Rawhide Court may have been the first theatre The Upstart Crow built, but The Guild Theatre was the one I helped build, and I miss it.
The Guild was different from Rawhide Court, in that we had two theatre, well, us and the rest of The Guild did. Because of this it needed sound proofing on the wall that would be next to the lobby. We had gotten some sort of tiling to cover the wall with, and tile by tile we put glue on the back and covered the entire eighteen foot tall or so wall. I did the bottom. I remember this because I loved it and was sorry when it was done.
Over the years we worked at The Guild I would help with other improvements. When Macky Auditorium got new seats for their space, they donated the old ones to us, and we had to assemble them and stand them up. In later years I would help paint the lobby, and even learn how to drywall during one remodel.
But the main reason I miss The Guild is for all the other things I learned there (not that drywall isn’t important). The Guild is where I really learned to act, to use power tools, to sew. And I also learned to ride my bike in it’s parking lot.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream in November, 1984 was our last show at St. John’s. It had been a wonderful relationship; too good to last. Our rental cost was trivial, our attendance was growing; but we were over-filling the space, and we had to strike our sets into closets a couple of times every weekend. But we were flush. And our ticket price—remember, this was 1984, way back in the last millennium—was four dollars. (!) So we thought we needed to move, and, as it turned out we found a building that we could lease by the year. It was an industrial building, a manufacturing plant, at 5853 Rawhide Court, a mile north of Boulder. (That building became, last year, Boulder’s first recreational marijuana dispensary, but that is not to our credit—or blame.)
I think I mentioned a couple of blogs ago that we were an ensemble company. See the two women in front? They’re still with us: Joan Kuder Bell is directing our current show, Misalliance, and Katherine Dubois Reed is in it.
And, by the way, Kathy wrote the fourth play we did at the Rawhide Court Theatre, York 8 Lancaster 6, but more of that later. Anyway, the building was ours and we could build our sets right there on the stage, and the next few plays we did there displayed some of the finest sets we have ever had. Here is what our second show, Eugene O’Neill’s A Touch of the Poet looked like:
This evening may have seemed confusingBut our hope is you found our play amusingAnd we are sure that you will understandIf now and then a scene got out of hand.
Blood Wedding was our last production at the Free School. It was not just the sky-blue walls and the baptismal font on the stage that were hard to work into a set design. (The building had been built as a church.) It was not just the lack of parking at the corner of Broadway and Balsam. It was mostly the fact that the Free School—to its credit—hosted all sorts of community events, all valuable in themselves, but difficult to share the building with. It was hard performing a poetic medieval tragedy with a drum concert in the next room, for instance. The final blow was a cooking demonstration, during a performance of Blood Wedding, in the basement just below our theatre that filled the building with the delectable odor of various kinds of seafood: it was strong.
So, we became a traveling company. We performed wherever we could find space. Caligula was our next production and we did it in Theatre 300 in the University Theatre. It was a wonderful space but, unfortunately, only available to us for two weeks during Christmas vacation. That’s a good time to do The Nutcracker or A Christmas Carol, but Caligula lacks some of the wholesome, sentimental quality of most Christmas plays. It was not our best attended show.
Next was Shaw’s Arms and the Man, and we did that at St. Ambrose Episcopal Church in East Boulder.
Next: The Winter’s Tale and we found a great performance space for that: the Chautauqua Community House. That was our last show of our second season. We loved the space: theatre in the round with great acoustics and a full balcony. We opened season three in the same place with The Imaginary Invalid. We would happily have stayed there forever if we could, except for one small problem: The building was unheated. That was fine for Winter’s Tale performed in May and Invalid performed in September (actually not quite OK: we returned to Chautauqua for Heartbreak House in September of 1984 and once had to rent a propane heater to warm the room up before the performance. It didn’t.)
Next: A special event: We did a single performance of The Monkey’s Paw for a Halloween show at the Boulder Theatre.
Next: Our third church. We did Ibsen’s The Master Builder in the church hall at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Boulder. And our fourth church. We closed the show after three weekends at St. John’s and packed it up and took it to Denver for a weekend at the First Unitarian Church. That makes seven different theatres by the middle of our third season.
Next: The Rivals, and another church: The Unitarian Church in East Boulder.
Next: Back to Denver again. We entered a festival contest and performed a one-act: The Golden Fleece at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. We didn’t win.
Then, back to St. John’s. We finished our third season with two more shows there: Macbett by Ionesco and Dark of the Moon, the American Appalachian classic. St. John’s became our home for the next couple of seasons.
Three seasons: Twenty productions; nine theatres. Some of us were younger then.
For the record, I never chose to be an actor. I was three years old, it was The Upstart Crow’s second season, and they needed a kid for Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. I was the only kid anyone in the company knew and so I started doing Shakespeare at age three.
