Friday night footlights: How theater bonds a Colorado town

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Friday night footlights: How theater bonds a Colorado town
Actors prepare to perform in the Creede Repertory Theater’s children’s show in Creede, Colo., July 8, 2021. Silver mining may have disappeared, but Creede Repertory Theater has been an economic and cultural boon to its community for 50 years. Ramsay de Give/The New York Times.

by Elisabeth Vincentelli

CREEDE (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Perched at 8,900 feet in the San Juan Mountains, five hours from the nearest major airport and near the Rio Grande headwaters, Creede is a town of around 350 full-time residents, with one grocery store, one gas station and a fast-rushing flume. A traffic light? Now you’re asking for a lot.

What it does have, most surprisingly, is an ambitious theater that has been running for 56 years. I had never heard of Creede Repertory Theater until the name came up after Googling “most remote theater in the United States” one day. My curiosity was piqued.

Ask the Tony- and Emmy Award-winning actor Mandy Patinkin, a company member in 1971 and 1974, who ended up building a home here in Mineral County. “Paradise was defined for me and birthed in me by the theater of Creede, Colorado,” he said by phone recently. “It taught me what the theater was truly about: everyone working together to bring people together.”

In some ways, the town has been a living lab experiment since 1966. It has had to figure out how to address cultural and community change — preferably amicably, since it is a very small place — while grappling with economic upheaval. The successful bonding agent has been not church or sports, but theater: Creede is the triumph of the Friday night footlights.

Reaching the middle of nowhere, or at least its general vicinity, was a lengthy process, with my underpowered rental car straining every time the road went up (that is, all the time). Finally seeing a theater materialize, flush against a rock face, was so surreal that I unexpectedly choked up.

I quickly discovered that many newcomers experience a similar kind of shock.

“The company manager drove some of us in from Denver and the whole car just kind of went silent for the last 30 miles,” actress Alexandria Bates said, recalling her first trip to Creede in 2019. “All of a sudden it was like, there’s no Target, there’s no Walmart. When we rolled into town, it was just getting dark and I was like, ‘Oh, my God, how is this going to work?’

“And then I fell in love with Creede,” the 29-year-old Alabama native continued, echoing a common refrain in these parts.

Like such (bigger) institutions as Oregon Shakespeare Festival, American Players Theater in Wisconsin and the Ogunquit Playhouse in Maine, Creede Rep has become a summer rendezvous for the faithful.

These days, a permanent staff of eight balloons to an average of 90 contracted employees and artists from April to September. Each summer Creede Rep stages five full productions (revivals and a fair share of premieres) in its two venues, along with a kids program, cabaret, improv and staged readings of new plays.

The theater, which uses Equity actors for its main productions, has an annual budget of $1.3 million, sells over 25,000 tickets per season and brings programming to 37,000 students, most of them via outreach tours in rural and underserved communities in the Southwest.

It is financially a heavyweight, both as an employer and as a contributor to the tax base. But it is also an emotional anchor whose absence was deeply felt in 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic shut things down.

“Without the theater,” said Scott Lamb, a county commissioner, “it just wasn’t summer.”

At least 2021 has inched back to semi-normalcy: There are three plays instead of the usual five, with casts of just one or two actors, and they are being performed al fresco on a hilltop next to the cemetery, along with a show for kids. Cabaret performances and “Boomtown,” an improv show, take place under a tent at the Creede Hotel. (Masks are only required inside the theater lobby, which houses the box office.)

The outdoor setting makes it feel as if the theater and the Colorado mountains have truly become one. When I visited, it was hard not to be overwhelmed by the vision of a simple stage framed by stunning cliffs and rolling hills, with audience members sitting on blankets or folding chairs in “boxes” drawn in white lines on the grass.

The sets, props and lights were stored in containers parked near the driveway after each show, leaving only a bare platform in a field. It felt as if the theater could not bring itself to intrude on nature for very long.

