The Arts in Summit County Colorado

When you say the words “Summit County, Colorado, most people think of snow-sport enthusiasts enjoying a powder day on the slopes. While most people associate the Rocky Mountains with outdoor sport, many do not think of it as a cultural Mecca. Yet nestled near our mountains and lakes, the arts are alive and well in Summit County. Local actors and directors have chosen starlight over the bright lights of Broadway, and big mountains over huge skyscrapers. If you think that these are people who would not have made it elsewhere, think again.

In any profession, one must choose between lifestyle preferences and opportunity for professional advancement. If someone is pursuing a life in theater, and they love the city life, New York City is obviously the place to be. As a fitness professional, I spent most of my life in New York, working in areas such as the Upper West Side, and Greenwich Village. I was in daily contact with many actors who came to the city from all over the U.S. Many were quite talented. But even with enormous talent, finding work was challenging. And some, regretted the fact that they could not easily participate in the recreational activities they enjoyed, such as skiing or mountain biking. For many, their creative inspiration came from being in a mountain environment. Finding themselves stressed by the city life, they found that they were not improving at their craft.

Back in college, I took a theater course with the dance critic Walter Terry. He commented that the arts were too centralized in New York City. In order to keep more actors working, other communities must pave the way for more artistic environments. This seems to be happening in Summit County. Actors who have done reasonably well in larger cities have chosen this area for its lifestyle. Visitors and locals benefit from their talent.

Backstage Theatre

Although Summit County is a relatively small area, it hosts two theatre companies; The Backstage Theatre in Breckenridge and the Lake Dillon Theatre in Dillon. Nestled within the mountains of Breckenridge, The Backstage Theatre Company has entertained Summit County visitors and residents since the 1970s. In the early 1970s, they performed at bars and restaurants throughout the County. Allyn Mosher, Shirley Martin and Dan Miner incorporated the Backstage Theatre in 1976, and built its first 74-seat theater at the corner of Main Street and Ski Hill Road. Although the space was tiny, they produced year-round performances of musicals, mysteries and melodramas. In 1979, Joyce Mosher developed a children’s theater program that was awarded grants from the Colorado Council on The Arts and Humanities. The Backstage Theatre became an artist’s collective. Cast and crew shared a quarter of the box office receipts. The remaining profits went towards production costs.

In 1980, the company was offered space in the new village at Breckenridge. The Denver Post ranked the company’s 1983 performance of The Dining Room as one of the 10 best productions in the Rocky Mountains. Wendy and Bob Moore assumed direction of The Backstage Theater in 1990 and Craig Sodaro expanded the children’s theater program.

1991 marked the year that Backstage Theatre formed an alliance with the Colorado Theater Coalition. (CCTC) Each June, eight to twelve Colorado theater companies meet to take classes and participate in a theatrical competition. The CCTC competition gives companies 10 minutes to set up, 60 minutes to perform, and 10 minutes to strike the set. The competitions are judged by theater professionals. While the critique can be tough on the artistic ego, the judging process is aimed at helping community theater companies improve their skills.

In 1996, Backstage took their show J.B. to the regional competition in Twin falls, Idaho. They won first place. Then, it was on to the nationals in Grand Rapids Michigan, where they received an invitation to an international festival. In the summer of 1998, they traveled to Thun, Switzerland, where they performed the Compleat Works of Shakespeare in a 14th century castle.

All was well, until June of 2001, when Vail Resorts told their tenant that the space they occupied was to be converted into a daycare center. Backstage was given 90 days to vacate. Although the company was now homeless, they kept up performances. Various restaurants, churches and theaters hosted productions.

With help from The Town of Breckenridge and architect Matt Stais, Backstage found a new home at 121 Ridge Street. They opened on December 21, 2002 with a production of Colleen Hubbard’s Motherload. In the summer of 2004, two dressing rooms and a workshop area for building sets were added to the theater. To cover construction costs, actors and technicians donated their time. Then in June of 2005, payment for cast and crew was reinstated. While 25% of profits divided amongst cast and crew is not a lot of money, actors can work in big cities for years without receiving any pay whatsoever.

