“Once an idea starts brewing, it never goes away — it’s always percolating and growing and morphing.”
Christopher Willard, artistic director at the Breckenridge Backstage Theatre, remembers when the idea for his play “The 10th” first started brewing. On one of his first days in Breckenridge, more than eight years ago, he caught a glimpse of the statue along the river walk depicting a soldier of the 10th Mountain Division — soldiers who served on skis in World War II.
“I’ve always had a secret love of this time period,” he said. “I always felt I was born a little bit later than I should have been.”
The statue created the spark, which began to grow into a larger idea throughout the years.
“Once I started to do some research, I thought, ‘This is great material for a potential work of some sort on the stage,’” he said.
What started as one play diverged into three, and about a year and a half ago, Willard sat down to really flesh out his plan and script. “The 10th” is the first installment in the Ski Area Play Cycle, which will feature two more plays down the road.
The creation process
The first step was research. Willard read books, watched documentaries and traveled all over the state to interview surviving 10th Mountain Division members, including Sandy Treat.
“The 10th” takes place mostly at Camp Hale, between Minturn and Leadville, where the soldiers of the 10th Division were trained. Willard’s play features two protagonists — Gene Goodman, a champion skier from Dartmouth, and Teddy Pearson, a mountain climber — who joined the Army during World War II.
The play is best viewed as a piece of historical fiction, Willard said. Though facts and dates are true, the characters do not each represent a specific, single, real person but are rather an amalgamation of those he interviewed.
“What I did instead was allow myself to be inspired by some of the people that I interviewed,” he said. “The veterans that I met here in Colorado over the last year and a half and listened to their stories, getting a sense of what their experiences were like, gathering their various cosmologies together and distilling some of the elements down and using it as a source of inspiration in creating the other characters.”
Willard also decided to use family as a theme, not only for “The 10th,” but for all three plays in the series. By having a human element at the center, the audience can then follow those people through history.
“The best way to tie all three of the stories together is to create a family and follow a family’s journey. … It’s so replete with history, you can’t just stand up there and rattle off facts,” he said. “You have to connect it with something that has a heart.”
Willard had a lot of material to work with which was both a boon and a curse when it came time to setting it all down on paper.
“The biggest challenge was what to put in and what to leave out,” he said. “There were so many interesting stories.”
Becoming the character
With family as the main theme, it’s important for the characters, and the actors, to represent a close bond onstage.
“This first play focuses on the guys in the squad and how they all come together, how they rise above their own conflicts, difficulties, prejudices to go ahead and become this family, this group of reliant souls,” Willard said.
For Bryan Roberts, who will be playing the lead role of Gene Goodman, this will be made easier by the fact that he connects so well with his character.
“I think that the character Gene has a lot of similarities to me and my life,” he said. “I think that the parallels are actually pretty incredible.”
Both come from the East Coast — Gene from New Hampshire, Roberts from New York — and excelled in sports (skiing for Gene, tennis for Roberts). Participating in the play will be Roberts’ first time in Colorado, and he said he’s looking forward to the mountain experience.
Roberts has also done some research on the 10th Mountain Division since being cast in the role.
“It’s really interesting and I don’t think it’s a story that many people know. … And to see the link, how it started and being able to play this role and telling this story, which I think is extremely important to tell in Breckenridge because it’s right there, … the story is great and I’m just lucky to be a part of it,” he said.
Breckenridge resident Jon Hans will be playing the role of a muleskinner named Koons, among several other minor roles. Hans has performed at the Backstage Theatre in a number of performances, including “Zompocalypse … Later,” “Cannibal! The Musical,” “Charlotte’s Web” and “The Odd Couple.”
In “The 10th,” Hans takes on a sort of “bad guy” role, he said.
“I play this guy that, I’m sort of an outsider, probably due to my attitude. I’m not one of the buddy-buddy soldiers, so I play a pretty brusque (guy).”
Fortunately, he’s been enjoying his more villainous role.
“It’s pretty fun actually … and it’s fun to play the other end, you know, makes the play more exciting,” he said. “I think people will enjoy it, so I’ll try to be the best bad guy I can be.”
Hans also feels a personal connection not only to the play but to the men who inspired it.
“My grandfather fought in World War II, so I remember hearing a lot about it — though he was not in the 10th — but going to war is going to war. So it was kind of personal; I felt it was a sacred task to present this type of a story, do honor to the people who fought in the war and died,” he said.
Drawing the audience in
Willard said that he hopes watching the play will inspire audience members to learn more about the 10th and the history behind the town of Breckenridge. While each play will be a standalone, the theater will be offering Ski Area Play Cycle passes, which not only guarantee seats for each play on opening night, but come with extra perks such as special workshops, question-and-answer series and behind-the-scenes access.
Hans and Roberts added that they are excited to get in front of a crowd and see their reactions.
“I hope that they grow attached to these characters, and really understand what they’re going through and what the people went through back in the 1940s,” Roberts said.
Hans said, “I think Chris has written a really good story. It’s really touching and it’s got historical stuff and it’s got some romance and it’s a drama. It has some moments of laughter and it deals with some pretty big topics. I think it will be really enjoyable.”