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Out of mines & onto stage

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

The Creede Repertory Theatre has been producing plays in the small mountain town since 1966. Actors greet the audience after a production of “Around the World in 80 Days” recently in Creede.

By Judith Reynolds
Special to the Herald

CREEDE

Two years shy of its 50th anniversary, Creede Repertory Theatre could say an experiment back in 1966 worked.

What started on a wish and a bank account of $32 has turned into a success story. In the mid-1960s, a handful of Jaycees, Creede’s Junior Chamber of Commerce, met with Pastor Jim Livingston to brainstorm possible summer attractions. The town badly needed a new income stream because of its dependence on mining. In the 1960s, Creede had experienced yet another economic slump.

The idea of summer theater surfaced, stemming from a brief, moderately successful community melodrama. The coterie expanded the summer drama idea and issued an open call to theater majors at various colleges. The question: Would you, could you, put on shows at our old Creede Opera House?

Letters fanned out, but only one response came back.

“One student from the University of Kansas answered the call,” Sarah Wallace, Creede Repertory Theatre’s public relations manager, said in a recent interview. “That summer, Steve Grossman came out to Creede from KU (the University of Kansas at Lawrence) with 11 other students. They decided to do a season in rep.

“The project wasn’t sponsored by the university, but with help from the community, the students built sets, mounted five shows and charged a dollar per person.”

The 1966 season opened with “Mr. Roberts.” Grossman played the lead, and the little company followed with productions of “Our Town,” “The Rainmaker,” “Born Yesterday” and “The Bat.” The experiment worked, and the students were invited back.

In the early years, Mandy Patinkin, a student actor who went on to considerable fame, played the lead in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”

That was 1971, and, ironically, the Stephen Sondheim musical is the centerpiece of the 2013 repertoire. To underscore coincidence, the current production includes one cast member from Patinkin’s time.

John S. Green played one of three Roman guards in 1971. Now a professional actor with union credentials, Green periodically appears with the Creede company. This summer, he portrays Erronius, a very old man who shoulders a comic bit and quietly brings Creede’s history full circle.

Today, Creede Repertory has a full-time staff of nine professionals. They live in town year-round. Largely administrative, the group includes artistic and managing directors Jessica Jackson and Jonathan Allsup.

“We have 89 seasonal employees,” Allsup said in a recent interview. “That includes 21 actors, the stage managers, all the people that run the shows and the shops – front of house.”

Allsup also gives Saturday backstage tours, something he’s wanted a long time, he said.

“I fought for the tours,” he said. “People like to know what it takes to do repertory theater. Few companies do rotating rep, and it’s complicated. On stage, we want it to look easy, but it’s very difficult.”

With seven to nine different shows, a rep company is constantly involved in changeovers, dismantling and reconstructing sets, Allsup said.

“On Saturdays, we have three changeovers, and this season a total of 89. We’ve got four teams.”

To make hard work fun, Allsup said the company has built in a competitive element.

“So far, the winning changeover time is 35 minutes,” he said.

In addition to Allsup’s backstage tours, other free events include Preshow Talks and Chat Backs.

Budget now $1.2 million

The company continues to perform in the original opera house, although it has been significantly updated. Creede Repertory has an operating budget of $1.2 million with continuous fundraising efforts that have paid off in the opening of a second theater.

In 2011, Creede Repertory opened a state-of-the-art black-box performance space. The Ruth Brown Humphries Theatre, known affectionately as The Ruth, seats 150 to 200 depending on the configuration of playing area and seats.

The idea hatched in 2006. The company bought a large mining structure that originally was built high in the mountains but had been brought into town. Known as the Bob Ford Building, it has a colorful history. Ford achieved notoriety as the man who shot Jesse James. When he arrived in Creede at the end of the 19th century, he traded on his reputation and opened a saloon. In short order, he, too, was gunned down, adding to Creede’s reputation as a wild Western boomtown. Ford is buried in Creede’s hilltop cemetery.

Today, the former Bob Ford Building has been reincarnated as The Ruth. It’s a few blocks south of the Mainstage Theatre. Patron support and a grant from its namesake’s foundation have made the modern space possible.

So, who fills all these theater seats?

Last season, Creede Repertory played to 47,000 patrons. The numbers are down this year because of the Colorado wildfires, including the nearby Papoose Fire, which led to road delays and smoke in town. The danger is now past, and the town never had to evacuate. The company canceled only one performance, because of the smoke.

Creede Repertory has received innumerable awards. For the last six years, the company has won The Denver Post Readers’ Choice Award for “Best Year by a Colorado Company.” Given the existence of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, that’s something. Creede Repertory also has established a partnership with the Arvada Center to bring one production each fall to the Denver-metro area.

Creede’s surprising success

How could this happen in a tiny Western town, situated on a tributary of the Rio Grande River, close to the Continental Divide and perched at an elevation of 8,852 feet?

On paper, a village squeezed into a narrow canyon at high altitude does not add up to destination theater. Creede isn’t Ashland, Ore., or Cedar City, Utah, where two of America’s most successful Shakespeare festivals have existed for half a century. And Creede isn’t Aspen.

“Actually, Creede is what Breckenridge and Vail are attempting to re-create,” a local once said.

Creede is a mixture of old and new with the old, odd and historically charming winning out. The Main Street business district meanders up to Willow Creek Canyon. It still has the old Creede Hotel and one old-fashioned store, Tomkins Hardware and Lumber. The firehouse is now a bed-and-breakfast. Sporting goods stores alternate with, but are not dominated by, art galleries and restaurants – a sure sign of Aspenization.

There are two museums, one dedicated to town history and located in the 1890 train depot. The other tunnels into a hard-rock canyon wall. In 1990 another set of imaginative townspeople created The Underground Mining Museum. Blasting into a rock face a few steps north of town, local miners not only created a unique museum, they linked it to other spaces – a unique community center with kitchen facilities for banquets, displays and lectures – even a gift shop. Maintained at a consistently cool 65 degrees, the museum/community center is the site of the annual Creede Repertory Theatre kickoff dinner.

Creede is the real deal, a tiny Western town with one foot in the muddy past and another in America’s cultural future.

jreynolds@durangoherald.com. Judith Reynolds is a regular contributor to the Herald’s Arts and Entertainment section. Her review of the Creede theater appeared July 16.

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