with enhancing the substance and quality of life in our community, worked together to build a performance center which would have been impossible for either to accomplish alone,”

Hecht went on to acknowledge that after years of public debate, Dance Aspen and the public schools “each put their own agendas aside, to create an environment of trust and mutuality of purpose that allowed something to occur, the sum of which was far greater than its individual elements.”

“Even these efforts would not have been rewarded with such a generous result had it not been for the heroic efforts of Jim Gustafson of Caudill, Gustafson & Associates and Tom Farrell, Superintendent of the Aspen School District,” Hecht wrote.

Trust was the foundation on which partners designed, funded and built a space that would be significantly more expensive than the typical elementary school facility.

In its day, it was a feat, and not unlike today it required compromise and creative thinking. It is woven into the fabric of our local school system and the community now. It was never expected to be a full service performance venue, but rather a space for professional dance performance and an exceptional education tool.

I hope that isn’t lost as the space evolves; it still is a wonderful space for learning, but it’s due for an upgrade according to members of the performing arts community. The district’s $114 million bond has planned at least a few million of those funds for improvements to performing arts. But as we look forward with an eye on the ticking clock, my hope is that we can maintain the profound impact of a learning-process theater that balances education and performance.

Let’s exchange a piece of my mind for a little peace of mind; after all, if we always agree, what will we talk about? Britta Gustafson appreciates an open mind; share yours and email her at