Off-Broadway Hit

June 3, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT


BETTY ANN BOWSER: Whether it’s a classic tale of madness, like Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,”-or a contemporary play about Alzheimer’s, as in Nagle Jackson’s “Taking Leave,” the Denver Center Theatre Company has been building a reputation in Colorado for two decades.

This year, it has also won perhaps the most coveted of national theater honors, a special Tony award as outstanding regional theater. The prize is given each year to a professional, non-profit theater, which has demonstrated continuous artistic achievement with national impact. Previous winners have included the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., and the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.

The Denver Center Theatre Company began as just one part of a grand plan to build an arts facility in Denver. Donald Seawell, a former New York and London producer, was the man with the idea.

DONALD SEAWELL, Founder, Denver Center: Denver’s about a thousand miles away from any other metropolitan area that had really nothing in the way of professional facilities or, indeed, except for a symphony, which wasn’t as good as it is now, they had no professional organizations in any of the performing arts disciplines. So I felt this was the great need of this community. And so we built it.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Ground was broken for a performing arts complex in 1974. Today the Center spreads across 12 acres and houses four stages used by the Theatre Company, two large auditoriums used by touring shows from New York, as well, as the resident symphony and opera company, and two additional stages used for smaller productions. It was funded by federal and private money, as well as a local cultural tax.

All in all, there are 9,300 seats in this one complex. Lincoln Center in New York City is the only performing arts center in the country with more. Until the 1960’s, there were only a handful of professional theaters outside New York City. That began to change when the National Endowment for the Arts provided seed money to establish theater companies all across America.

Today there are over 450 so-called regional theaters in the U.S. attracting audiences of over 17 million people annually. That’s more than double the number of people who attend Broadway shows.

ACTOR: (singing) I don’t care about expensive things-cashmere coats, diamond rings.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Broadway has increasingly turned to big showcase productions to appeal to a broad audience, instead of developing smaller, more serious plays. Dan Sullivan has been a theater critic for over 25 years, most recently for the Los Angeles Times.

DAN SULLIVAN, Theater Critic: The Broadway market for the serious play has diminished and in some cases just evaporated, because Broadway ticket prices are so expensive and because the audience there seems more and more to be tourist audience that wants to have a big night on the town that includes a helicopter on stage, if possible, or a chandelier plunging down, or something very loud.

You know, the ticket prices on Broadway kind of seem to start at about $60 and go up. Now, a nice little, small, serious play at that kind of a price is going to perhaps make the tired business on the town for the evening think twice. Maybe it’s going to make him think too, which he doesn’t particularly want to do that night.


BETTY ANN BOWSER: But regional theaters have been eager to develop those serious plays, which may not always bring financial success.

DONALD SEAWALL: We can afford to experiment. We can afford to give new playwrights a chance. Broadway can’t anymore.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: That’s a good trend, according to the Denver company’s artistic director Donovan Marley.

DONOVAN MARLEY, Artistic Director: It has taken our culture out of a single street in New York City and spread it out across the entire country, and certainly while the majority of the work that used to be done in regional theaters was initially created on Broadway and then moved out to the regions, that has completely reversed. The majority of the work that is now arriving in New York is developed in the not-for-profit regional theater movement and is developed first there and then moves to New York.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The Denver Theatre Company has launched 36 world premieres so far, many tackling difficult issues. Critic Sullivan says that’s what makes regional or resident theaters so exciting. It also makes it risky.

DAN SULLIVAN: A theater like that can be very uncomfortable. That’s a problem with resident theater, because it is so sometimes in touch with its own audience, the local subscriber, but if a play pushes the envelope a little too much, the local subscriber might write a letter, or say I’m not coming to your theater anymore.

And so the problem always with resident theater is we want to be experimental, we want to push, and yet we have to in some sense keep our audience, if not happy, we have to keep them respectful and trusting.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: So far the Denver company seems to have kept that trust. Ticket sales are up 29 percent over the last five years. That’s one reason Denver was chosen for the special Tony Award. Another is it’s one of a very few regional theaters, which has been able to continually support a resident cops of playwrights, directors, artisans, and actors. Jacqueline Antaramian was a part of the Denver Theatre Company for eight years.

Last year, she moved to New York City, but she’s back in Denver now for a three-week run of Calderon’s “Life is a Dream.” She says being part of such an ensemble makes her a better actress.

JACQUELINE ANTARAMIAN, Actress: There is a freedom to feel that you can do anything and grow and make mistakes and explore without any repercussions, because you’re amongst people that respect you, that you respect, amongst the most talented designers, directors. Everyone is in the collaborative process wanting to make the season work.

SPOKESPERSON: What do you think her objective in the scene is?

ACTRESS: About something more active than simply trying to get information from him.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The Denver Theatre also fosters growth with its National Theater Conservatory, the only national acting school chartered by Congress. Each year, the conservatory accepts eight students from over four hundred people who audition. The three-year Master Degree program is paid for by the Theatre Company.

ACTOR: The marshals I feel sure have never heard an argument so splendidly absurd.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The Denver Center Theatre Company will formally accept the Tony Award Sunday night in New York City.