A Tale of Boom, Then Bust

With all this in mind, Creede Rep’s origin story feels even more unlikely, a half-century odyssey fueled by cockeyed optimism, can-do perseverance and disparate folks figuring out how to live together.

And like so many success stories, it all started with a crazy idea.

Back in 1966, Creede’s future looked bleak. The town had fallen on hard times after thriving during the silver-mining boom of the early 1890s, when it supported scores of restaurants and saloons, gambling dens and brothels.

By the mid-1960s, however, mining was plummeting and many of the town’s storefronts were boarded up. It’s a testament to the general desperation that when the local pastor suggested starting a theater to save Creede, the Junior Chamber of Commerce went along.

There was just one small problem: “None of them had any clue how to do that,” said John DiAntonio, the current producing artistic director.

The Jaycees sent out mimeographed calls for help to schools in surrounding states. One of those flyers ended up on a bulletin board at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, where it caught the eye of an undergraduate named Steve Grossman, then 19. He called and shortly thereafter, he and his friend Joe Roach, 18, were in Creede, firming up a handshake agreement. (Roach went on to become a leading theater historian at Yale University.)

A few months later, a fresh-faced company of 12 moved in, cleaned up the Creede Opera House — actually a decrepit movie theater that occasionally presented old-time “melodramers,” as owner Carl Helfin pronounced it in his Western drawl — with seemingly the entire town pitching in. On June 26, 1966, “Mister Roberts” opened, and Operation Summer Theater was on.

Also on the slate that year were four other plays (“The Bat,” “Our Town,” “The Rainmaker” and “Born Yesterday”) done in repertory, a different one every night, to keep patrons coming back.

“Steve wanted to make sure that we had at least one serious drama every year, a couple of comedies, a classic,” said Steve Reed, who was part of the original cohort and would go on to head the theater. “That was his vision from the very beginning.”

Company members lived in what’s commonly believed to be a former house of ill repute, sharing the building with painter Stephen Quiller’s gallery in the early 1970s. Everybody mingled.

“We would go to the Golden Nugget bar after the show and all these miners and their families and friends would be talking about Chekhov and Tennessee Williams and Stephen Sondheim,” Patinkin said. “Unbelievable.”

Creede Rep has never wavered from the so-called true-rep format, which remains a formidable asset. “Many, many people come for a week and see everything,” DiAntonio said. “We have people who just fall in love with those repeat actors and want to see them in different roles.”

Versatility was also required in real life as company members did pretty much everything in the early days. “One job was to go out and sell ads for the program,” Patinkin said. “I loved to try to be the one who sold the most.”

No Escaping the Theater

As the decades passed, Creede Rep grew and grew, despite setbacks, like that time when the theater burned down and had to be fixed up in just a few weeks to make the 1970 season’s curtain. The main stage’s renovation was completed in 1993, and in 2011 the black-box Ruth Humphreys Brown Theater was added down the street.

The theater and the town remain inextricably intertwined — and not only because Creede Rep is a major economic engine. One day in 1976, a local man burst onto the stage in the middle of the comedy “Charley’s Aunt,” chased by a rifle-wielding foe. (The show’s director was Ted Chapin, future head of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization).

Lamb, county commissioner, was taken to the opening of Creede Rep when he was 10. Eventually he was cast in a kids show, which led to parts in Creede productions of “Hamlet” and “Crazy for You,” and a stint on the board.

In town, there is just no escaping the theater. Spend 10 minutes on Main Street and you are bound to run into a cast member or a technician. One morning, I turned up at the Mac Mine food truck for a breakfast burrito only to discover it was “closed for CRT board meeting.”

Seeing shows here feels like a return to the birth of theater, and in between applications of sunscreen, the mind wanders to thoughts of classical Greece and its amphitheaters — fitting, since one of the plays this summer is “An Iliad,” Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson’s solo retelling of Homer.