Lake Dillon Theatre

In the summer of 1994, Lennie Singer had a vision. She dreamed of starting a four-week children’s theatre company in Summit County. Her dream turned to reality when she met Bettyjo Knapp, who helped her develop the Young People’s Theatre Workshop. Summit County locals may recall some of the plays Singer wrote for the workshop participants such as Rumplestiltskinny and Riddle of the Rhyme Robber. She collaborated with Joshua Blanchard to write the lyrics for Babe, the Sheep Pig, and directed classic favorites such as The Wizard of Oz, Cinderella and Alice in Wonderland. Bettyjo Knapp built and designed the sets. Little did these grand dames of Summit County Theatre realize that they were planting the seeds for what was to become one of the most respected theatre companies in Colorado.

With the rapid development of the children’s company, the Town of Dillon, and the Lake Dillon Foundation for the Performing Arts encouraged them to expand their program to include adults. They gave the company the historic old town hall, which they turned into a black box theatre. A third founder, Jean Williams, developed the Black Coffee Theatre Series which offered original works and works in process. At the 2002 Colorado Community Theatre Coalition Festival, Williams won best Director Award for Lake Dillon Theatre Company’s production of Endgame. Advisory board member Gary Ketzenbarger won Best Actor for that production.

Prior to applying for the Performing Arts Director job in April 2002, Alleman had completed 21 hours towards a doctoral degree in theatre. He was conflicted as to whether he wanted to pursue the academic or the grass roots aspects of theater. Since he had aspirations to one day own his own theatre, when interim director Kitty Hilsabeck offered him the position, he accepted. Hilsabeck herself has an impressive theatrical resume. She played Meg Giry in Phantom of the Opera’s ensemble company, worked with Twyla Tharp and was invited by the Swiss government to train the men’s Olympic gymnastic team in dance. Hilsabeck was impressed by Alleman’s charm, enthusiasm and intelligence.

Alleman proved to be a catalyst for change and improvement. He added space and hired professional lighting and set designers from Denver. Prior to the renovations that were made to the theatre in October of 2004, Alleman’s desk was in the theatre’s lobby. It had to be cleared for every production. Since the theatre had no dressing room, actors had to use a 10-foot by 10-foot space above the lobby that doubled as a sound booth. The actors had no bathroom. During performances, they would sneak out to the neighboring gas station to use their facilities.

Between 2003 and 2004, rooms that had been used as storage for the town of Dillon were turned into dressing room s for the actors. The lobby was renovated, and a professional lighting grid was installed. Alleman’s office was moved to the back of the building and new signs were made. The renovations cost over $110,000, and were financed by a grant from the Gates Foundation, fundraisers and the town of Dillon.

The Actors: Why Summit County?

It should come as no surprise that many of our local actors and directors also work as instructors of mountain sports. I asked an acting coach/ski instructor if he sees a connection between teaching skiing and teaching acting.

“Absolutely!” he said. The vulnerability of a first time skier, feeling awkward and self -conscious can be compared to that of either an inexperienced or novice actor. Fear of humiliation may be prevalent in both scenarios. Either type of coach must be non judgmental, and able to build on their students strengths, instead of focusing on their weaknesses.

Since both crafts require the practitioner to be balanced, a coach’s first task is to create an atmosphere conducive to the exploration involved in finding one’s center. This can only happen when the student trusts their coach, and does not need to be afraid of either harsh criticism or ridicule.
The inside out/outside in concept from acting can also be applied to ski instruction. There are actors who work from the inside out, and actors who work from the outside in. An actor working from the inside out may use a particular experience they’ve had in the past to find the emotion suitable for the role. When actors can’t find an emotional catalyst from inside themselves, they may create the physical qualities associated with that particular emotion. That’s called acting from the outside in. If a skier is fearful on the slopes, they may be able to feel more confident by mimicking the stance of a more confident skier.

Concerts

Throughout the summer, the Riverwalk Center in Breckenridge hosts many concerts. Although the National Repertory Orchestra hosts a series of classical concerts, well known artists such as George Winston often have scheduled performances. The Lake Dillon Amphitheatre also features a summer concert series.

Breckenridge Film Festival

For the past 25 years, the Breckenridge Festival of Film has celebrated the art of filmmaking. The September event features a unique and varied array of independent films, premieres, receptions and film education programs. The Festival is hosted by film critic and WNBC-TV commentator Jeffrey Lyons who serves as master of ceremonies and moderator of the discussions and forums.

The next time you think that there is nothing else to do in Summit County but bar hop, think again. Take in a show or enjoy a concert. Those of us who have chosen to live here tell people that we came for the winters but stayed for the summers. In surroundings that are so beautiful, it’s easy to see how creativity is inspired.

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