33 years, and 46 roles later, I guess, I have to admit, I like being an actor. In fact the last large role I did was in Frederico García Lorca’s Blood Wedding, another show we did in the second season.
Of course if you notice, Kathy Dubois Reed was in both those productions. And although that was my last large role, my next one will be in our first show of our 36th Season, Misalliance by George Bernard Shaw. In fact, Kathy’s going to be in it as well.
In the mean time, people love to ask me what it was like growing up in the theatre. I sometimes say, “I don’t know. It’s the only way I ever grew up.” But as we go through the history of the company, I’ll try to answer that question with a few more details.
Which brings us back to The Winter’s Tale and the bear. No not the famous stage direction for the play ‘Exit pursued by a bear’ but the small stuffed bear I was given to play with on stage. My parents idea was to give me a toy I was only allowed to play with during the play, to keep me from getting bored. It was the adults they didn’t take into account. One night one of the actors thought it would be fun to put a string on the bear. That night while Leontes was holding me giving a heart breaking speech, I kept hitting him in the face with the bear on a string.
I assure you, I have grown as an actor since then.
The summer of 1981: We were planning our second season. We were pretty bushy tailed then and flushed with success: We had done a season of classical plays and we had turned a profit. We knew we were an ensemble, and a classical ensemble, but we wanted to be more. We wanted to be a repertory company as well. That meant we would return to the same plays from time to time: certain plays, the greatest plays, would be in our permanent repertoire. The Importance of Being Earnest was a great sucess in our first season so we would do it again. In repertory with—with what play? What would be the perfect companion to alternate performance nights with Earnest? There have been famous pairings of plays done that way: Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra alternating with Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra; Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. The Colorado Shakespeare Festival this summer is doing Henry V and its sort of sequel, Henry VI, Part I.
So, what did we choose? Is there a play that shares characters with Earnest the way those above share characters? No. Is there a play that is somehow thematically related, whose pairing with Earnest will reward an audience by comparing and contrasting the treatment of similar themes? Well, Earnest is about how the infant Earnest Worthing was mistakenly placed in a handbag that was lost at a railway station, and who was brought up by foster parents and ultimately learned who his real parents were and got married to live happily ever after. Well, there is another famous play about an infant abandoned by his parents who grows up and learns who they were and . . . and is already married, it turns out, to his mother and she hangs herself and he blinds himself and lives in exile ever after.
So you see, Earnest and Oedipus Rex are simply two versions of the same story.
And, of course, I’m just making this up on the spur of the moment, as I go along. I have no idea, now, 34 years later, why we thought those two plays belonged together as a double bill. I think—and I may be making this up too—that we just wanted to do Oedipus, but were afraid of it. We thought a Greek tragedy, perhaps the darkest of all the Greek tragedies, was simply not up to the taste of a modern audience, and, by pairing it with our most successful comedy we would at least break even on the combination. Or maybe we just wanted to do Earnest again; we had a wonderful time with it, but were afraid that doing it again so soon might not draw our audience back so we would hedge by combining it with quite a different, but excellent, play that would bring in our existing audience and a new audience. Whatever.
Anyway, it’s really hard, in your second season, to say you are a repertory company unless you simply repeat the first season more or less forever. We repeated Earnest but we picked five more plays that we had not already done (It was only our second season.): Oedipus, Federico Garcia-Lorca’s Blood Wedding, Albert Camus’ Caligula, George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man, and William Shakespeare’s: The Winter’s Tale. Now, except for Caligula, we’ve done all these plays again. We did Earnest again in 1987 and in 2003. We did Oedipus again in 2001. We did Blood Wedding again last year. We did Arms and the Man again in 1988. We did The Winter’s Tale again in 2003.
Why? Why do a play again for an audience, pretty much the same audience, who saw our last production of that play? Actually we’ve only done that once: with Earnest. It was virtually the same production, with only a couple of the smallest roles played by different actors, but it was as much like an extension of the run of a production, as it was a new production of the same play. But when we did Oedipus again it was hardly the same play. Yes the script and the music were the same but that was about it. The first production had a cast of eight speaking roles and a chorus of eleven singers and dancers. Nobody doubled in more than one role.
But our second Oedipus had a total cast of eight. Eight actors entered. One of them was wearing a headdress that was almost a mask and a royal robe. He was Oedipus and he spoke the opening speech to the chorus: the rest of the cast. At the end of the speech one member of the chorus went upstage to a costume rack, put on the headdress and robe of a priestess and continued the scene. Then Creon entered. That is, the priestess took off her priestess mask and robe and rejoined the chorus. Another actor—another member of the chorus—put on the mask and robe of Creon and played the next scene as that character. And so for the rest of the play.
And so it is with every repeat of a script. Different actors, usually a different director, always different mounting. But suppose they were much the same (as with our Earnest). If you liked it the first time you’ll like it again. How many times have you seen The Nutcraker? Or A Christmas Carol? Has anyone ever said “Why should I go to the concert? They’re doing Beethoven’s Ninth and I’ve already heard it.” Or “I’m not going to the Louvre. I’ve already seen the Mona Lisa.”