Illustrating how Creede Rep cannily balances its programming, even in a smaller season, the other full shows this year are Ken Ludwig’s popular epistolary two-hander “Dear Jack, Dear Louise,” and Allison Gregory’s irreverent retelling of “Red Riding Hood.”

But while this all feels somewhat otherworldly, Creede is no dreamland Brigadoon where everybody always gets along. Indeed, a degree of antagonism was lurking almost from the start.

Actress Christy Brandt, a life force who has been with the company almost continuously since 1973, recalls that some locals used to call the theater folks “piccadillies,” and not in a nice way.

“There was some distrust and they were keeping their kids away from us because we were probably all perverts and drug addicts,” Brandt said, sitting in the front yard of the Creede home she and her husband, the company’s photographer, John Gary Brown, bought with two other couples in 1985. (That was also the year the last producing mine in Creede closed.) “Several times I found myself saying, ‘Listen, if you think we have time to do drugs, you’re out of your mind! We’re up until 3 every morning getting shows up.’”

Admittedly, partaking was not entirely unknown. Patinkin mentioned raucous early-1970s evenings involving venison, a sauna, nudity and marijuana in a house up the canyon. In the 1980s, coke came to Creede, and Brown recalls that a cast member developed such a terrible nosebleed that she was taken down to the hospital in the valley and a show had to be canceled. “Fortunately, she was a rich heiress in her secret life that we didn’t know about, and she bought out the entire house,” he said.

Audiences ‘Hate to be Surprised’

Even now, tensions can arise, often with visiting theatergoers, who tend to be less personally connected with the stage folks than year-round residents and whose home states are less blue than Colorado. Almost a third of the ticket buyers come from Texas, for example.

Susan Grove and her partner, Gary Roth, who drive from Safford, Arizona, usually stay five days and see all five shows in a regular season. The couple bought their 2021 tickets as soon as they went on sale, and had secured a prime spot in the first row center for “Red Riding Hood.”

“We came here because of the theater,” Grove, 67, said. “We really enjoy the acting.”

Roth, 61, added, “And the clean shows.”

“We don’t like stories that offend us,” she said.

DiAntonio notes that many audience members “hate to be surprised,” and that content advisories tend to help. Except when they don’t.

When I attended the cabaret, Lavour Addison’s amusingly mannered cover of Chuck Berry’s novelty hit “My Ding-a-Ling” so enraged a patron that when the chorus (“My ding-a-ling, my ding-a-ling/I want to play with my ding-a-ling”) came back for the third or fourth time, he jumped up, kicked his chair to the ground and stormed off, dragging his startled young son.

He must have overlooked the part of the warning promising “some mild language, sexual innuendo, self-deprecation and questionable puppets.”

The debates don’t end with the stage presentations. DiAntonio recalls that when the company first listed pronouns in the program, two years ago, “People said, ‘What is this liberal agenda you’re shoving down our throat?’”

And when some of the theater bathrooms went gender-neutral in 2019, it caused a kerfuffle.

“That was something new to this area that a lot of people weren’t prepared for,” said Bates, who is now on Creede Rep’s equity, diversity and inclusion committee, which was created in 2017. “But we want this theater to be a safe space and that’s something that’s very, very important to the company as a whole.”

One way to achieve that is to work things out in person. After a restaurant owner put up a dicey post on his Facebook page, DiAntonio just went to talk to him. “You always try and find common ground to start out with,” he said, “and he appreciated the direct ask.”

Mandy Patinkin’s son Isaac Grody-Patinkin, a five-year Creede resident who works for the Silver Thread Public Health District and is on the theater board, suggests that the compact scale makes it hard to avoid dialogue.

“So many of my progressive friends from New York, when they hear who I’m friends with in this community, they’re like, ‘How do you talk to them?’” he said. “I think part of the extraordinary nature of a place like CRT is that it breeds relationships between people who are different.”

Stephen Quiller, the artist, agrees. “We have all walks of life here,” he said, laughing. “But when it comes down to it, everybody loves the theater.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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