With mud season upon us, it's a perfect time to look to the east for theatrical inspiration.While some folks are jetting off to Mexico or loading their bikes on the Subaru for Moab, others may wish to take advantage of that sizable city just over the Divide and its many cultural attractions.And with theater, Denver and its surrounding areas are tough to beat. Yes, there's the Tony Award-winning Denver Center Theatre Company, which features four different theaters presenting top quality shows year-round. In the same complex is Denver Center Attractions, which brings those big touring shows like "Wicked" to the stadium-sized Buell Theater.But the Denver Center has the big budget to do plenty of advertising and promotion - so what else should you know about? Although I've seen a good many shows at different venues over the years, I've only scratched the surface of many of the other theaters in the area. So for starters, I called someone I tend to think of as "Mr. Denver Theatre," Chris Wiger, a man whose enthusiasm for and knowledge of the Front Range performing arts scene is boundless. As the former PR guy for the Denver Center Theater Co., Wiger is now a theater consultant who revels in the array of theater options in his hometown.One theater he's particularly enthused about these days is the Arvada Center."Amazing things are happening at the Arvada Center," Wiger said. "Their last few productions of 'Hairspray,' 'Ragtime' and 'Chess' are leaps ahead of anything they've ever done."While Arvada's always put on high-quality shows, Wiger attributes the bump in quality to a deeper talent pool to fill the smaller roles."They've elevated the ensemble and chorus component with a real corps of young and upcoming professional actors in Denver," he said.Wiger also can't say enough about the Curious and Buntport theaters, both of which do original work. In the case of Buntport, a group of six actors do it all: write, act, direct and even run the warehouse theater on Lipan Street in Denver. From quirky comedies to ongoing sitcoms, Buntport is tough to classify."They are some of the most creative people in all of Denver, with amazing imaginations who are not afraid to try anything," Wiger says.Mare Trevathan, a busy Front Range actress who's also done marketing for several small theaters, is also a big Buntport fan."Buntport isn't well known to many people, but they would definitely be at the top of my list for a theater doing all original work," Trevathan said. "Even if you see something that's a 'miss,' it's still going to be worth your time at the theater because you'll see something unlike anything you've seen before."The Curious is a more formal theater that focuses on progressive themes and the work of modern playwrights. Just recently, it produced a play about an Afghan war veteran, "9 Circles," which Wiger said blew him away."They found this young actor who walked in off the street, from Okla., and he gave one of the most stunning performances I've ever seen," Wiger said. "It was just him on stage, all alone, experiencing his own execution."As Trevathan says, the Curious smaller size allows it to be a bit more daring with its choice of material. Starting in May, the Curious will present the Tony Award-winning "Red," a two-man show about the modern painter Mark Rothko."A play about visual arts, seems a kooky choice for the stage, but I think there will be some deep performances," Trevathan said.Christy Montour-Larson, producer-in-residence at the Curious and director of "Red," said the play is indeed edgier but is nonetheless one of the most produced plays in the country right now. The Curious production, which starts May 5, will be the first in Colorado."There's a lot of interest in Rothko and abstract impressionism right now," she said.For Montour-Larson, a play like "Red" offers audiences an opportunity to be entertained while also stimulating their intellect."There's nothing wrong with going to see a big, flashy musical, but sometimes people want more substance, and the smaller theaters can do that," she said. "When you can walk out of a play and still be talking about it with your friend, then the experience is more than just going to a play."Part of the Curious experience, she said, is the opportunity before and after most shows to talk with the cast about the play.
Often when going to one of Denver's smaller theaters, you'll find yourself in a funny part of town you've never been before. Parking may be on a side street, and the theater may be in a renovated warehouse or even an old church. A far cry from the polished glass and chrome of the Denver Center, a theater like the Curious or the funky Bug on Navajo street (which hosts several theater companies) may have squeaky floors, uncomfortable seats, no A/C in summer and dicey restrooms. But when the lights go down and the curtains go up, who cares?Not every working actor in Denver can make it onto the stage at one of the big shows at the Denver Center or even Arvada, but with a city bursting at the seams with acting talent, that's nothing but good news for the smaller stages. And as patrons of our local theaters know, there's a lot of value to a venue that only seats 50 or 100 people."You can get spit on in the front row," Wiger said, casting that as a good thing. "You see things you wouldn't see in a larger space - it's so up close and personal."The performances themselves can be less polished than at the big houses. That could mean simply that the sets, costumes, lights and sound aren't as fancy, but also that the semi-pro actors get themselves "into situations," as Wiger diplomatically puts it. In other words, it's "warts and all" theater, and glorious for that.Montour-Larson said there's just something about a live human on stage that affects an audience."It hits some place in our DNA that's a little deeper in a way film can't," she said. "We can't do the sweeping technical shots, but we can still get your blood going in the same way."Unlike some bigger cities that have a dedicated theater district, the greater Denver area's venues are scattered hither and yon, and the landscape is always changing. Many Colorado theater buffs mourned the passing earlier this year of the Paragon Theater, but they also are enjoying some newer venues, such as the new Lone Tree Performing Arts Center and the Parker Arts, Culture & Events Center. "I think there's this great frontier spirit in Denver, so that for every Paragon that unexpectedly closes, there's two or three other new theaters that spring up," Trevathan said. "Like the (Lakewood) Edge theater, they've got some real vision."
In addition to the type of space the shows are in, it's worth considering the lower ticket prices found at smaller theaters. A ticket at the Denver Center can set you back $65, whereas you can get a ticket at The Edge for as little as $15 and even lower at Buntport - $5-$7. Even at a more professional theater like Town Hall Arts Center, tickets can be had for $24."I'm biased, but I like Town Hall Arts Center (I just directed 'Brigadoon' for them and will be in 'The Producers')," said Breckenridge Backstage Theatre artistic director Chris Willard. Town Hall, he wrote, has "great space, intimate seating, solid production values, and affordable rates."As for the big, professional theaters like the Denver Center, Willard said he's never warmed to them."I get more jazzed from watching local performers whose work I am familiar with and have followed through the years," he said.