When I first moved to Boulder in August 2012, I was fresh out of undergraduate school, my BA in Theatre Arts hot off the presses. I was eager to get started in the professional world but was hesitant and unsure of how to begin. Before I moved, I had been researching local theatre companies and one in particular really caught my eye. The Upstart Crow was performing Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, one of my favorite plays from an even more favorite playwright. When I finally arrived in Boulder, they were auditioning for another challenging yet interesting show, Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance. I read the play and although I didn’t have a particular role in mind, I did lean towards playing Hester Worsley. I decided to audition and to my delight I got it! Since then I have played six different roles (one male role included) and designed make-up and masks for six, for a total of ten different shows with The Upstart Crow.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Joan and Richard Bell, two founding members, and interview them on the beginning of the Upstart Crow ensemble theatre company.
They had been talking about doing The Trojan Women. Richard was working for a program at a free school, which is an institution that no longer exists. Richard says, “After the sixties, you know, after that period, there were free schools all over America; just a bunch of people that would get together. They would find a building, anyone could teach there. They could charge students or not as they chose. They were all wonderfully open and easy.”
There was a federal program that Richard applied for and got a role in. It was actually subsidized theatre. There were many requirements to get in. Richard was a veteran and unemployed at the time. “And it was terrific!” he says. He was payed $25 a week. He was able to perform improv in a number of places: “housing developments and places like that.” While doing that Richard, Joan, and India Cooper (another founding member) started talking about doing a play like The Trojan Women. Joan and Cooper were both a little against because Joan had always wanted to play Andromache. She said she would never be cast because she was “too short and too girlish.” Cooper dreamed of playing Cassandra but claimed she “wasn’t good-enough looking.”
This conversation sparked an idea. Richard said, “Let’s do it, let’s do the casting that way. You know, let’s cast against type.” So they put together a script. No one in the group read Greek, but Richard was able to compile a version by reading seven different translations. He liked other translations but claimed they weren’t human-English speech. He said they were definitely poetic but “most of the scripts are full of expressions of sorrow like “ah me.” No one in grief would ever say “ah me.” You would only say that if you were parodying grief. You know, its simply not human utterance and I found it in all the translations.” So Richard put the translations together and came up with an American-verse adaptation.
They first performed their version of The Trojan Women at the community free school and then were invited to do it at the Longmont dinner theatre, which is now Jester’s Dinner Theatre. Richard recalls it being called The Dickens Opera House at the time. “And so we did The Trojan Women,” Richard says through laughter, “to a dinner audience. And they were stunned.” It was a good production from Richard’s perspective. The cast and crew wanted to keep it going, following that show with Vain Flourish of My Fortune: Margaret of Anjou, a play Joan scripted from cuttings of Shakespeare’s Henry VI plays and Richard III.
Vain Flourish featured Queen Margaret of Anjou, a character that, although never a lead, is seen throughout the whole Henry cycle. Richard and Joan say there were some wonderful female roles like Joan of Arc and many duchesses.
And so they cast it. Richard says in many ways he thought it was quite good. He did claim that their cast was too small, they doubled roles too much. After all, while each of the women played a single momentary starring role, Richard played about five different characters, that’s all. He also felt the play was difficult to end. “Margaret’s story is not satisfactorily finished. And we did the best we could to give it a finish but she just stops talking after awhile. We don’t know what happens to her.” But it was fun.
They were drinking one night during the performance (at which point Joan jumped in to point out they were drinking after the performance) and someone had the idea to start a theatre company. Richard was rightfully worried about how to start a company without any money when cast member Paul Ahrens pulled out his checkbook. They decided to do it. With Ahrens donation and $10 from everyone else, they had $600 for their theatre company.
The Upstart Crow’s first official season began with William Congreve’s The Way of the World “in twenties costumes because we could find them in thrift stores.”
It was reasonably well-attended. They charged $2 in advance and $3 at the door. They performed at Boulder’s community free school, a former Baptist church on the corner of Broadway and Balsam. Their stage was the church’s altar, bright blue wall behind them with doors leading off the stage, one on each side that locked from the outside. On one occasion, Richard says cast member Ruth Morel tried to make an exit in J.M. Synge’s Deirdre of the Sorrows, a show they later did that season (which, incidentally, will be our second show of the 36th season). Morel found she couldn’t get off the stage. She pounded on the door and ended up exiting through the audience and unlocking the door from the other side. “So many interesting things happened in that theatre,” Richard says.
The Upstart Crow has been performing four or five shows every season from then on.
As The Crow Flies will feature history, stories, pictures, and anything else we may come up with highlighting the 35 years of Boulder’s The Upstart Crow. We hope you enjoy!